London’s First World War Songs

City of London WWI Memorial

The outbreak of the First World War a century ago signalled the start of a catastrophic turn of events for the human race. As tends to be the way when faced with adversity, people turned to music and song to cheer themselves up, as well as poke fun (and direct anger) at the people who had driven the world towards the conflict.

A number of the songs of the conflict had a London connection, through a singer or composer born or based here, or simply through having been published first in London during the war. Here we take a look at a few of those songs and the sentiments they conveyed in the face of the most dreadful war humanity will hopefully ever have to endure.

Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty

Arthur J Mills was a lyricist from Richmond who, alongside Streatham-based Welshman Fred Godfrey and another Londoner named Bennett Scott, penned this story of three fictional soldiers on the Western Front desperate to get back home. This 1916 number is a simple tale of homesickness, including the desperate lines ‘Put me on the train for London town, Take me over there, Drop me anywhere, Birmingham, Leeds, or Manchester well, I don’t care!’

Here is Florrie Forde’s version of the song, from 1917.

The Tanks That Broke the Ranks Out in Picardy

Some of the songs of the First World War inevitably took a more triumphant tack, and none more so than this 1916 story of the world’s first wartime introduction to the tank. Its co-writer was Harry Castling, of which not a great deal has been written though he is known to have been living in London during the 1930s and also wrote a song called Let’s All Go Down The Strand, so it’s quite right to include the song in our London-based list.

The Tanks That Broke the Ranks Out in Picardy describes the German army’s terrified reaction at their first sight of British tanks and contains lyrics that may suffer in the face of revisionism, but at the time it was quite the morale-booster. Here is a version of the song recorded in an unnamed year, presumably not long after its composition.

Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag

First published in London in 1915, this classic wartime song was written by Welshman George Henry Powell and his brother Felix. It was entered into a competition for ‘best morale-building song’ and duly won first prize, praised for its optimism at a time when hopes had all but faded of a swift end to the war. Any song that starts with the line ‘Private Perks is a funny little codger’ is bound to raise a smile even in the darkest of times.

Here is an uncredited version of this particularly upbeat number.

The Sunshine of Your Smile

Making its debut in London a year before the war and strictly speaking a simple love song, this became hugely popular during the four years in which a great many loves were lost. Written by American trio Francis, Day and Hunter, its lyrics perfectly captured the feelings of many a sweetheart during the war, particularly in its second verse: ‘Shadows may fall upon the land and sea, Sunshine from all the world may hidden be, But I shall see no cloud across the sun, Your smile shall light my life, Till life is done.’

It has been recorded many times over the years, including by Frank Sinatra during the Second World War. Here is Irish tenor John McCormack’s version, from 1916.

Colonel Bogey March

Although it was written a few weeks before the start of the war, the Colonel Bogey March is one of the conflict’s most recognisable tunes. It was composed in 1914 by Frederick Joseph Ricketts of the 2nd Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who was born in Ratcliff in modern-day Tower Hamlets in 1881. Though the tune was rather co-opted by the Second World War with lyrics added to refer disparagingly to Hitler’s trouser furniture, it was during the first conflict that it really took off.

Here is the lyric-free version of the march performed by the Coldstream Guards.

Your King and Country Need You

This is the title of two songs published at the start of the war.

Lawrence Wright Music was a Denmark Street-based publishing company charged in 1914 with producing a patriotic song to gee up potential volunteers for the armed forces. The result was Your King and Country Need You, written by Paul Pelham, WH Wallis and Fred Elton and including the lyrics ‘Not for mad ambitions greed, England asks us in her need to face the foeman’s guns, ‘Tis for honour, truth and right, For glorious liberty we fight, To crush the envious foemens might, That England wants her sons.’

The other song of the same title was written by Huntley Trevor, with music by Henry E Pether. It was also released in London in 1914 and versions of this song are easier to come by than those of the Lawrence Wright tune. Here is the Huntley Trevor song, performed by Leo Ryan in 1914.

Your King and Country Want You

A single word separates this song from the previous pair but they are identical in aim: trying to get as many men and boys to sign up for the cause as possible. This one was also first published in London in 1914, and was written by Kensington-born composer Paul Rubens who himself failed to survive the war, though it was tuberculosis that got him at the age of 41 rather than the conflict itself.

The song makes explicit reference to sportsmen who at the start of the war had continued to play cricket and football before the extent of the casualties suffered by the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium had been fully understood. Here is Stanley Kirkby’s version, recorded during the war for Edison Bell Records, also of London.

Image of the City of London First World War Memorial courtesy of tezzer57 via the Londonist Flickr pool.

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Article by Chris Lockie | 140 Articles | View Profile

  • Suzanne Beard

    Just brilliant