Category Archives: War

To Which We Serve

There are times when ‘doing what you plan to do’ gets done – and there are also times when ‘what you planned to do’ didn’t get done – and today I am not sure which of these apply – so I’ll leave it to you to decide!  It’s a part of our ‘Music for Ragtime to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ story – but doesn’t specifically contain either!  Last week our 1942 story had two new singers on the scene. This week we are all at sea with the story of HMS Kelly- a K-class destroyer of the British Royal Navy and the flotilla leader of her class. She had served through the early years of the Second World War in Home Waters, off Norway and in the Mediterranean. Throughout the ships service it was commanded by Lord Louis Mountbatten. The vessel was lost in action in 1941 during the Battle of Crete.

In 1942 a British patriotic war film, directed by Sir Noël Peirce Coward and Sir David Lean, with the assistance of Britain’s Ministry of Information, came on screen.  It was called ‘In Which We Serve’ with a screenplay inspired by the exploits of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten.  In the Box Office the film was the second most popular movie at the British box office in 1943 and was one of the most successful British films ever released in the US, earning $1.8 million in rentals.  Noël Coward had composed the music as well as starring in the film as the ship’s captain. The film also starred John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson and Richard Attenborough – it was Richard’s first screen role. ‘In Which We Serve’ also received a full backing by the Ministry of Information which offered advice on what would make good propaganda.  The film remains a classic example of wartime British cinema through patriotic imagery of national unity and social cohesion within the context of war.

However – there were ‘responses’. 

A New York Times writer observed, “There have been other pictures which have vividly and movingly conveyed in terms of human emotion the cruel realities of this present war. None has yet done it so sharply and so truly as In Which We Serve… For the great thing which Mr. Coward has accomplished in this film is a full and complete expression of national fortitude … Yes, this is truly a picture in which the British may take a wholesome pride and we may regard as an excellent expression of British strength.”

Variety called the film “a grim tale sincerely picturized and splendidly acted throughout” and added, “Only one important factor calls for criticism. It is that all the details are too prolonged. The author-producer-scriptwriter-composer and co-director gives a fine performance as the captain of the vessel, but acting honours also go to the entire company. Stark realism is the keynote of the writing and depiction, with no glossing of the sacrifices constantly being made by the sailors.”

Despite largely positive reviews by audiences and critics alike, the film was not well received by some within the Admiralty who dubbed it “In Which We Sink“.  None-the-less – on Christmas Eve 1942 in New York, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures honoured the film as the ‘Best English Language Film of the Year’ citing Bernard Miles and John Mills for their performances.  The film was nominated in the 1943 Academy Awards but lost to ‘Casablanca’ for Best Picture and ‘Princess O’Rourke’ for Best Original Screenplay. However, Noel Coward was presented with an ‘Academy Honorary Award for “his outstanding production achievement.”   In 1943 ‘In Which We Serve’ also won the ‘New York Film Critics Circle Award’ for Best Film’, beating Casablanca’, and the ‘Argentine Film Critics Association Award for Best Foreign Film in 1943.

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In Britain the majority feel alone – but VERY determining.

Although the 2nd World War began with Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland in September 1939, the United States did not fully enter the war until after the Japanese bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, on 7th December 1941. The 1940 and 1941 conflict in Europe had received help and support from the USA – but mainly from a distance.  In Britain the majority felt alone – but VERY determining.  Music was a great support for all and as the conflict moved on into 1941 music was all around.  On 29th March Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem was premiered in Carnegie Hall conducted by John Barbirolli.  On Saturday 10th May 1941 London’s Queen’s Hall – the venue for the Promenade Concerts – was bombed by the Luftwaffe. The Proms re-locate to the Royal Albert Hall and carried on with their performances.

Let’s have a look at three – different – individuals

One key member of the community was an individual that could displays skill at wordplay and evokes a feeling of both good humour and patriotic pride.  He was Noël Coward and the song poked fun at the disorder and shortages of equipment, supplies and effective leadership that the Home Guard experienced during the Second World War. The song was “Could You Please Oblige Us with a Bren Gun?” – a humorous song written and composed by Noël in 1941.  The subject of the song was the Bren light machine gun – a weapon in high demand and short supply in wartime Britain, especially in 1941, when the British military was still recovering from the massive loss of materiel and supplies at Dunkirk. First priority was given to the British Army and the Royal Marines, with the result that the units of the Home Guard, the very last line of defence, were quite unlikely to get one. As a result, members of the Home Guard often had to make do with whatever they could get their hands on- frequently old and outdated weapons.

