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What Did You Do in the Great War, Daddy?

The subject of a child innocently shaming their father for failing to carry out military service was a commonly used theme of war propaganda.

Year:1916

Location:Recorded in the UK

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What Did You Do in the Great War, Daddy?

The subject of a child innocently shaming their father for failing to carry out military service was a commonly used theme of war propaganda.


Year: 1916

Length: 3:22

Credits: Composer: Douglas O’Neil / Performer: Stanley Kirkby

Source: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

Catalogue Reference: NFSA title: 229881


People: Composer: Douglas O’Neil / Performer: Stanley Kirkby

Location: Recorded in the UK

Tags: popular music, propaganda, recruitment

Subject: popular music


There was no conscription in Britain before the passing of the Military Service Act in 1916 and in Australia conscription was twice voted down in plebiscites. Recruiting large numbers of volunteers was therefore a huge challenge, and able-bodied men often had to be coerced into enlisting, with the aid of war propaganda.

Propaganda posters and songs encouraged people to support the war, whether from home or by enlisting. The makers of propaganda knew who to target and what messages to use in order to make an impact on their audience. Some propaganda campaigns invoked fear, through threatening images of the enemy and the dire consequences of losing the war. Others aimed to make people feel guilty if they didn’t ‘do their bit’ for the war effort. Considerable pressure was brought to bear on men to volunteer, and those who didn’t risked social disgrace as ‘shirkers’ or cowards. Some would anonymously receive a ‘white feather’ - a traditional symbol of cowardice. However, many men had responsibilities towards their families as wage earners which proved a disincentive to volunteer. By risking their lives they risked the destitution of wives, children or elderly parents.

The idea of a child innocently shaming their father for his lack of military service became something of a recurring subject for propaganda. The British recruitment poster, “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?", released by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915, showed a daughter pointing to a page in a school history book and posing the question to her father, whose son plays with toy soldiers at his feet. The poster is remarkably sophisticated for the time and must have played powerfully on the guilt associated with avoiding wartime service.

Similar songs were also written and recorded. ‘What Did You Do in the Great War, Daddy?’, performed by British music hall singer Tom Clare, criticises those who claimed to be war heroes but in fact avoided work or profiteered on the black market during the war. It ends with the verse:

And all the profiteers who had been so long in clover

Fell a-sighing and a-sobbing when they heard the war was over

For they'd all made their 'bit' in the Great War, Daddy.

Another song with the same title was written by Douglas O’Neil and recorded by Stanley Kirkby in 1916. Unlike the poster or the song performed by Clare, the ‘Daddy’ in this story appears to have enlisted rather than ‘shirk’ his duty. Unusually, the last two lines of the chorus suggest that ‘Daddy’ is not convinced he will be looked after or properly recompensed for his service when he’s old,

What Did You Do in the Great War, Daddy? – lyrics

CHORUS

What did I do in the Great War, laddy?

What did I do? You want to know?

When they called for men

I was ready then

To go and fight the foe

I did my best for King and country, laddy

Just to keep old Britain free

But when I’m old and grey

For what I’ve done today

What will Britain do for me?