Songs and Ditties of Wartime

November 20, 2014 by Legion Magazine

Songs and Ditties of Wartime

By Edwin Pye

June 1951


The songs and ditties sung by soldiers of all wars have helped immeasurably to boost the fighting men’s morale – even when they marched resolutely to what, to many of them, was death.


Two recent news items – the landing of Canada’s 25th Brigade in Korea and the swansong of General Douglas MacArthur – have turned the thoughts of many ex-servicemen to the songs of their campaigning days. The Canadians landed in Korea to the music of “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake”, played by a U.S. Army band. The five-star American general closed his military career with the words of the ditty, “Old Soldiers Never Die”.


Many of the composers who lightened the feet of the P.B.I. with their lilting melodies have passed on to Valhalla. In the following notes some of the songs they left behind are reviewed.


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The most popular song of the Crimean War, we are told, was “Cheer, Boys, Cheer, Sebastopol is Taken”. It was written by Charles MacKay after the fall of that Russian fortress in September, 1855. But the much older song “Annie Laurie”, recast in more refined lines by Lady John Scott, was sold at a bazaar to raise funds for the widows and orphans of soldiers who had been killed in that campaign.


The present writer, like THE LEGIONARY’S “Orderly Sergeant,” recalls the Crimean veterans, some of them with empty, swinging coat-sleeves, others with peg-legs – Old John Silver style – stumping along the streets. (How times have changed!) Then there were the “Pension Days”, when the travelling agent paid the pensioners their pittance. Was it not one of those old warriors who, hearing the street-corner Salvationists singing “Our Souls Can Never Die”, produced the ditty which MacArthur knew when he took the oath at West Point? The original hymn – for such it was – written by Abigail Hutchison, is known by all good Kiwanians. The immortal Mr. Crosby in his evening program following MacArthur’s farewell to arms sang the British version, “They Simply Fade Away”.


Canadian troops were welcomed at Cape Town in November, 1899, with the music of the patriotic song “Soldiers of The Queen”. Other songs sung at home and on the veld were “Good-Bye My Blue Bell”, and “Tommy Atkins”.


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In the First World War the Song of Songs was, of course, “Tipperary”. It was on New Year’s Day 1912, that Jack Judge, a 34-year old vaudeville songster accepted a 5s challenge to produce a song in twenty-four hours. With the aid of his friend Henry James Williams, a cripple, the song “Tipperary” was finished next morning. That night Jack sang it in the Grand Theatre, Stalybridge, near Manchester, and it was a great success. Florrie Forde sang it to enthusiastic audiences in 1913. Then came the war, and the Old Contemptibles introduced it to France. Throughout the Commonwealth and on the Continent it became the soldier’s anthem. It was first sung in Ottawa at the old Russell Theatre on September 29, 1914, at a mass meeting in aid of the Canadian Patriotic Fund. In March 1915, the name “Tipperary” was given to a British destroyer which, by the way, was sunk at Jutland on May 31, 1916.


When the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade entered Mons on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, it was welcomed by “Tipperary”, played on the bells by the town’s carillonneur.


Jack Judge, who composed that lilting score, passed on in July, 1938; he was predeceased by his song partner Williams in February, 1924. On the marble headstone which marks the latter’s grave in Basall Cemetery, Warwickshire, is inscribed: “Author of ‘It’s A Long, Long Way to Tipperary’.”


Another tune to which troops tramped in the First World War was “Pack Up Your Troubles”, written and composed by the Powell brothers. George wrote the lyrics and Felix composed the score. They had thought their effort was a failure, left it in a drawer and almost forgot it until a music firm offered a prize for a marching song. The Old Kit Bag won the award and earned for the brothers some £12,000 in royalties.


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A popular number on the Canadian Legion War Services’ song sheet in the Second World War was “Keep The Home Fires Burning” (Copyright, 1915, by Ascherburg, Hopwood & Crew Ltd.). The air of this song was adopted in April, 1916, by the 5th Battalion, C.E.F., as its regimental march. With “burning feet” the 5th (Western Cavalry) covered many a weary mile to the tune of this sentimental ballad.


Another western Canadian unit adopted a contemporary war-tune for a similar purpose – “Lili Marlene”, the song hit of the spring of 1944. It had been heard on the Nazi broadcasts picked up by the troops of the 8th Army in North Africa. A German record was “captured” at Tobruk and, after some months negotiating with the custodian of alien property, Jimmy Philips, one of Britain’s top music men, obtained permission to publish it. The Afrika Korps’ “Lili” is the regimental march of the 19th Alberta Armoured Car Regiment, as it is now known.


Canada’s 1st Canadian Division in the Second World War disembarked in the United Kingdom to the ringing notes of “The Beer Barrel Polka”. To commemorate the event, one of the units contemplated adopting the tune for its regimental march. The popular polka was composed for his wife by a Czech inn-keeper, Jaromir Vejvoda, but he only knew of its success in 1942, when he switched on his concealed radio and listened to the B.B.C. By that time his £100,000 in royalties, which later awaited him in London, commenced to roll up to a pleasing figure.

The song of the Caen Perimeter shortly after D-Day in Normandy, was “Luger-Luggin’ Ludwig” to the air “Pistol-Packin’ Momma”. The “Washing” had to wait some eight months before it could hang “On The Siegfried Line”.


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All song-conscious veterans owe a debt of gratitude to one of Canada’s native sons, Gitz Ingraham Rice, who produced a number of war songs – most of them while he was serving the Ypres Salient before gaining his commission. Rice was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. He went overseas with the First Canadian Contingent in 1914 as a gunner in the 5th Battery, 2nd Brigade, C.F.A. His songs were heard throughout the British armies on the Western Front and often in other theatres. The words and music of “I want To go Home”, and “Keep Your Head Down, Fritzie Boy!”he wrote at Ypres in April, 1915. His earlier effort “Mademoiselle From Armentières” was a united Anglo-Canadian one. The lyrics of this ever-popular ditty were written by Sergeant E. C. H. Rowland, of the A.S.C. “Red” Rowland had entertained battle-weary troops in Bailleul and Armentières before the Canadians arrived in France. At the Café de la Paix, Armentières, in late February, 1915, the Rowland-Rice team produced the original “Mademoiselle from Armentières” in less than thirty minutes. The rhythm of the song provided excellent scope for the troops to exercise their songwriting abilities; countless verses, invariably ribald, were added.


Rice, who perhaps will be remembered best for his “Dear Old Pal of Mine”, took up residence after the war in New York City where he died in October, 1947. His nickname, under which he enlisted and was usually known, was dubbed by his brother. The famous songwriter-to-be could crawl faster than most babies. “Look how that kid “gitz’’ around”, his brother would comment. The name stuck.


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Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War there appeared “The Daughter of Mademoiselle From Armentières”, by T. Connor and R. Silver. The lines included, “Remember the things her mother did for father years ago?” It did not meet with public favour. The troops, seemingly, resented their old favourite ditty being “remodeled”. The “Mademoiselle” of the First World War (Mlle Laure Millanquet) was a flaxen-haired waitress. Her mysterious death in 1930 brought many words of tribute. One London newspaper editor wrote: “England owes a great debt of gratitude to this café waitress who made it easy for men to march resolutely to what, for many of them, was death”.


These sentiments surely express the feelings of Canadian veterans who in those days of long ago marched along the Routes Nationale of France singing praises to their sweetheart, “Mademoiselle From Armentières”. And, like General MacArthur, they “never die; they simply fade away”.



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