Sing When You’re Winning: The Great War and Song


Dr Guido Heldt, Senior Lecturer in Music, University of Bristol 

19 October 2014


Dr Guido Heldt, whose PhD topic was the English symphonic poem of the period around the Great War, began his talk with an extract from a concept album of 1991, entitled 1916, by the group Motorhead, which included the WW1 related songs Nightmare, The Dreamtime and 1916. He stressed how the central image of the First World War was that of the sheer madness of wars, and the pointlessness of the seemingly endless slaughter. Compared with that, the Second World War had made far more sense, as a ‘just war’, from the Allies’ viewpoint, which led eventually to the defeat of the forces of evil.

Scattered on foreign fields

Lie the burnt-out hulls of our dead armour

Old landscape wreckage

And this earth now scorched

In the face of overwhelming force

Holds positions.

Anti-tank’ (Dead Armour) Bolt Thrower from Those Once Loyal


‘Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently. Some people say there are true things to be found, some people say all kinds of things can be proved. I don’t believe them. The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like a string full of knots. It’s all here but hard to find the beginning, and impossible to find the end.’

From Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)


There were musical quotations from ‘Einblick’ (Insight) taken from Menschheit (Mankind), a symphonic poem for alto and orchestra by Erwin Schulhoff (1984-1942). He was a figure who ended his life in a Nazi concentration camp.  Schulhoff’s Symphonia Germanica (composed in 1919) on the other hand, is an example of ‘Musical Dadaism’. It uses the Austrian National Anthem (The Emperor’s Hymn), composed by Haydn, the slow theme and variations of his String Quartet in C, Op. 76 No.3 (1797) which became a patriotic song. It was astonishing to hear this famous melody incorporated in the Festwalzer und Walzerintermezzo (1908) by Franz Schreker (1878-1934), an instantly recognisable tune embedded in typical lush Schrekerian harmony, and very late Romantic instrumentation, composed in the same year as his popular ballet-pantomime suite, The Birthday of the Infanta (after Oscar Wilde’s story).


Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), German Jewish composer

Franz Schreker, Austrian composer (1878-1934)

‘Your King and Country Want You’ (Paul Rubens, 1914) was essentially a recruiting song, with marching rhythm, like ‘I’ll Make a Man of You’ (Herman Finck/Arthur Wimperis, 191) and the most famous Allied hit of the war, ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’ (Harry Williams/ Jack Judge, 1912) quoted in the television U-boat series Das Boot. ‘Your King and Country Want You’ begins:

Oh! We don’t want to lose you

But we think you ought to go

For your King and Country

Both seek you so

We shall cheer you, thank you, bless you

When you come back again.                                     

(Henry Newbolt)


The essential note of being far from home was struck in one of the very best-known poems of the time, Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ (1914), one of the Five War Sonnets published the following year:

If I should die, think only this of me

There is some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England.


The irony here is that Brooke did not die in battle at all, but from blood-poisoning while on the way to the Dardanelles.  He is buried on the island of Skyros, Greece.

Rupert Brooke


The composer John Ireland was born in 1879, and was too old to enlist in the war. However, his Second Violin Sonata was written in 1916-17, in aid of musicians who had enlisted, and won great admiration at the time. Ireland’s A Garrison Churchyard (1916) was a setting of Robert Thirkell Cooper’s Soliloquies of a Subaltern Somewhere in France (1915):

Verse one: 

A churchyard by a roadside bend

Forgotten and unkept

Bestrewn with gravestones end to end

Where stricken hearts have wept.


Verse Three:

O little silent waiting place

That looks toward the sea,

Within your crowded little space

Lives all that’s dear to me.


Almost contemporary with this were the utterly different Five Songs on Picture-Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg, Op.4, composed in Vienna in 1912 by Alban Berg (1885-1935). This work was an example of full-blown pre-1914 Austro-German Expressionism.  Guido Heldt quoted the last one of these, ‘Hier ist Friede’:

Hier ist Friede,

Hier weine ich mich uber alles!

Hier lost sich meine umfassbares

Unermessliches Leid, das mir die Seele verbrennt…

Siehe, hier sind keine Menschen, keine Ansiedlungen…

Hier ist Friede!

Hier tropft Schnee leise in Wasserlachen…

(Here there is peace,

Here I can weep my fill about everything!

