The outbreak of war in 1914 was no small inspiration for the many songwriters, lyricists, professional singers and musicians, and resulted in the creation of a huge body of work devoted to wartime themes. Thousands of songs were written about the War, most destined to disappear before or soon after the cessation of hostilities, but some became big hits at the time and are still known and sung a century later. Recruitment songs – such as ‘We Don’t Want To Lose You, But We Think You Ought To Go’ and ‘Britannia Needs You Like A Mother’ – were prominent early but soon gave way to evocations of home and nostalgia as the grim realities of war became more apparent. ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ actually came out two years before fighting commenced but became the first ‘hit’ of the War, taking on a life of its own for soldiers from most countries involved. ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’, released in 1914, resonated similarly throughout the War years, and beyond.
The best of the sentimental love songs from the period, such as ‘K-K-K-Katy’ and ‘If You Were The Only Girl In The World’, also found a place in collective hearts and minds. As the War continued with little sign of resolution, satirical numbers like ‘Oh! It’s A Lovely War’ endeavoured to make light of the gloomy situation, while rousing songs like the enormously popular ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ were helpful in lifting or maintaining spirits, and proved equally important to both those at home and abroad. Australian songwriters and lyricists did their best as well to produce patriotic tubthumpers – ‘Australia Will Be There’, ‘To Arms Australia’, ‘Keep An Eye On Tommy’, ‘The Digger’, and ‘Brown Slouch Hat’ among them.
For the troops, popular songs performed several functions: bonding units; boosting morale; relieving boredom; and complementing endless marches. Most AIF members also quickly became familiar with the full repertoire of ‘trench songs’. These bawdy ditties, usually derivations of well-known songs, helped to establish the image of the Aussie larrikin soldier and, in time, these parodies with re-hacked lyrics were probably sung as frequently as the original versions, both home and abroad. Invariably the lyrics of the new, irreverent versions sprang from the same satirical well: mocking the enemy; knocking the military establishment; championing one’s own unit (by deriding all others); extolling the virtues (but regretting the absence) of women, or beer, or both; and so on. At the Front, these simple tunes made for easy accompaniment by pocket instruments like tin whistles or mouth organs. Access to the newer portable gramophones at military sites also supplied opportunities for some troops to hear the latest music from home – and provide fresh ammunition for jaunty reversioning.
As the War continued to rage, and casualty lists grew, songs of loss and lament became more common, and anti-war sentiment also found expression in songs like ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier’. In Australia, the conscription referenda (1916-1917) of the Hughes Government saw the emergence of a new wave of parodies adapted from popular tunes, especially within the union movement.