Let’s put the kybosh on . . .
People who were alive in the Twenties and Thirties will recall the “Songs that won the war.” They will remember the song sheets given away by the newspapers, and the gramophone records with singers struggling against a background of phoney battle noises.
Every November brought its Armistice rallies when the same old stuff was ground out once again. The mixture was usually unvaried, the sugary ballads of the Home Front mixed with cleaned up versions of the songs actually sung by the front line soldiers. The impression was always of men going light-heartedly into battle. The memoirs have been published, with their revelations and recriminations, and charges and countercharges have been flung backwards and forwards. More important still, time has removed many of the participants from the scene. You cannot libel the dead; bitter attacks can now be made which, true or false, would have been dangerous during their lifetime.
Recently there have been radio programmes on the Great War songs, and, of course, the much discussed Theatre Workshop show Oh! What a Lovely War, with its witty and savage denunciation of the murder of a generation. They have brought back to life the real war songs. These songs, a product of the ordeal through which so many men passed, sound as fresh and real today as if fifty years had never been. The others are, at their best, museum pieces and, at their worst, nauseating.
All modern wars have one great need; the active support of the proletariat. The time is past when war could be declared without the knowledge and backing of the working class. Pro-war feeling must be whipped up, and then kept at fever- pitch. One of the means of doing this is the popular song—songs that appeal to the emotions not the intellect. The American Civil War first saw the mass-produced war song. Throughout the Victorian era many forces were at work —the growth of the Music Hall, the spread of literacy, and the sheet music that poured from the presses by the ton to feed the pianos that stood in every front room.
Pianos passed down the social scale, second hand or tenth hand until in the end, like the motor car today, you had a job to get rid of them. Songs had become big business and a profitable war song could not be wasted. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, patriotic songs were churned out for the occasion, but it was over too soon for them to be used. So as the South African war was brewing up they unloaded them in Britain. The famous “Goodbye Dolly Grey” was written in New York for the Spanish-American War, but it served very well as a morale booster in Britain.
When war broke out in 1914 it was much vaster and grimmer than anything the Victorians had seen, something for which people were totally unprepared. One can follow its progress by studying the popular songs that it produced. They began with pure Jingoism, that belonged to a world in which little campaigns against inferior forces had been fought on the other side of the world. Idiotic jingles like “Belgium put the Kybosh on the Kaiser,” “We don’t want to lose you,” with its references to cricket and football, and “Are we downhearted? No!” show a complete ignorance of the real situation, of the gigantic military machine that was rolling into France, to crash into another equally gigantic army. Those songs rapidly disappeared, to be replaced by the recruiting songs.
Great Britain was completely unprepared for this type of war. The standing army was small, conscription was unknown and extensively opposed, and so vast numbers of volunteers were needed. The upsurge of nationalist feeling that accompanied the declaration of war had brought many recruits, but the unparalleled slaughter called for ever more men. Men had to be bullied, cajoled or shamed into uniform. With the white feathers and every kind of pressure came such songs as “Make a Man of Any One of You” and “The Army of Today’s Alright.” This kind of thing was not needed in 1939; by then conscription and total organisation for war were accepted. It was realised that modern war calls for a large labour force outside of the armed forces, and that people must do what they are told, and go where they are needed. Heroics were not welcome. Such feeble efforts as “He was a handsome Territorial” were ridiculed, even in the national press.
As the 1914/18 war progressed, and things got really bad, people turned to sentimental stuff like Novello‘s “Keep the Home Fires Burning’’ and “There’s a Long, Long, Trail Awinding.” Later still they tried to escape the ever-growing horror, with its war weariness; they retreated into the pure escapism of musical comedy, like “Chu Chin Chow” and “The Maid of the Mountains.”
But for the soldiers in the never-ending nightmare at the front, there was no escape. Divorced from the normal world in their own private hell, with a front line that never really moved, they wrote and sang songs that had nothing of patriotism or glory in them. Some of them were light-hearted, such as –
Send for the boys of the Old Brigade
To keep Old England free,
Send for me father and me sister and me brother
But for Gawd’s sake don’t send for me.
But most of them were bitter and paint a terrible picture. The continual bombardments. the crazy offensives in which men were flung in their thousands to certain death, the gas attacks, the discomfort of the trenches and the barbed wire, recur again and again. The dreaded whizz-bangs, the stench of corpses, shortages, contempt for Staff officers, and, above all, a longing for peace, are in ditties usually sung to a hymn tune or popular song. One of the most famous. “Far, Far from Wipers,” has the refrain:—
Sing me to sleep, the shadows fall
Let me forget the war and all
Damp is my dugout, cold are my feet
Nothing but biscuits and bully to eat.
Over the sandbags helmets you’ll find
Corpses in front and corpses behind.
Damp is my dugout
Cold are my feet
Waiting for whizz-bangs
To put me to sleep.
One must not, however, read loo much into the sentiments of the soldiers’ songs. Victims of the world in which they lived, and lacking the knowledge to change it, many of the survivors, on return to normal life, joined ex-service associations like the British Legion. They spent subsequent years parading with flags and medals, and some, who were young enough, were even ready for another dose 20 years later.