Songs of War: Passchendaele 1917

Château Wood near Hooge, 29 October 1917. Photo by Frank Hurley

This month, the University Library entrance hall display cases feature Basil Godfrey Quin, MC whose regiment, the Cambridgeshires, was involved in the Third Battle of Ypres (also known as Passchendaele) which took place between July and November 1917 and in which Quin distinguished himself with his bravery during the battle at Tower Hamlets Ridge on 26 September 1917.  We here at MusiCB3 thought that we would complement this display with a look at some of the music which Quin may have heard, or even sung himself, at the time.

Singing – and indeed music more generally – played a vitally important role in boosting the morale of the men at the Front, providing some distraction from the horrors they witnessed and a vehicle through which to let off steam. “It was the soldiers’ assertion of ordinary humanity in the face of extraordinary inhumanity”, writes Max Arthur in his preface to When this bloody war is over: soldiers’ songs of the First World War. [M290.d.200.1].

In some ways ‘our boys’ were also maintaining the practice of community singing – whether at school, in the pub over a pint or three, or in church – which was an integral part of everyday life at the time. Singing was to be heard en route to and from the trenches and at the many concert-parties put on by soldiers for their comrades which acted as an important safety valve for the troops. This account of ‘The Cantabs’ offers a vivid example.

A wealth of patriotic songs was published during the war years from Ivor Novello’s ‘Keep the home fires burning‘ [A1939.698] to ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag‘ and ‘Roses of Picardy‘ to ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary‘, many of which remain favourites. But it wasn’t only published songs which were heard on the front line;

The Tommies also created their own safety-valve by setting words to well-known hymn tunes (often downright bawdy or scurrilous). They lived under close military discipline in much the same predicament in the hellish environment of the trenches. They couldn’t openly challenge their situation, nor freely express their discontent and anger at their fate. Only in writing their own colourful words could they vent their frustration. Many of their revised lyrics were comic or ironic, questioning or casting doubts. It was a form of sanctioned disrespect, which permitted them to endure and even to mock what they could not change. [‘Music of the Great War].

Quin would surely have joined in with home-grown version of, for example ‘The ASC to the War have Gone’ sung to the tune of ‘The Minstrel Boy’ or ‘Where are our uniforms?’ sung to the hymn tune ‘There is a Happy Land, Far, Far, Away’.

In 1917, the year of Passchendaele, two songs were published which became instant successes: Goodbye-ee! by Weston and Lee and ‘Over There‘ by George M. Cohan. The latter written to encourage young American men to sign up as the United States entered the war, the inspiration for the first coming from a group of girls calling goodbye to soldiers marching to Victoria Station before going off to fight.

One hundred years on, many of those songs so deeply etched into our collective memory, keep alive the torch for the millions of men who lost their lives, and perhaps allow us to stop and ponder on whether the human race has learned anything in the intervening century.





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1 Response to Songs of War: Passchendaele 1917

  1. Pingback: Music behind the wire | MusiCB3 Blog

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