The Use of Hymns
The Church of England fully supported the war. The Bishop of London, Arthur Wellington – Ingram, stated that he believed that WW1 was a Holy War. He claimed that ‘We are on the side of Christianity against anti-Christ’. The chaplain of the House of Commons wrote ‘… To kill Germans is a divine service in the fullest acceptance of the word.’
During the conflict, 40 million religious books and pamphlets were given to the troops. A typical booklet contained St.John’s Gospel and the words of half a dozen popular hymns.
Like the popular songs of the time hymns were sung in large groups, the themes were often melodramatic and they have fairly simple melodies which could be easily learnt.
Unlike popular songs however, hymns were never comic or racy and did not concentrate on realistic detail of everyday life. Popular hymns remained so for decades, even centuries which is rarely the case for popular songs.
Almost all soldiers knew a dozen or so hymns by heart that they had learned as a child and which had nostalgic and emotional power. Hymn singing was an important part of the work of the 4,000 Army Chaplains.
In Britain, new collections of hymns were produced.
One example is ‘Twenty Hymns for National Use in Time of War Old and New Sources.’
The themes of the hymns contained were listed as follows:
Justice of the cause.
Moral and spiritual equipment.
Confession of personal and national sin.
The endurance of those on active service.
The national instinct to review the course of past life in the presence of death.
The need of patience in times of adversity.
The expression of grief and then again ‘the duty’ of refraining from it.
‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Stand Up Stand Up for Jesus’ are two of the hymns included.
Other uses of Hymns
Hymns were generally used to improve the morale amongst civilians and soldiers alike.
For soldiers there were 2 other purposes.
1) Hymns were part of a common international culture and as such could help to communicate with enemy soldiers. During the Christmas truce on many parts of the Western Front in 1914, hymn singing often begun the truce or it was part of it. ‘Silent Night’/’Stille Nacht’, ‘Oh Christmas Tree’/’O Tannenbaum’ and ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’/’Hebei, oihr Glaubigen’ are examples of such hymns. Sung in unison they maintained a fragile community spirit whilst the truce lasted. ‘The Black Country Bugle tells the Story of The Great War Heroes’, tells of the experience of Arthur Gill who was a 22 year old Private in the 2nd Battalion of the Monmouthshire Regiment who was stationed in Ploegsteert (known as plugstreet) in Belgium. The 2nd Monmouths arrived at the Western Front in November 1914 by which time trench warfare was already established. They were sent to the front at Ypres where they rotated 4 days at a time with the 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment. Overnight on Christmas Eve, Arthur Gill found himself moving up to the front line. They took no casualties that night and enemy fire was notably absent. Once at the front line Christmas was not forgotten. Arthur wrote to his brother who lived in Brettle Lane, Brierley Hill. In his letter he wrote that the mince pies and chocolates sent from home ‘had a good innings’.
Next morning, Christmas Day, the lack of German activity was even more noticeable and it was obvious that something was going on. After a while the Germans began shouting greetings in English such as “Merry Christmas Tommy”. The largely Welsh Monmouths replied with a rousing chorus of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. To their astonishment the Germans began climbing out of their trenches and waved to the British troops asking for cigarettes.
The Monmouths held their fire and sergeant Bill ‘Blackwood’ Jones tied a copy of the ‘Pontypool Press’ to his rifle as a flag of truce which was welcomed by the Germans. To begin with the exchange was extremely cautious. A soldier of the Monmouths refused to drink a glass of wine offered to him by a German soldier until the German soldier drank from it himself.
Arthur Gill wrote in his letter, ‘The Germans got out of their trenches (and) we left ours afterwards and met them halfway. We shook hands with them and gave them tins of bully beef. The Germans do not get looked after like we do. One whom we were talking to put his hands the way they old a rifle and said English damn good”. Whilst they were out the Germans buried their dead, a good two hundred of them: but I wonder if they would have allowed us the same privilege.’
Throughout the day, the uneasiness persisted and the Monmouths never fully trusted the Germans.
During Christmas time in 1915, joint carol concerts were arranged with German and Austrian soldiers.
2) Parodies of hymns were often sung by sardonic other ranks who were well known for their irreverent and black humour. Wilkinson in his ‘Church of England and First Word War’, said
‘To sing bawdy verses to hymn tunes was an example of sceptical wartime humour which enabled men to cope, because by mocking the whole hierarchy of God, politicians, the Church, military authorities and the romantic picture of soldiers as heroic knights, they ere all cut down to size.’
When This Bloody War is Over (Sung to the tune of ‘What a Friend we Have in Jesus’)
When this bloody war is over,
No more soldiering for me!
When I get my civvy clothes on,
Oh how happy I will be!
No more Church Parade on Sunday,
No more begging for a pass.
You can tell the Sergeant Major to
Stick his passes up his are!
No more NCO’s to curse me,
No more rotten army stew.
You can tell the old cook – sergeant,
To stick his stew right up his flue!
No more sergeant bawling,
‘Pick it up’an ‘put it down’.
If I meet the ugly bastard,
I’ll kick his arse all over town.
Forced marches and square bashing, compulsory Church parades and polishing buttons for inspection – there was no shortage of reasons for anger. The sergeant is the officer most insulted in the songs, no doubt because of his presence in everyday life.
Many soldiers sang their own words like these during the compulsory church parades. This insubordination was difficult for officers to prevent as a church ceremony is generally not the place for discipline, so soldiers were free to continue replacing the words with their own.
In conclusion, for civilians, rank and file soldiers and senior officers alike appreciated the support of hymns as they were an important part of emotional survival and military morale during the war years.