Michael Carr – real name Maurice Alfred Cohen – was a British popular music composer and lyricist perhaps best remembered for the song ‘South of the Border Down Mexico Way’ for the 1939 film of the same name.  However – during World War II he served in the army and wrote “He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings” with Eric Maschwitz.  He was also ‘responsible for’ “Somewhere in France with Youin 1939.  He worked together with Jimmy Kennedy for ‘We’re Gonna Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line” and “A Handsome Territorial” in 1939; in 1941 with Popplewell on “The First Lullaby“; “A Pair of Silver Wings” (1941with Eric Maschwitz) and “I Love To Sing” (1943 with Paul Misrake & Tommie Connor)

Hughie Charles was an English songwriter and producer of musical theatre. Born Charles Hugh Owen Ferry in Manchester, he is best known for co-writing with Ross Parker the songs “We’ll Meet Again” and “There’ll Always be an England”. In 1938 he and Ross Parker had enjoyed their first hit, ‘I Won’t Tell A Soul (That I Love You)’ and followed that in 1939 with the defiantly optimistic ‘There’ll Always Be An England’ and ‘We’ll Meet Again’, both of which were successful for Vera Lynn, and many other artists.  Throughout the war years, Charles wrote more than 50 songs, mostly ballads, in collaboration with a number of other writers.

We’ll come back to these when the war has ended.

Music tells us stories as conflict begins

The years 1939 & 1940 are difficult to really put together in our story.  Britain was at war – the USA stood out of it.  On 31st August in Britain many civilians were evacuated from London while, in the USA, Bing Crosby was the leading figure of the ‘Crooner’ sound and was on his way to becoming a superstar of the 1940s.

In the USA ‘charts in 1939 at number 5 we find Louis Armstrong with ‘When the Saints Go Marching Home’ .  Billie Holiday is at number 4 with ‘Strange Fruit’  while number 3 gives us – Kate Smith with ‘God Bless America’  Number 2 delivers – Glenn Miller with ‘Moonlight Serenade’  and number 1 gives us – Judy Garland with ‘Over the Rainbow’

In early 1939s Britain still had the Depression to concern large parts of the population but a new “high society” had a developing and golden age of culture dawning.  The cinema industry was booming, with many people attending more than once a week to seek escapism from their daily struggles.

The 1939 Academy Awards saw 10 films nominated for Best Picture, among them classics that are still highly regarded today, including Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr Chips and the winner Gone With the Wind.  Britain in 1939 also had their own popular music – but in no particular order – that contained:  ‘Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major’ by Art Noel & Don Pelosi; ‘On the Outside Always Looking In’ with words and music by Michael Carr who also wrote ‘Somewhere in France with You’‘South of the Border’ had words and music by Jimmy Kennedy & Michael Carr as had ‘We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line’.   Two more numbers – ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘There’ll always be and England’  – with words by Hughie Charles & music by Ross Parker. 

To closed off this set let us have Gracie Fields, with Harry Parr Davies’s words and music, asking us all – and especially our fighting forces – to ‘Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodby’.

Before the conflict began Britain was importing about 55 million tons of food a year from other countries and a typical breakfast for a middle-class Brit consisted of porridge and milk or bacon and tomatoes. Lunch might be veal cutlets and boiled potatoes and, for dinner, a meal of creamed chicken and vegetables with baked rice pudding for dessert.  That food importation was halted in late 1939 when German submarines started attacking British supply ships. There was a worry that this would lead to shortages in food supplies, so in 1940, rationing was introduced. The Ministry of Food drafted in the original “celebrity chef” Marguerite Patten to devise lean wartime recipes, and radio shows such as the BBC’s Kitchen Front encouraged the nation’s housewives to wash – rather than peel – vegetables to increase their nutritional value and avoid unnecessary wastage.

It was on 7th May 1940 that the British House of Commons began a debate about the disastrous British campaign against the Germans in Norway. This turned into a vote of confidence in Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. Although Chamberlain won the vote it was clear he had lost the confidence of his colleagues in the Conservative Party and the field became clear for Winston Churchill to take office. He took the post on 10th May 1940 – the same day that Germany invaded Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg!

