The troops would sing at almost any opportunity – whether marching to and from the trenches, whilst in the trenches, in pubs or during the long periods of waiting between battles. On the Western Front marching bands were sent to accompany the troops. Soldiers would regularly put on concert parties and almost every division had its own entertainment troop.
The songs that soldiers sung served many purposes. They helped bring solidarity to groups, strengthen morale and help diminish fear and quite simply, they helped reduce the boredom, frustration and monotony of military life.
Whilst soldiers have always sung as they marched the necessity for prolonged treks brought about by WW1 (with troops often covering 10 or even 15 mile slogs) increased the use of music on the move.
The Soldiers often created their own versions of the songs. 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, legitimacy, 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.
Away from the trenches, music also played an important part on the home front. There were no TV’s or radios so entertainment was very different and most homes had a piano (with at least one family member able to play it). Likewise every pub had a piano. Many of the songs sung by the troops that are part of our medley were also sung at home and in pubs.
As one of the most popular and affordable forms of entertainment, Music halls played a vital role to morale on the home front. At the outbreak of war, recruitment songs such as ‘We Don’t Want to Lose You, but We Think You Ought to Go’ proved popular in music halls – as did anti-German songs like ‘When Belgium Put the Kybosh on the Kaiser’.
People would flock to theatres around the country to sing along to favourite popular songs, or watch entertainers as diverse as acrobats, trapeze artists, ‘operatic selections’, ‘black-face minstrels’, or can-can dancers.
Music Hall also had a history in promoting patriotism. For 50 years it had belted out tunes and semi-tones extolling the virtues of Britain and Empire but the Great War proved to be the acme of music hall’s success. We tend to think of the 1914-1918 conflict as the silent war, a black-and-white snap, a jerky, mute, cinema clip. In reality it was fought in colour and music hall provided the soundtrack.
As entertainment for the people, Music Hall had no rivals. Cinema was still in its infancy and TV was only a gleam in John Logie Baird’s eye. Music Hall packed ’em in. London alone had more than 300 music halls and there were “Empires” and “Hippodromes” all over Britain.
Fuelled on cheap beer, the audience chorused songs they loved and abused acts they loathed. By the end of 1914, 30 or more specially composed songs promoting recruitment had been written and some towns held paeans to enlistment in the forces. The composer of “Bravo Bristol”, which extolled the virtues of that city’s Army battalion, was Ivor Novello; it was one of his first pieces.
It was the recruitment songs written for Music Hall’s female stars that really got men to don khaki, however. Vesta Tilley, 40 years a trouper, sang Your King and Country Want You with its morally pressurising 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.
Music Hall mattered because it had the stars and it had the audience. Almost the entire nation was in its thrall. The respectable middle classes, who tended to avoid actual Music Hall performances, still bought the industry’s sheet music to play on the piano in the parlour.
The number of pianos in Britain in 1914? Three million.