Dec 2009 Journal

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Songs of innocence and experience

For many older readers, the recent reappearance of Dame Vera Lynn at the top of the hit parade - at the age of 92 – will immediately reawaken memories of the Second World War and the dark years when Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany. The strains of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ are powerfully evocative of the hardships and separations of wartime, but also of its spirit of solidarity and comradeship, reinforced by confidence in ultimate victory and in a happier post-war world.

But somehow the songs of the Second World War lack the punch of those of the First World War. Vera Lynn’s songs are steeped in the regulation dose of sentimentality prescribed by a government concerned to maintain morale among a beleaguered populace: ‘There’ll Always Be an England’ is a routine exercise in promoting a suitably martial brand of patriotism; ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’, seemingly symbolic of proud British nationhood, was a calculated contribution to the propaganda effort aimed at winning American support for Britain’s fight against Hitler. How else can one explain the appearance in the song of (exclusively American) bluebirds fluttering about over the English Channel other than as an attempt to appeal to an American audience? Bluebirds are not native to Britain, outside the lyrics of the song ‘Over the Rainbow’ (from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz). ‘There’ll be blackbirds over the white cliffs of Dover’ doesn’t have quite the same ring.

The other famous British songs popular during the Second World War, like ‘The Lambeth Walk’ and ‘Roll Out the Barrel’, propagate a resolute, if somewhat forced jollity all too obviously aimed at boosting morale among the lower orders. The phoney optimism of ‘We’ll Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line’ was exposed when the Wehrmacht appeared on the English Channel. Incidentally, the refugee pianist Franz Reizenstein (1911-68), much loved by refugee audiences, composed tongue-in-cheek a set of pastiche variations on ‘The Lambeth Walk’, as well as integrating ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ into the Concerto Popolare that he contributed to his fellow refugee Gerard (Gerhard) Hoffnung’s first music festival in 1956.

The most memorable popular song of the Second World War was, of course, German: the evergreen ‘Lili Marleen’, whose husky-voiced charm spread to the British Eighth Army fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa. ‘Bless ‘Em All’, with its lugubrious chorus ‘You’ll get no promotion this side of the ocean/ So cheer up my lads Bless ‘em all’, encapsulates the common soldier’s resentment of the army; but though popularised during the Second World War through George Formby’s 1940 recording, it goes back at least to the First World War. It is also known as ‘The Long and the Short and the Tall’, which furnished the title for Willis Hall’s hard-hitting play (1958) depicting an incident during the Japanese advance into Malaya in 1942.

The soldiers’ songs of the First World War were born out of a very different experience and convey a very different mood. Far from being harnessed by the powers-that-be as morale-boosters to the war effort, they gave voice to the war-weariness, disillusionment and bitterness bred of years of unrelenting and apparently pointless misery and slaughter in the trenches. They remain unsurpassed as the authentic expression of the anti-war sentiment of the men on the front line, as the enduring popularity of Joan Littlewood’s musical play Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963; film version by Richard Attenborough 1969) demonstrates.

Admittedly, the First World War also had its share of gruesomely sentimental songs, of which Ivor Novello’s ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ is among the most glutinously out of key with the realities of the Western Front; ‘Roses of Picardy’ is in similar vein. Even ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, the British Tommy’s unofficial anthem, is best known for lines expressing homesickness for London – ‘Goodbye, Piccadilly,/ Farewell, Leicester Square!’ – and does not dwell on the blood-soaked horror of the trenches.

Part of the reason for the difference between the soldiers’ songs of the two wars lies in the different ways in which attitudes towards the wars developed. In 1914 the outbreak of war was greeted with almost hysterical enthusiasm, whereas in 1939 a mood of sombre resignation and foreboding accompanied Britain’s declaration of war. Only when the distinctly uncharismatic Chamberlain was replaced as prime minister by Churchill, who succeeded in mobilising a united nation behind the war effort, did a strong spirit of support for the war grip the population. That spirit lasted, with allowances for the inevitable spikes of war-weariness, for the duration of the war.

In the First World War, that trajectory was reversed. The initial enthusiasm that led thousands of men to rally to the colours evaporated over the months as they encountered the mud and blood of the battlefields. The terrible toll taken by the grinding battle of attrition that was fought out daily on the Western Front caused a mood of bitterness and cynicism to grow among the troops. This was accentuated by the soldiers’ resentment of the incompetence and callousness of the military command that was orchestrating the battlefield slaughter from the comfort of billets safely behind the lines. The men in the trenches were also acutely conscious of the psychological gulf that separated them from the civilian population at home, for whom their experiences were beyond comprehension.

In the soldiers’ songs, the war became an exercise in futility, an interminable round of killing whose pointlessness and endlessness found succinct expression in the circular ditty ‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’ (to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’). In a deliberate gesture of disrespect for the authorities and the military hierarchy, some of the best-known songs parodied the hymns that the men regularly sang at church parades: ‘When this lousy war is over’, they sang to the tune of ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’, ‘No more soldiering for me,/ When I get my civvy clothes on,/ Oh, how happy I shall be!/ I shall kiss the sergeant-major,/ How I’ll miss him, how he’ll grieve!’ The enemy here was not the Germans, enduring the same war as the British on the other side of no man’s land, but the army itself and the implacable structures of rank and discipline that dehumanised men and reduced them to anonymous fighting units.

Not that the soldiers appear to have had a high opinion of their own fighting qualities, as this rewording of the hymn ‘The Church’s One Foundation’ makes very plain: ‘We are Fred Karno’s army, we are the ragtime infantry./ We cannot fight, we cannot shoot, what bleedin’ use are we?/ And when we get to Berlin we’ll hear the Kaiser say/ “Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott! What a bloody rotten lot are the ragtime infantry.”’

And their opinion of the abilities of their superiors was even lower. The thundering accents of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ - that marching song of the Church militant (text by S. Baring Gould, music by Sir Arthur Sullivan) - originally read: ‘Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,/ With the cross of Jesus going on before./ Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;/Forward into battle see His banners go!’ The anonymous voice of the trenches recast this as: ‘Forward, Joe Soap’s army, marching without fear,/ With our old commander, safely in the rear./ He boasts and skites from morn till night,/ And thinks he’s very brave,/ But the men who really did the job are dead and in their grave.’ Not great verse, perhaps, but witheringly well aimed.

This authentic voice of the Tommy in the trenches, suffering and dying at the behest of a military hierarchy that had forfeited its moral authority, influenced the great poetry of the ‘war to end all wars’. It reached Siegfried Sassoon, that champion of the common fighting man, as one of his poems shows:

‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

The soldiers’ songs were fashioned from the day-to-day realities of life in places like the Ypres Salient, scene of the heaviest British casualties of the war. ‘Wipers’, as the Tommies renamed it, became synonymous with the mechanics of mass killing: machine guns and barbed wire, poison gas and artillery barrages and the high-velocity shells known as ‘whizzbangs’. One short song evokes to great poetic effect the ordinary soldier’s longing for rest and peace – and his knowledge that peace would only come to him in his final resting-place: ‘Far, far from Wipers I long to be./ Where German snipers can’t get at me./ Dark is my dugout, cold are my feet./ Waiting for Whizzbangs to send me to sleep.’


Anthony Grenville

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