WW2 Music and WW1 Poetry

Between the World Wars, communication had improved hugely, so that regular contact was made with the troops during World War II as well as with the families back home in the UK, in the Commonwealth and in the USA, often through the radio and the cinema. This encouraged the growth of ‘popular’ music often intended to keep morale high and to give hope for the safe return of loved ones in the Army, Air Force and Navy. This was in stark contrast to the poignant war poetry from the 1914-18 World War.

The entertainment industry changed to aid the cause of the World War ll, forming the Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA) in the UK. Eminent classical actors as well as people well-know in light-entertainment often travelled to the troops overseas. However, the lasting memories are of the songs that were written and sung in those war years that still evoke memories of challenging and difficult times.

“(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” was a World War II song composed in 1941 by Walter Kent to lyrics by Nat Burton. Made famous in Vera Lynn’s 1942 version, it was one of Lynn’s best-known recordings and among the most popular World War II tunes.

The song was written about a year after the Royal Air Force and German aircraft had been fighting over southern England, including the white cliffs of Dover, in the Battle of Britain. Nazi Germany had conquered much of Europe and in 1941 was still bombing Britain. Neither America nor the Soviet Union had yet joined the war, so Britain was the only major power fighting the enemy in Europe. The American lyricist, Nat Burton, wrote his lyric unaware that the bluebird is not indigenous to Britain! However, listeners made a connection with the RAF. The lyrics also looked towards a time when the war would be over and peace would rule over the iconic white cliffs, Britain’s symbolic border with the European mainland.

One verse that does not appear in all recordings says:

When night shadows fall, I’ll always recall out there across the sea
Twilight falling down on some little town;
It’s fresh in my memory.
I hear mother pray, and to her baby say “Don’t cry,”
This is her lullaby…. There’ll be blue birds over…

Even in this popular song, perhaps there was the echo of the National Day of Prayer called by King George VI in 1940 before the hundreds of small ships crossed the English Channel and successfully executed the evacuation from Dunkirk to Dover.

World War One poetry

For the Fallen

by Laurence Binyon

Laurence Binyon wrote this poem in Cornwall in September 1914, a few weeks after the start of the war, responding to the Battle of Mons.  He was too old to enlist, but worked for the Red Cross.  He died in 1943.  The fourth verse of this poem is widely used in church services of remembrance on or near 11 November, which was the day on which fighting ceased.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Anthem For Doomed Youth

By Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen enlisted in the British army in 1915.  He wrote poems throughout the length of the war.  They show how the devout Christian faith of his youth was challenged, rethought and all-but lost.  In this poem of September 1917 a funeral takes place not in a church but on a godless battlefield.  He died in 1918 one week before the ceasefire.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

We Shall Keep the Faith

by Moina Michael

Moina Michael worked in New York for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).  Moved by the fact that poppies grew in abundance in Flanders during the warm summer months of the war, she wrote this poem in November 1918 and made a pledge always to wear a red silk poppy to remember those who had died.  She campaigned for the poppy to be adopted as a national symbol of remembrance, which happened first in the US in 1920 and then internationally.

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the faith
With all who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valour led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the torch and poppy red
We wear in honour of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

I call on the Lord in my distress,
and he answers me.
Save me, Lord, from lying lips
and from deceitful tongues.

What will he do to you, and what more besides,
you deceitful tongue?
He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows,
with burning coals of the broom bush.

Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek,
that I live among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I lived
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
but when I speak, they are for war.

Where to find it:

Psalm 120:1-7

About these words:

About a thousand years before Jesus the temple authorities compiled a book of songs for use in worship by the Jewish people.  Although the music is lost, the poetry is preserved in the Bible in the book called Psalms.

And they said…

GA Studdert Kennedy, “Woodbine Willie”, 1883-1929, a chaplain to British forces on the Western Front and poet:

Waste of muscle, waste of brain,
Waste of patience, waste of pain,
Waste of manhood, waste of health,
Waste of beauty, waste of wealth,
Waste of blood and waste of tears,
Waste of youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the saints have trod,
Waste of glory,
Waste of God.