Popular Songs of WWI

Soldiers' Concert at Downton Abbey © Downton Online
Soldiers' Concert at Downton Abbey © Downton Online

Music has always been an expression not only of emotion, but of popular culture, and the outbreak of WWI was no small inspiration for the many songwriters, lyricists and musicians, as well as the soldiers themselves. Though patriotism and morale remained a key topic for songs throughout the war and beyond, they also revealed the particular mood of the time from which they derive. From the patriotic “Keep the Home Fires Burning” to the enthusiastic strains of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” to the satirical “Oh, What a Lovely War!”, soldiers in the trenches and the people waiting for them back home used music to shape and mold the reactions to the brutality and tragedy–and inspiration–of war.

In tonight’s episode of Downton Abbey, Mary, accompanied at the piano by her sister Edith, uses the sentimental song, “If You Were the Only Girl (In the World)” to subtle express her sorrow and longing for Matthew. Written in 1916 by Nat D. Ayer with lyrics by Clifford Grey, the song evidently became a very popular wartime tune, as it is referenced in quite a few books written during WWI:

Ninety-Six Hours’ Leave by Stephen McKenna

THE Semiramis orchestra was beginning to play a second encore, when the girl in the white dress appeared at the top of the steps. “If you were the only girl in the world and I were the only boy,” she hummed to herself, as she came down into the lounge. The orchestra was unaffectedly bored with the song; it had been played once at luncheon, twice at tea, and now this was the fourth time since seven o’clock. Prince Christoforo, however, did not share their boredom; it was at his request that they were giving the encore.

Suddenly the Prince left his seat and approached the girl in white.

“If you’re looking for a chair,” he said, “there are four unoccupied ones over there.”

The girl turned at sound of his voice, still gravely nodding time to the music.

“‘ If I were the only girl in the world . . .'”

“And I were the only boy,” he answered, with a smile.

“I should like to dance, only I suppose people would stare.”

Edith at the piano © Downton Online
Edith at the piano © Downton Online

The Queen of Psalissa by George A. Birmingham

The king’s faith was very touching; but Gorman still maintains that he was not far wrong about Mme. Ypsilante’s feelings. She might not actually have preferred Konrad Karl’s death; but it is certain that she did not want to see him married to Miss Donovan.

The king drew a last mouthful of smoke from his cigar and then flung the end of it into the sea.

“Gorman, what is it that one of your great English poets has so beautifully said? ‘If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy!’—that is Corinne and me. ‘A garden of Eden just made for two ‘—that is Paris. I have always admired the English poets. It is so true, what they say!”

Way of Revelation:a Novel of Five Years by Wilfrid Ewart

Rosemary Meynell went across to the bureau, unlocked the small drawer as before, and took from it the Louis Quatorze snuff-box. This she handed to Upton.

“Thank you,” he said with a disagreeable smile; “but these little things aren’t given up quite so easily as all that, you know. However, if you want any more . . . pleased to oblige at any time!”

Silence followed, during which the girl gazed steadily in front of her with an expression of fine contempt. The meanness of the man’s soul had never revealed itself as now!

Upton began to hum the words of a popular revue air, tapping in time to it with his foot.

“If you were the only girl in the world
And I …”

“Well, the rest doesn’t matter,” he broke off. “You’re not, you see,”

The Things We Are by John Middleton Murry

He fed in a first floor tea-room full of Sunday couples who had reached the stage of sentimental silence. It was strange, he thought, how their attitudes ran to type. The man leaned back on the red plush seat that ran round the wall; the woman leaned her head on his shoulder. She was always on his right, and her right hand was always fingering his sleeve, his watch-chain or his coat lapel. Even the fair-haired man in pince-nez who was solemnly vamping out “If you were the only girl in the world” on the reluctant piano submitted to the ritual. A girl in pink, with a wad of black hair low down on her pasty neck, had flung her arm round his shoulder and was perched insecurely on all that remained of the stool.

Mary singing © Downton Online
Mary singing © Downton Online

There was even a gory adaptation of the song entitled “If you were the only Boche in the Trench”
Tune: “If you were the only Girl in the World.”

If you were the only Boche in the trench,
And I had the only bomb,
Nothing else would matter in the world that day,
I would blow you up into eternity.
Chamber of Horrors, just made for two,
With nothing to spoil our fun;
There would be such a heap of things to do,
I should get your rifle and bayonet too,
If you were the only Boche in the trench
And I had the only gun.

Other popular songs included

Rose Of No Man’s Land (1918) – a tribute to Red Cross Nurses

Over There (1917) – US patriotic song by George M Cohan

The Tanks That Broke the Ranks Out in Picardy (1916) – song celebrating the new tanks on the Western Front

Till We Meet Again (1918) – #1 smash of WWI

Further Reading:
Music of World War One (with MP3s and lyrics)
Music as War Propaganda
Music from the Great War
English Songs Popular during the First World War
Soldiers’ Songs of the Great War
First World War songs (MP3s)
Tommy’s tunes: a comprehensive collection of soldiers’ songs, marching melodies, rude rhymes, and popular parodies – Google Books


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7 replies on “Popular Songs of WWI”
  1. says: Tony D

    “If you were the only girl…..” is from the show “The Byng Boys are Here”. “The Byng Boys” was the hit of the season in London in 1916. It played at the Alhambra Theatre right through the Battle of the Somme. It starred Violet Lorraine and George Robey and was seen by thousands of men before they embarked for France. It is said that men would go from the theatre to Trafalgar Square where they could hear the bombardment over the channel.

    During the run of the show George and Violet made a gramophone record of the hit song which, I am sure, would have been in the Downton collection. Also, as Laurie pointed out, the sheet music would be flying off the shelves. Sheet music was the most important way to circulate the hits of the day. Here is that recording:

  2. says: Ree

    One of my favorite films is…”Oh,What A Lovely War”…It was a successful WWI era musical…Such great songs

  3. says: CLM

    Great post! And Mary’s song and ensuing events was definitely my favorite part of Sunday’s show! However, I was fascinated by the fact that everyone in the audience knew the words. Pre-radio, pre-gramophone (?), living in the country, how did the servants hear the song? Singalongs in the kitchen? Listening to the young ladies sing? (although it’s not a music lesson sort of song) I don’t doubt that it happened but am curious.

  4. says: Ree

    Phonographs were fairly common at this time…1916…But more likely all classes had access to Music Halls (Vaudeville in America) to hear the latest songs and to mass-produced sheet music…

  5. Dear Evangeline,
    I love this post. I want you to know I have written up and linked your blog in a post on my own blog, which should be referenced (if you don’t see the link, please ask me). I recently earned an MA in History and am in the midst of figuring out my next steps. I do art and am planning to develop a body of work devoted to history, particularly with renderings of antiques and historical artifacts, buildings, and perhaps people. I am fascinated by the Edwardian era, so your blog is a real joy to me. I will certainly be coming back for more…
    Rebecca Priscilla

    1. @Rebecca Thank you! I’m flattered you’ve featured EP on your blog, and I am confident you will figure out how to distill all of your interests and talents into something amazing (and believe me, I’m still figuring out how to do that myself, lol). I hope you won’t be shy when you return–I love comments, questions, and observations.

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