World War I in British Popular Song & Classical Music

Feast of Carpus, Papylus, Agathodorus, & Agathonica, the Martyrs of Pergamus

Royal_Irish_Rifles_ration_party_Somme_July_1916_Square.jpgPOPULAR music during World War I served to rouse the troops, comfort the grieving, and encourage patriotic spirit. Several classical composers served in the British armed forces during the war and their works reflected their experience, as did the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, subjects of this year’s Inklings Lecture Series.

Popular songs wistfully recalled home or reminded home to remember the soldiers who were away. Lewis and Tolkien must have heard these songs at home and at the front. One of the most popular songs, composed in 1914, was “Keep the Home Fires Burning” by Ivor Novello, sung here by the great Irish tenor, John McCormack, who recorded many of these songs, toured the USA during the war for the Red Cross, and also sang opera around the world:

They were summoned from the hillside,
They were called in from the glen,
And the country found them ready
At the stirring call for men
Let no tears add to their hardships
As the soldiers pass along,
And although your heart is breaking,
Make it sing this cheery song:

Chorus: Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning.
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There's a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
Till the boys come home. 

Overseas there came a pleading,
"Help a nation in distress."
And we gave our glorious laddies -
Honour made us do no less,
For no gallant son of Freedom
To a tyrant's yoke should bend,
And a noble heart must answer
To the sacred call of "Friend." (Repeat Chorus)

McCormack also recorded “Roses in Picardy” by Frederick Weatherly and Haydn Wood:

She is watching by the poplars, Colinette with the sea-blue eyes,
She is watching and longing and waiting Where the long white roadway lies.
And a song stirs in the silence, As the wind in the boughs above,
She listens and starts and trembles, 'Tis the first little song of love:

Roses are shining in Picardy, in the hush of the silver dew,
Roses are flowering in Picardy, but there's never a rose like you!
And the roses will die with the summertime, and our roads may be far apart,
But there's one rose that dies not in Picardy!
'tis the rose that I keep in my heart!

Verse 2
And the years fly on for ever, Till the shadows veil their skies,
But he loves to hold her little hands, And look in her sea-blue eyes.
And she sees the road by the poplars, Where they met in the bygone years,
For the first little song of the roses Is the last little song she hears:

Ralph Wood says the work of EDI is indispensable, James K. A. Smith says EDI gave him hope for the future of faith, and Rod Dreher says EDI is one of the happiest places on the planet offering hope to the hopeless.

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Marching Songs
Not surprisingly, John McCormack recorded one of the war’s most famous marching songs, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, written by Jack Judge and Henry James "Harry" Williams:

It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long way to go.
It's a long way to little Mary
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye, Piccadilly,
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It's a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart's right there.

The other popular marching song was “Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile” by brothers George Henry and Felix Powell:

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile, smile, smile,
While you've a lucifer to light your fag [cigarette],
Smile, boys, that's the style.
What's the use of worrying?
It never was worth while, so
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile, smile, smile.

Classical Composers           
George Butterworth died in action at the First Battle of Somme on August 5, 1916. Upon his death, his father found out that his son had been awarded medals for bravery, and his military commander found out that he was a promising composer. Butterworth was interested in the English folk song and traditional dancing, especially Morris dancing. He composed “A Shropshire Lad Rhapsody”, based on the poetry of A. E. Housman, and “The Banks of Green Willow.”

Frederick Septimus Kelly and William Dennis Browne were closely associated with the poet Rupert Brooke. Browne wrote the famous description of Brooke’s death and midnight burial on the Isle of Skyros among the olive groves. He died on June 15, 1915 during the Battle of Gallipoli. His setting of Richard Crashaw’s poem, “To Gratiana Dancing and Singing” demonstrates his ability to set words to music:

See! with what constant motion
Even, and glorious, as the sun,
Gratiana steers that noble frame,
Soft as her breast, sweet as her voice
That gave each winding law and poise,
And swifter than the wings of Fame. 

Each step trod out a lover's thought
And the ambitious hopes he brought,
Chain'd to her brave feet with such arts;
Such sweet command, and gentle awe,
As when she ceas'd, we sighing saw
The floor lay pav'd with broken hearts.

So did she move; so did she sing
Like the harmonious spheres that bring
Unto their rounds their music's aid;
Which she performed such a way,
As all th' enamoured world will say:
The Graces danced, and Apollo play'd.

Frederick Septimus Kelly was from Australia. He also was with Brooke at Gallipoli, but he died in action at the Somme on November 13, 1916. He wrote an elegy in strings “In Memoriam Rupert Brooke” while recuperating after the evacuation of Gallipoli.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) survived World War I but was invalided out after a gas attack and declared insane in 1922. He is often cited among the war poets, but was a composer, actively working on music while at the front. He set Five Elizabethan Songs to music and, like Butterworth, poems by A. E. Housman. One of his war-time compositions was this song, written to a poem by John Masefield, “By a Bierside”:

This is a sacred city, built of marvellous earth.
Life was lived nobly there to give such Beauty birth.
Beauty was in this brain and in this eager hand.
Death is so blind and dumb, death does not understand.

Death drifts the brain with dust and soils the young limbs' glory.
Death makes justice a dream and strength a traveller's story.
Death drives the lovely soul to wander under the sky.
Death opens unknown doors. It is most grand to die. 

A British website dedicated to the composers of World War I comments: 

We quite rightly hear a lot about the ‘war poets’ of World War I, but less well known are the war composers. Almost a whole generation of young composers volunteered to fight in the Great War, many whom did not survive or were permanently affected by that conflict.

Stephanie Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers and at Eighth Day Books. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at


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  • Stephanie Mann
    commented 2017-10-14 16:24:52 -0500
    One correction to my article: the poem about Gratiana Singing and Dancing is by Richard Lovelace, not Richard Crashaw!