1. The WW1 song that went global
This is the story of a song that travelled the world and became one of the most iconic songs of World War One. Almost 100 years after it was written, the tune and lyrics remain with us long after the guns of World War One have fallen silent.
A firm favourite in its day with troops on the Western Front as well as their families back at home, its popularity didn’t stop there. ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ went on to enjoy success in Hollywood films, Broadway musicals and even made an appearance in the UK top ten chart as recently as 2010.
It’s been translated into Dutch, German and Spanish, becoming a truly global hit. But in the midst of a world war, what was it about this song in particular that made it such a huge success?
2. How the song was written
The story of the song begins behind the scenes of the London Hippodrome Theatre early in 1915. It was there that two brothers, George and Felix Powell, were performing as part of a touring entertainment troupe called The Harlequinaders.
In a break between performances, Felix played the music he had composed to go with some lyrics George had written for a song called ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’. George was unimpressed with what he heard - declaring it ‘piffle’- and so the song was consigned to a drawer marked ‘duds’.
That could have been the end of the story if it weren’t for a competition announced in 1915 by New York publishers Francis Day and Hunter who were giving a prize of 100 guineas for a marching song for the troops.
Months later the brothers received a telegram announcing ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ had won first prize. It was only now that the brothers realised the song’s true potential and quickly added it into their show’s repertoire.
5. The importance of WW1 songs
At the outbreak of war, recruitment songs such as ‘We Don't Want to Lose You, but We Think You Ought to Go’ proved popular in music halls – as did anti-German songs like ‘When Belgium Put the Kybosh on the Kaiser’.
On the Western Front, marching bands were sent to accompany the troops. Soldiers would regularly put on concert parties and almost every division had its own entertainment troop. In the long periods of waiting between battles, songs played an important role in staving off boredom and boosting morale.
‘A Long Way to Tipperary’ was the first hit of the war - a lively tune with fond thoughts of returning home soon. Songs about home resonated throughout the war, with ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, released in 1914, remaining popular throughout. As war continued, upbeat messages about staying cheerful and carrying on, such as ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’, played a vital role in keeping spirits up. The songs united people in a shared experience whether they were at home, on the Western Front or stationed further afield.
6. Is music still important for soldiers today?
We've seen that music played a central role for soldiers in WW1. But 100 years later, does it still have the same importance?
Mark Cann, CEO, The British Forces Foundation
Our organisation puts on entertainment shows for troops on operations. Our main reason is to boost morale. Music can transcend national, age and gender boundaries. It’s a shared experience that helps cohesion and team bonding. It uplifts people and takes them away from the moment they are in. We’ve found the bigger the star the bigger the impact. When we have stars like Katherine Jenkins and Katie Melua giving up their time and talent for free it conveys a powerful message - that people back home support them and haven’t forgotten about them. This message comes through the music.
Keith Bates, former Army Captain
For me, music is something you use during your downtime – when you get the chance to lie on your bunk and have a quiet, reflective space. Listening to music and the radio is important because it gives you a sense of the familiar. When you’re in somewhere like Iraq or Afghanistan, surrounded by desert, it’s important to have something to anchor you to reality - something to remind you of home and your friends and family.
Mario Chrisostomou, Head of BFBS (forces radio)
Music can take you back to a time and a place. Working with the forces we remember our lives in two to four year blocks, and for me 'Mr Brightside' by The Killers represents my time in Afghanistan. Music can be very poignant – when someone is involved in a serious injury or death the military shuts down all communication until the families have been informed. The next day soldiers of the same unit contact the Radio station and request the song 'Young Forever' by Jay Z. They often don’t say why or for what reason. That song talks about someone being taken too soon and the music says so much more than words ever could.
Jonathan Gough, Senior Army Chaplain
Singing during services enables soldiers to be part of a shared experience. When they are out of their comfort zone – on tour and away from home – they think about bigger issues and the music can help them to engage with this. We choose music that fulfils different needs as it will mark both upbeat and serious moments. For instance earlier this year we had a homecoming service at York Minster for the soldiers returning from Afghanistan. We had to choose music that gave thanks for what the troops had achieved as well as honouring those who had fallen.