It was on 7th December 1941 that Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and very shortly after that the United States entered World War II

The man who earned the first Victoria Cross

It was on Wednesday 21st June 1854 that 20 year old Charles Davis Lucas won the first Victoria Cross. He came from County Monaghan in Ireland and had joined the Royal Navy when he was thirteen. Now twenty, he was a Mate on HMS Hecla as part of an Anglo-French fleet at the eastern end of the Baltic bombarding the Russian fortress of Bomarsund.  The fortress mounted some eighty massive guns and, as HMS Hecla drew closer to Bomarsund, a live shell landed on the Hecla’s deck and lay there, smoking evilly and obviously about to go off, to murderous effect.

Charles Lucas coolly picked the shell up, carried it to the ship’s side and dropped it into the sea, where it exploded with a huge bang and a giant fountain of spray. Lucas was promoted to lieutenant from that day and his was the first act of heroism to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The medal was not actually instituted until 1856, but it was made retroactive to cover the Crimean War. Queen Victoria took a keen interest in the decoration which bore her name and it was she who suggested the words ‘For Valour’ beneath the medal’s bronze Maltese cross – rather than ‘For the Brave’, which she pointed out could be taken to imply that other people were not.

Charles Lucas’s campaign medals, including his Victoria Cross, are now displayed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. They are not the original medals though – they were left on a train and never recovered!  Replacement copies were made, though the reverse of the Victoria Cross copy is uninscribed.

The crosses were actually made of metal from Russian cannons captured at Sebastopol. It was a crucial innovation that the medal was awarded completely regardless of rank and on no consideration other than a single act of valour or devotion in the presence of the enemy.

Many years later the writer C.S.Forester used this incident to good effect in one of his Hornblower stories.

The war moved on as the USA took a hand

The United States had carefully kept out of the conflict in Europe while being helpful to the sufferers.  In 1917 the British intercepted and decoded a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Mexico urging that country to enter into war against the United States. The American states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were to be offered to the Mexican government in return for such assistance.

On a wider front unrestricted U-boat warfare was renewed with all allied and neutral ships to be sunk on sight. Over the next month close to a million tons of shipping would be lost and on 3rd February the United States of America severed diplomatic ties with Germany.

As U.S. president, it was Woodrow Wilson who made the key policy decisions over foreign affairs: while the country was at peace, the domestic economy ran on a laissez-faire basis, with American banks making huge loans to Britain and France — funds that were in large part used to buy munitions, raw materials, and food from across the Atlantic. Until 1917, Wilson made minimal preparations for a land war and kept the United States Army on a small peacetime footing, despite increasing demands for enhanced preparedness.

On 24th February the Cunard passenger liner S.S. Laconia sailing from New York to Liverpool was sunk off the Irish coast by a German U-boat and, on 2nd April 1917, the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress and asked the House of Representatives to declare war on Germany and, on 6th April 1917, the United States of America declares war on Germany.  On 26th June 1917 the first U.S. troops, men of the 1st Division, begin to arrive in France.

In October, the first American soldiers entered combat, in France. That December, the U.S. declared war against Austria-Hungary with U.S. troops arriving on the Western Front in large numbers in 1918.  When the war concluded in November 1918, with a victory for the Allies, more than 2 million U.S. troops had served at the Western Front in Europe, and more than 50,000 of them died.

Looking at the American involvement from a different slant we find that they also brought their music with them!  The most significant song was “Over There“, a 1917 hit song written by George Cohan, that was popular with the United States military and public during both this and the 1939/45 war. It was a patriotic song designed to galvanize American young men to enlist in the army and fight the “Hun”. The song is best remembered for a line in its chorus: “The Yanks are coming.”

It was Cohan’s biggest hit recording and was performed by the American Quartet. The American Quartet consisted of Billy Murray, John Young, Steve Porter and Donald Chalmers and recorded the song on June 28, 1917. There were many singers singing ‘Over There’ –  Enrico Caruso’s version of Over There, sung partly in French, was a major hit just before the end of the war in November 1918.  By the end of the conflict the song had sold over a million records and two million copies of sheet music. George Cohan was awarded a medal of honour by Congress in 1936 for writing You’re a Grand Old Flag and Over There. His sequel to Over There, ‘When You Come Back (and You Will Come Back)’, was a hit for John McCormack and for the Orpheus Quartet in early 1919:

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.  Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.   Hear them calling you and me, Every Son of Liberty.  Hurry right away, no delay, go today.  Make your Daddy glad to have had such a lad.  Tell your sweetheart not to pine, To be proud her boy’s in line.

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun.  Johnny, show the “Hun” you’re a son-of-a-gun.  Hoist the flag and let her fly; Yankee Doodle do or die.  Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.  Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks. Make your Mother proud of you and the old red-white-and-blue.

Over there, over there, send the word, send the word over there that the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming – the drums rum-tumming everywhere.  So prepare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to beware – we’ll be over, we’re coming over, and we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.

The conflict was over and the music did begin again.  The first – in 1918 – was ‘Tiger Rag’ by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  Close behind as the best from 1919 we have ‘After You’ve Gone’ by Marion Harris.

The world is changing – and perhaps not for the better

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.

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae is remembered for what is probably the best known and most popular of all First World War poetry.  It is believed that he was so moved by the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmet, who had been killed by a shell burst, and inspired by the profusion of wild poppies he could see in the nearby cemetery, that he wrote In Flanders Fields. Sadly, John McCrae did not survive WW1; he died from pneumonia whilst on active duty in 1918.  He is buried at the Commonwealth War Grave Commission, Wimereux Communal cemetery.

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We live, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold on high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The words of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army (1872-1918)

My mother’s father was involved in this war and served in many areas of conflict – but not in Flanders.  He died in the mid-1930s and, according to my mother, the doctor said it was because of what he did in the war.

 

The birth of the United Nations

It was on Wednesday 24th October 1945 that the United Nations officially came into existence.  The charter had been signed by delegates from 50 member nations in San Francisco on Tuesday 26th June 1945 at the end of the United Nation Conference on International Organization.

The preamble to that Charter said:
‘We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, … and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples, have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.’

A United Nations resolution of 1947 stated that 24th October would henceforth be known as United Nations Day ‘and shall be devoted to making known to the people of the world the aims and achievements of the United Nations, and to gaining their support for the work of the United Nation.’

Wednesday 20th September and the Victoria Cross:

The Victoria Cross was introduced in Great Britain on Saturday 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria. Its ‘role’ was to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War. The VC takes precedence over all other Orders, Decorations and Medals and may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command.  The first presentation ceremony was held on Thursday 26th June 1857 when Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in Hyde Park.

The Battle of the Alma took place just south of the River Alma and is usually considered the first battle of the Crimean War. It was on this day – Wednesday 20th September 1854 – at that Battle, that Edward Bell & Luke O’Conner of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and John Knox, William Reynolds (the first private to be awarded the VC), James McKechnie & Robert Lindsay of the Scots Fusiliers Guards each earned their Victoria Cross. All survived the war.

63 years later, on Wednesday 20th September 1917 Second Lieutenant Hugh Colvin of the 9th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiments won his VC during an attack east of Ypres in Belgium. He took command of two companies and led them forward under very heavy machine gun fire. He then went to assist a neighbouring battalion. In the process he cleared and captured a series of ‘troublesome’ dugouts and machine-gun posts, some on his own and some with his men’s assistance. He personally killed several of the enemy and forced others – about fifty in all – to surrender. His Victoria Cross citation concludes ‘Later he consolidated his position with great skill, and personally wired his front under close-ranged sniping in broad daylight, when all others had failed to do so. The complete success of the attack in this part of the line was mainly due to Second Lieut. Colvin’s leadership.

A lady records a wartime scene in England’s conflict in 1941

Mrs Nella Last of Barrow-in-Furness was one of the many volunteer members across Britain of the Mass Observation Archive team – a community that had been set up in 1937 to observe British life by recording a day-to-day account of their everyday lives. These archives now give us a unique insight into the stories and experiences of British civilians going through a time when their country was at war.

This is from her diary for Saturday 13th September 1941 and Nella simply records seeing a child:

‘He was undersized, dirty, tousled and ragged. His poor little eyes were nearly closed with styes and when I touched his cheeks, his flesh had the soft, limp feeling of malnutrition.’

The war was having an impact on people no matter what their age.