How Music Responded

Throughout World War I, music was a prominent feature on the home fronts and the battlefields. Most homes had a piano, and at least one member of each family knew how to play it. Popular music, therefore, reached into all corners of the population, forming a great medium for conveying messages. Recognising this capability, governments often used it as an effective means for inspiring fervour, pride, patriotism, and action in order to gain manpower, homeland support, and funds.

Music during World War I was often used to inspire passion and voluntary compliance in the listeners and, occasionally, shame in those who didn’t support the war. Much of the music distributed during World War I greatly influenced social and political attitudes, thereby serving as an effective propaganda tool for private citizens and governments.

In 1914, the troops marched away to patriotic airs that reflected the mood of the times and the prevailing optimism that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’. The tune that best captures the spirit of the period, at least for a modern audience, was written by Jack Judge and Henry Williams in 1912: It’s a long, long way to Tipperary. A worldwide hit, the song was translated into 17 languages and had sold over eight million copies by 1919.

Sheet music cover of ‘It’s a long, long way to Tipperary’

Other pieces that reflected a sentimental view of the Empire and the military were ‘Goodbye Dolly Grey‘ (a popular tune from the Boer War), ‘Fall in and follow me‘ and ‘Are we downhearted‘; these pre-war songs easily crossed from the music halls to men on the march, who enjoyed community singing as a form of entertainment and found in the songs many of the manly virtues that they aspired to. In 1915 this mood still prevailed, and a competition to find a ‘rousing wartime song’ was won by Felix and George Powell’s famous ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile‘.

As one one of the most popular and affordable forms of entertainment, music halls played a vital role to morale on the home font. Fuelled on cheap beer, the audience chorused songs they loved and abused acts they loathed. By the end of 1914, 30 or more especially composed song promoting recruitment had been written. Vesta Tilley, 40 years years a trouper, sang ‘Your King and Country Want You‘ with its morally pressuring lines: Oh, we don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go. For your King and your country both need you so.

During Tilley’s performances, young chaps were invited on stage and asked to join up. Anyone who refused was given a white feather, symbol of cowardice, by a prompted child.

By 1916, however, long lists of war wounded and dead had removed any hope that the conflict would soon be over. Volunteer recruitment could no longer be relied upon, enthusiasm waned, and conscription was introduced in May of that year. There was a dawning realisation that the songs that had captured the spirit of 1914 so well were no longer appropriate. Bennett Scott, a writer for the music halls observed that ‘The flag waving ballad so popular two years ago is rapidly on the wane. The public wants the things the soldiers and sailors want; they prefer real fun and real sentiment to wordy boasts and disconcerting praise.’ A song that typifies this sentiment is ‘Take me back to Dear old Blighty,’ written by Scot and his collaborators A.J. Mills and Fred Godfrey in 1916. Two years before the song could not have existed.

Many of the big stars were active in their support of the fight man; Robey raised thousands of pounds for various Armed Forces charities, while the equally famous Harry Lauder established his Million-Pound Fund for Maimed Scottish Soldiers and Sailors, and went to France to entertain the troops, writing a memoir of his experiences. Lauder’s only son, Captain John Lauder, 8th Bn. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was killed on 28th December 1916 at Poiziers, and the song ‘Keep right on the end of the road‘ was written by his grieving father. One of the most enduring songs of the conflict, the chorus epitomises the sacrifice and stoicism of a nation confronted with the calamity of The Great War:

Keep right on to the end of the road

Keep right on to the end

Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong

Keep right on to the end

Tho’ you’re tired and weary still journey on,

Till you come to your happy abode

Where all you love, you’ve been dreaming of

Will be there, at the end of the road.