Music in the Trenches

At the outbreak of World War 1, by far the most popular form of popular music came in the form of Music Hall songs. This was due to many reasons, with one being, that whilst gramophones were expensive and out of reach of most working class people, tickets to the music hall were cheap and business was booming. 

During 1914 'recruitment' songs became popular, but as the death toll rose and enthusiasm for the war waned, these all but disappeared from the repertoire. 

The sing along nature of these songs lent themselves to participation and helped with their popularity as an art form. This in turn created a common language between soldiers from different areas or battalions when they met in difficult circumstances. They used this shared language to explore their shared experiences, by adding their own lyrics that spoke to their particular circumstances. These lyrics were often crude with offensive language and today they go some way to help us understand the attitudes and opinions of regular soldiers in the trenches towards authority, the enemy, the people back home. 

An image of the front cover of sheet music for 'I Trid to Raise my Boy to Be a Hero' by Frank Huston

The cover of 'I Tried to Raise my Boy to be a Hero' by Frank Huston, a recruitment song in the USA 1916

Music was an important part of life in WW1, from the regular church services at the front, to the concert parties and gramophones for those injured and in makeshift hospitals. Musicians in the forces even created collapsible instruments that could be transported easily and played to pass the time or ease the soul in periods between combat. These may be Cellos such as the one shown here, which 'collapsed' into a box that was the body of the instrument, or the trench organ which can be heard sampled in 'Trench Symphony' which was found in a junk shop and rescued by Beverley Palin, restored and is still played today. 

A Sample of a Trench Organ 2 Octaves C3/4 - Beverley Palin / Jacqui Wicks
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Jacqui Wicks plays the Trench Organ.jpg
TO Name Plate.jpg
Trench-Cello.jpg
TO Packed.jpg
TO Case.jpg

From top left - A dismantled trench cello; project volunteer Jacqui Wicks plays a WW1 trench organ; the trench organ as it is packed away; the trench organ fully boxed. Bottom Left - the name plate of the restored trench organ, it reads RF Stevens Ltd, Kentish Town, London NW1.

As with many oral traditions many of the songs sung by soldiers during their time at the front have been lost, but thanks to works like 'Oh What a Lovely War' (1969), clips such as this, and websites such as The First World War Digital Poetry Archive we have a greater insight into their world. 

Music has been used specifically for remembrance since 1927 when the first National memorial was held after a compaign in the Daily Express Newspaper. The 1967 Anthology World War I Historic Music and Voices, narrated by Charles Collingwood, explores this theme. We are reminded that music is a 'legacy of war'. Many people's memories of the war live on in the music and songs from the time. Music promotes memories, it is emotive and adds a depth to the list of battle dates or names on the memorials, which is as important for those of us that did not experience it first hand as it was for those that lived through it. As the writer Robert Lewis Shayon asks us through the words of his narrator:

"As young voices sing them, can they ever know the horror and the tragedy of the infinite sadness that marches in ghostly rhythm with the songs of the First World War."

Maybe not - but I would suggest that it is still important for young people to hear them, to sing them and to explore those emotions in relation to WW1 alongside the facts as they are remembered. To that end, here you can find new arrangements of three known trench songs by Charlie Wells, two of which have been recorded by a young barbershop choir based in Wakefield, who are all aged between 15 and 19 and, had they been born a century earlier would possibly have sung them firsthand. There are also arrangements available below for analysis by young people, including a new arrangement of a recruitment song from WW1 which today seems shocking in its attitudes to both young women and men, but was extremely popular at the time. 

 

Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire, which next to We're Here because We're Here this is possibly the most famous trench song from WW1. The tune is taken from the British Grenadiers march, and, as with many songs in the folk tradition, the lyrics vary from area to area. They speak volumes about the perceptions of class and seniority in war, and the different experiences of different sectors of society during WW1 in particular. 

We're Here because We're Here - I've chosen this one because the lyrics are used as an important element of the Trench Symphony piece and this setting for young barbershop is particularly poignant.

If You Were the Only Boche in the Trench - Although the lyrics to this song may now appear offensive, they give a good insight into how popular music was bastardised by soldiers to create common songs that they sung together. It was sung to the popular tune 'If you were the only girl in the world'. 

If You were the only Boche in the Trench

If you were the only Boche in the trench,
And I had the only bomb,
Nothing else would matter in the world today,
I would blow you in to eternity.
Chamber of Horrors, just made for two,
With nothing to spoil our fun;
There would be such a heap of things to do,
I should get your rifle and bayonet too,
If you were the only Boche in the trench,
And I had the only gun.

'If You Were the Only...' Arr. Charlie Wells - QEGS Barbershop Singers 2019
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We're Here Because We're Here

(sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne)

We're here, because we're here

Because we're here, because we're here.

We're here because, we're here

Because, we're here, because we're here.

'We're Here Because...' Arr. Charlie Wells - QEGS Barbershop Singers 2019
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I'll Make a Man of You (popular recruiting song in 1915)

Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire

If you want to find the general
I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is
If you want to find the general
I know where he is
He's pinning another medal on his chest
I saw him, I saw him
Pinning another medal on his chest
Pinning another medal on his chest


If you want to find the colonel
I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is
If you want to find the colonel
I know where he is
He's sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut
I saw him, I saw him
Sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut

Sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut


If you want to find the sergeant

I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is
If you want to find the sergeant
I know where he is
He's drinking all the company rum
I saw him, I saw him
Drinking all the company rum
I saw him, I saw him

Drinking all the company rum


If you want to find the private
I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is
If you want to find the private
I know where he is
He's hanging on the old barbed wire
I saw him, I saw him
Hanging on the old barbed wire
Hanging on the old barbed wire