Here my incomprehensible, measureless grief

Which sears my soul, melts away…

Behold, here there are no people, no habitation

Here there is peace! Here the snow

Drips gently into the pools of water.) 

(tr. Jean-Claude Poyet, 1993)


Peter Altenberg  (1859-1919)

Alban Berg (1885-1935)

There could hardly be a greater contrast than with the nursery rhyme Maikafer, flieg (Cockchafer, fly), known since 1800:

Maikafer, flieg

Dein Vater ist im Krieg

Dein Mutter ist in Pommernland

Pommernland  ist abgebrannt

Maikafer, flieg

(Cockchafer, fly / Your father’s in the war / Your mother is in Pomerania / Pomerania is burned to the ground / Cockchafer, fly)


Another song, Zogen einst funf wilde Schwane (Once roamed five wild swans) expresses the same feeling of loss, but without the bitter irony of Maikafer, flieg:

Sing, sing was geschah

Keiner ward mehr gesehen, ja

Sing, sing was geschah

Keiner ward mehr gesehen.

(Sing, sing about what once was / Nothing more was seen, yes / Sing, sing about what once was / Nothing more was seen.)

This seems to echo the nostalgic lament  ‘Where have all the flowers gone?

Another ‘farewell’ song was ‘Adieu, mein kleiner Gardeoffizier’ (Goodbye, my little officer of the guard) by the Graz-born Viennese conductor and operetta composer Robert Stolz (1880-1975) and Walter Reisch, from 1930. This was written a year after the appearance of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel  Am Westen  Nicht Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front).

Und eines Tage war alles aus

Es ruhten endlich die Waffen

Man schickle alle Soldaten nach Haus

Eine neuen Beruf sich zu schaffen.

Refrain:           Adieu, mein kleiner Gardeoffizier,


                        Sei’ das Gluck mit dir! Sei’ das Gluck mit dir!


(And one day, everything had gone,

The weapons had at last fallen silent.

All the soldiers were sent home

And urged to find a new way of life.

Refrain:           Farewell, my little officer of the Guard

                        Farewell, farewell.

                        May good luck follow you!)


Robert Stolz (1880-1975)

The 1916 song Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty was full of nostalgia and homesickness for ordinary British life, expressed in the vernacular. It was supposed to be the thoughts of three soldiers (fictional, yet real) longing for home and normality. The three writers were Arthur J Mills, Fred Godfrey and Bennett Scott. Florrie Forde made the first recording in 1917, and a version was recorded by the Smiths as recently as 2009. The song was revived by Vera Lynn during the Second World War, and was sung by Cicely Courtneidge in the film The L-Shaped Room (1962), after the novel by Lynne Reid Banks. In addition, Noel Coward used it in his Cavalcade (1931) and in his 1944 film This Happy Breed.  Margaret Lockwood, playing the part of a concert pianist in the film Love Story, also made in 1944,was asked by the troops in the North African desert to play this song for them.

Take me back to dear old Blighty

Put me on the train for London Town,

Take me anywhere, drop me anywhere,

Liverpool, Leeds or Birmingham, well, I don’t care…

I should love to see my best girl

Cuddling up again we soon should be



Tiddley, iddley ighty

Hurry me home to Blighty

Blighty is the place for me!!

Florrie Forde (nee Flanagan) Music Hall singer


Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Thomas Hardy’s poem In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’ dates from 1915, only a year before Take me Back to Dear Old Blighty, but is far removed in manner and mood. The English composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) set it in his early Requiem da Camera (1923-1925):

Only a man harrowing clods

In a slow silent walk

With an old horse that stumbles and nods

Half asleep as they stalk.


Only thin smoke without flame

From the heaps of couch-grass:

Yet this will go onward the same

Though Dynasties pass.


Yonder a maid and her wight

Come whispering by:

War’s annals will cloud into night

Ere their story die.

