Influences on the Music and Lyrics Written by First World War Australian Servicemen
The following blog post was written by Alison Mountain from the Australian National University whilst completing a research internship at the Australian War Memorial as part of her studies.
Music has always played a significant role in war; from the use of bugles and snare drums as forms of communication, to the escapism of writing organised melodies to distract soldiers from the barrage of noise that constitutes traditional warfare, and to music’s role as a morale booster when played or sung communally. Servicemen have written music for a variety of reasons, however very little is known about the music written by Australian Servicemen from the First World War. In commemoration of the centenary of this conflict, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) seeks to better understand how personal experiences and social sentiments influenced the lyrics and music of Australian servicemen. Six pieces held in the AWM collection of published sheet music are identified to be written by Australian soldiers themselves, and I spent 10 weeks researching the individuals who wrote this music, their participation in the First World War, and how their experiences with the military influenced their music and lyrics. From this I discovered that personal experiences such as particular campaigns, longing for home, and grief, influenced the lyrics and music written by Australian servicemen from the First World War.
The music written by Australian soldiers during the First World War are significantly impacted by their personal experiences of the military and the war. The style, structure and rhythms used in compositions by Australian servicemen were directly influenced by their interaction with military ceremonial drill. This can be seen through the use of simple time signatures, often with two or four beats in the bar. These time signatures are very easy to march to, and have quite a regimented feel with strong rhythmical requirements reminiscent of the military. This is further highlighted by the use of tempo markings all revolving around the theme of march-like. In addition, the use of percussive triplets used in the piano accompaniment demonstrates an attempt to imitate the snare-drum so often used in military, and frequent use of open fifths imitating the bugle once again illustrate the influence of the military on servicemen’s compositions. Clearly, the music written by Australian soldiers in the First World War was significantly influenced by their experience of the military.
In addition, particular campaigns significantly influenced the lyrics by Australian servicemen, the most prominent of which is Gallipoli. Two of the six songs I analysed explicitly mentioned the Gallipoli campaign and made reference to the sequence of events the composers took part in. 37 Private Harley Cohen joined the 4th Infantry Battalion1and wrote They Were There! There!! There!!!, and 134 Private Stanley Hewitt joined the 3rd Infantry Battalion, composing Australia’s Boys in Khaki and Blue.2 Cohen landed at Gallipoli and participated in the battle of Lone Pine on 6th August 1915, but was injured that day by a shrapnel wound to his face and eye, which ultimately resulted in the loss of his eye. His lyrics directly reference the sequence of events Cohen took part in:
April twenty-fifth the day
That they landed from the bay…
It was at the early hour of half-past four
That our boys were well established on the shore.
Over hills the Turks had fled,
But they left a heap of dead,
Our brave troops were simply covered in their gore.3
Similarly, Hewitt’s piece also demonstrates the influence of Gallipoli on his writing:
We landed in the morning, just at the break of day,
We took the ridge before us, the enemy our prey.
Australians did their duty, and a fearful price did pay,
But won a glorious victory, on that immortal day.4
These two songs demonstrate the influence of the campaigns individuals participated in, and how that made a lasting impression on the Australian servicemen, which later influenced their music and lyrics.
Although initially war seemed an adventure, the experience of serving overseas for long periods of time in very dangerous conditions left Australian soldiers longing for home, and this emotion also impacted their lyrics. 74 Corporal McBeath served in France for over two years, with the 3rd Australian Pioneer Battalion as a Signaller.5 He was stationed in France and likely participated in battles such as Messines, Third Battle of Ypres (1917), and the Spring Offensive (1918). McBeath wrote My Old Bushland Home In Australia in France in 1917, and the experience of homesickness is evident in his lyrics:
There’s a home far away which I’ve not seen for years
And the thought of that home makes my eyes dim with tears.6
This longing is apparent in 640 Private Harold Abbott’s music too. Abbott served in the Australian Army Medical Corps in the 2nd Australian General Hospital, making a total of four embarkations on hospital ships from Australia between November 1914 and July 1916.7 His frequent travelling inspired a great love of country, and his song suggests feelings of homesickness and longing for Australia:
You can’t think how I’ve been pining,
For the sun that’s always shining...
I love to hear the magpie again…
And listen to the bush bird’s song.8
For both these Australian servicemen, travels abroad for service significantly influenced the lyrics they wrote, which is demonstrated through the expressions of longing for home.
Finally, the devastating effects of war touched every community following the First World War, and the grief experienced by society and individuals influenced Wallace’s song Somewhere in Palestine. Of the six pieces in this analysis, only one focuses on the tragedy of war. Wallace writes about a mother wracked by grief at losing all three sons in the war in important campaigns from France, Gallipoli and Palestine. This mother could symbolise the greater Australian nation and the grief felt at losing so many soldiers across these three battle spaces, and certainly Wallace acknowledges that the grief of war affects the whole community (“And many others in our midst, Have sorrow such as this”). Wallace ends his song with a plea to society to remember those who fought and died, and help support the families of the fallen men:
Remember those who bravely fought
To keep our country free,
And help the loved ones of the men
Who died for liberty.
Evidently, the social consequences of the First World War felt by Wallace’s community significantly influenced his music.
This research has been useful at demonstrating how the war and different personal experiences influenced the music and lyrics written by Australian soldiers during the First World War. Musically, interaction with the military influenced the structure, style, and rhythms used by Australian servicemen. Personal experiences are reflected in lyrics retelling tales of particular campaigns, a longing for home, and grief caused by the devastation of war. This research has sought to provide greater understanding of the music written by Australian servicemen, including their stories and influencing factors, however more work is needed to create a more holistic picture of the role, and factors influencing, music from the First World War.
1 National Archives of Australia, Army Service Record, NAA.B2455, COHEN H.
2 National Archives of Australia, Army Service Record, NAA: B2455, HEWITT S D 134.
3 Harley Cohen, 1916, They Were There! There!! There!!!.
4 Stanley Hewitt, nd, Australia’s Boys in Khaki and Blue.
5 National Archives of Australia, Army Service Record, NAA.B2455, MCBEATH N.
6 Neil McBeath, 1917, My Old Bushland Home in Australia.
7 National Archives of Australia, Army Service Record, NAA.P1868, T14097.
8 Harold Abbott, nd, I’m Glad to be Back in Australia.
Abbott, Harold Danial, nd, I’m Glad to be Back in Australia, voice and piano, Dunheved Publishing, Australia.
Binns, G.M, 1988, Patriotic and Nationalistic Song in Australia to 1919: A study of the popular sheet music genre, Masters Research Thesis, Faculty of Music, The University of Melbourne.
Cohen, Harley, 1916, They Were There! There!! There!!!, voice and piano, W.J. Deane & Son, Sydney, Australia.
Hewitt, Stanley David, nd, Australia’s Boys in Khaki and Blue, voice and piano, Australia.
Hewitt, Stanley David, 1916, The Kaiser’s Boast, voice and piano, Dinsdales’ PTY. LTD, Melbourne, Australia.
Holden, Robert., 2014, And The Band Played On, Hardie Grant Books, Richmond, Victoria.
McBeath, Neil, 1917, My Old Bushland Home in Australia, voice and piano, Australia.
National Archives of Australia, The Australian Army Service Records, NAA.B2455, COHEN H, found online at http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=3267193
National Archives of Australia, The Australian Army Service Records, NAA: B2455, HEWITT S D 134, found online at http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=5481821
National Archives of Australia, The Australian Army Service Records, NAA.B2455, MCBEATH N, found online at http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=1937985
National Archives of Australia, The Australian Army Service Records, NAA.P1868, T14097, found online at http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=1509035
Wallace, Peter John Charles, 1919, Somewhere in Palestine, voice and piano, Australia.