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those, from Burpham and Jacobs Well who gave their lives in the 1914-1918 war

‘Burpham Will Remember Them’

In the early 1900s Burpham was in the Parish of Worplesdon and together with Jacob’s Well was essentially one large, scattered, community.

‘The War to End All Wars’ - Part 6: They Went With Songs to the Battle

‘We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go’, sang music hall star Vesta Tilley in the Summer of 1914, when theatre stages became recruiting centres as young men, urged on by their girl-friends and wives, made their way forward to offer themselves for military service. This was, of course, in those first heady months of the war, the ‘over by Christmas’ time, when not to volunteer was to risk being given a white feather of cowardice in the street. Rapidly a huge volunteer army was assembled, and soon made its way to the western front.

The songs of the music-hall went with them - indeed, this was an army that sang and whistled its way into those muddy trenches and kept on singing, even when it turned out that the war was going to be long, bitter and brutal. ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag’, they sang, ‘and smile, smile, smile’. All that was needed was a ‘lucifer to light your fag’. After all, ‘What’s the use of worrying - it never was worthwhile’. Soon that song was joined by others - I learnt many of them from my father: ‘Madamoiselle from Armentieres, parlez-vous?’ ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ and so on.

The songs of the music hall became the songs of the battle-field. Soldiers on leave or in ‘Blighty‘ for medical treatment sat in the cheap seats and sang their heads off, while a singer on stage, often wearing patriotic uniform, marched up and down orchestrating the performance. (‘Blighty’ incidentally was the soldiers’ slang for Britain or home - it’s from an Urdu word brought back from India by a previous generation of soldiers, and actually means ‘European’.)

When, in his most famous poem For the Fallen, Laurence Binyon wrote that ‘they went with songs to the battle’ he was stating the truth. ‘Pack up your Troubles’ was the defining song of the trenches, though in the harsh light of reality its message seems a bit like whistling in the dark.

As the war went on and year followed year, so the songs tended to change their mood. In 1918 it was Ivor Novello‘s first great hit, ‘Keep the home fires burning . . . till the boys come home’ that stirred the audiences’ hearts. The same shift occurred in the Second World War, from the confident ‘We‘re going to hang out our washing on the Siegfried Line‘ in 1939 to Vera Lynn‘s plangent voice assuring war-weary troops in 1944 that ‘We‘ll meet again, don‘t know where, don‘t know when‘. .

Popular songs, in other words, captured very accurately the mood and heart of the nation. As they always have been, their trade secrets were smiles and tears.

David Winter,

a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC