It’s the second decade of the 20th century and the world continues to develop and change.
At this time Great Britain was at the centre of the world’s largest empire, a beneficiary of colonial resources and trade. It occupied territory on four different continents and was at the centre of a vast trading and commercial empire. However, domestically, 19th century Britain was often unsettled by demands for improved conditions and political reform. British rulers had engaged in imperial expansion over the years but had sought to avoid war – a policy dubbed ‘splendid isolation’. However – this policy approach was waning in the early 1900s as British interest concentrated on events in Europe, particularly the unification of Germany and the expansionist policies adopted by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
In the USA Sophie Tucker was singing of ‘Some of These Days’; Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan were telling us all about ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. We also have the American Quartet group singing ‘Moonlight Bay’; Billy Murray telling the story of ‘Casey Jones’ while Al Jolson was singing ‘You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)’ to the US population at large.
By 1914 Britain was no longer the dominant economic power in Europe. It still had the world’s largest shipbuilding industry but in other areas such as coal, iron, chemicals and light engineering, Britain was being out-performed by Germany.
Britain was a constitutional monarchy under George V with a government formed by the majority party of the House of Commons with members being elected by some 8 million registered male voters. The aristocratic House of Lords had limited power to veto legislation.
Since the later part of the 19th century the British government had considered Germany to be the main threat to its empire. This was reinforced by Germany’s decision in 1882 to form a Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy – an alliance to support each other if attacked by either France or Russia. France felt threatened by the Triple Alliance and was concerned by the growth in the German Navy and, in 1904, the two countries had signed the Entente Cordiale (friendly understanding) with the objective of the alliance was to encourage co-operation against the perceived German threat. Three years later Russia, who also feared the growth of the German Army, joined Britain and France – and the ‘Triple Entente’ was formed.
By August 1914, Britain had 247,432 regular troops. About 120,000 of these were in the British Expeditionary Army and the rest were stationed abroad. There were soldiers in all Britain’s overseas possessions except the white dominions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The USA had no links with either side at this time.
Despite everything, there was music to generate some cheerfulness. One such number was ‘Pack up your troubles in your old Kit Bag – and Smile, Smile, Smile’ written in 1915 by Welsh brothers Felix Powell – an army staff sergeant – and George Henry Powell who became a conscientious objector. A later play presented by the National Theatre recounts how these music hall stars rescued the song from their rejects pile and re-scored it to win a wartime competition for a marching song. In its many ways it became very popular and boosted British morale despite the horrors of that war. It was one of a large number of music hall songs aimed at maintaining morale, recruiting for the forces, or defending Britain’s war aims. Here are the words if you want to turn back those challenging times:
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile. While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag, smile, boys, that’s the style. What’s the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile, so pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag, and smile, smile, smile.
Another of these songs, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ was so similar in musical structure that the two were sometimes sung side by side.