(Thomas Hardy: Collected Poems, Macmillan 1962, p.511)


Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

FL Lucas (1894-1967)

In 1940, Finzi also set Frank Lawrence (FL) Lucas’s, June on Castle Hill, a poem written in 1916. Lucas was a lieutenant in the Royal West Kent Regiment, involve with credit in the British advance on Miraumont-sur-Ancre, in February 1917.  Lucas was a critic and a classical scholar, who attacked TS Eliot’s The Waste Land on its appearance in 1922, but nevertheless had a steady reputation as a literary magus before 1939. His best known book is The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal.   June on Castle Hill is perhaps his best known poem:

On its grassy brow

Not a tower now

Not a stone

Not a trumpet-call

Not a hushed foot-fall


Wild parsley weaves at white flags unfurled,

Above a warless world.


Earth sleeps in peace;

Yet without cease

The sky

Throbs angrily

As the honey-laden bee

Sails by

As, with a secret sting, that sullen hum

Whispers of wars to come.


Another popular British song, in marching rhythm, was Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire (’If you want to find a private, I know where he is…’) which was echoed in bitter irony by the German  song Mein Michel, was willst du noch mehr?:

Du hast Bataiilone, Schwadronen

Batterien, Maschinengewehr

Du hast auch die grossten Kanonen

Mein Michel, was willst du noch mehr?


(You have battalions, squadrons,

Batteries of machine guns,

You also have the biggest cannons

My dear Michael, what more do you want?)


Du hast zwei dutzend Monarchen,

Lakaien und Pfaffen , ein Heer

Beseeligt kannst du da schnarchen

Mein Michel, was willst du noch mehr?


(You have two-dozen monarchs

Minions and priests, an army

So you can blessedly sleep

My Michael, what more do you want?)


After the war came Dada, or Anti-Art an art or a philosophy?   This was revealed in famous works such as Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated Fountain (Fountain/Urinal) of 1917, Hugo Ball’s sound-poem Karawane (also 1917), and Raoul Hausmann’s Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Age) from 1920. Not far behind came the Hornpipe from Façade: An Entertainment (1922) by the English composer William Walton and the English poet Edith Sitwell.   Kurt Schwitters’ Sonata in Urlauten (Sonata in Primeval Sounds, 1922-3) appeared the following year.

The experience of soldiers at the end of the war was demonstrated in Stony-Broke-in-no-Man’s-Land, otherwise known as The British Soldier’s Discharge Song. Herbert Rule, Fred Holt and George Carney created this in 1921; the first stanza runs:

In 1914, a hundred years ago, it seems

When first the world was awakened from its peaceful calm,

The bugle called, I went away.

They said I was a man then,

But, ah, what can I do today?


The last stanza is both pessimistic and oddly nostalgic:

I can’t get the old job

Can’t get a new

Can’t carry on as I used to do

I look around me, and daily I see

A lot worse off than me.

In Piccadilly friends pass me by

I’m absolutely stranded in the Strand,

But I confess I was contented more or less

When I was stony broke in No Man’s Land.


Earlier, Dr Heldt had quoted the gifted PJ Harvey’s ‘Hanging in the Wire’ (2011). He ended with another of PJ Harvey’s lyrics from 2011, Let England Shake:

The west’s asleep. Let England shake,

Weighted down with silent dead.

I fear our blood won’t rise again,

Won’t rise again……….


© 2016 Dr Robert Blackburn BRLSI Convenor, Literature and Humanities, from notes made during Dr Heldt’s talk, plus additional material


A short bibliography

·       Max Arthur: When This Bloody War Is Over: Soldiers’ Songs of the First World War, Piatkus, London, 2001

·       John Brophy: Songs and Slang of the British Soldier, Scholartis Press London, 1931 (NB The Scholartis Press was founded in 1927 by Eric Partridge, and closed in 1931)

·       John Brophy and Eric Partridge: The Long Trail: Soldiers’ Songs and Slang, 1914-1918    Freeport, New York / Books for Libraries Press 1965 /1972

·       Nicolas Detering, Michael Fischer, Aibe-Marlene Gerdes (eds): Populaere Kriegslyrik im Ersten Weltkrieg, Waxmann 2013

·       Lewis Foreman (ed.) Oh, my horses! Elgar and the Great War, Elgar Editions, Rickmansworth 2001

·       Stefan Hanheide, Dietrich Helms, Claudia Glunz, Thomas F,Schneider (eds.) Musik bezieht Stellung : Funktionalisierung der Musik im Ersten Weltkrieg, Osnabruck University / Unipress 2013


Two websites: