WW1 Music

National Myth and the First World War in Modern Music

By Peter Grant



303 pages

22 b/w illustrations (several in colour)

Palgrave Macmillan (2017)

Palgrave Studies in the History of Subcultures and Popular Music


Peter Grant is Senior Lecturer at City University London. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His previous books include Philanthropy and Voluntary Action in the First World War and The Business of Giving


 Myth and Alexa
 National Myth and 'Alexa' from Amazon

Alexa, an A.I and ‘Siri-like’ voice-activate personal assistant will, amongst other tasks, select music from a database of 4 million songs and play them back in an instant (when signed up to Amazon Music). This has proved invaluable, a joy, a revelation and sometimes a ‘laugh out loud’ misunderstanding as I have read National Myth and the First World War in Modern Music by Peter Grant and called out “Alexa: Play ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ by Bob Dylan”, or “Alexa: Play ‘Paschendale’ (sic) by Iron Maiden” or “Alexa: Play ‘All Together Now’ by The Farm” or “Alexa: Play ‘Let England Shake’ by P J Harvey” or “Alexa: Play ‘One’ by Metallica”

When reading a book in print (my reading is split about 30:70 in favour of eBooks) I recreate the eBook in Kindle experience of creating 'highlights' and 'bookmarking' by littering the text with mini-PostIts. Later, laboriously, I return for a second read-through and dictate notes and quotes so that I have a record of what on the first reading I filtered out of interest. One indicator of my 'engagement' with a book is the number and density of such use of PostIts - with National Myth and the First World War in Modern Music they are as thick like recently tossed confetti. My curiosity is stirred by the multidisciplinary approach and by the additional sensory engagement of the music to accompany my reading : music that is highly varied and often niche to my broad tastes - playing genres I would never choose to listen to and artistes I had never heard of but can now say I enjoy.

I applaud the development of multi or interdisciplinary studies such as this as a necessary and valuable way to shed new light on the First World War and to open it up to a broader audience. There is a caveat, in that this requires, where a subject is scrutinised at an academic level, expertise in more than one subject. Here, woolly history of the First World War would be inexcusable and if your second topic is popular music you need to understand it as a social anthropologist and sociologist - you also need to love, and might I say, 'tolerate' all, and any genre of music, and be able to understand and appreciate it from both the perspective of the listener and the composer/musician.

Whilst the book's title is National Myth and the First World War in Modern Music, what you get is 'National Myth, the First World War and Modern Music' : the difference is one of onus and emphasis. You are aware of these three threads constantly being interwoven to form an argument. Rather than visualising a Venn Diagram in which the universal set is ‘Modern Music’ that contains the massive topic of the First World War in which 'national myth' is placed l I read, saw and enjoyed what may be better to describe as a rich and carefully assembled smorgasbord that treats each subject with equal academic scrutiny.

The perspective on the First World War is that of an author of the 21st century - National Myth and the First World War in Modern Music is manifestly uptodate, accurate and referenced with the 'right' masters of their subject such as Jay Winter, Arthur Marwick and Catriona Pennell. The referencing is something of a joy for students as it is unrelentingly dense which allows the insanely curious to follow up at least some of these. Co-incidentally, reviewing another multidisciplinary tome this week, The Western Front: Landscape, Tourism and Heritage by Stephen Miles, that matches the First World War with human geography, sociology, I find myself for the second time getting my head around the term 'Lieux de memoire' : ‘any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community’. (Defintion courtesy of Wikipedia)

Just as there should be art historians there need to be music historians. I would describe Peter Grant as a ‘Music Historian’: he weaves the two together and writes like a music journalist for NME or Rolling Stone who is applying academic rigour to his writing and referencing.

I have read National Myth and the First World War in Modern Music but not finished with it. This is a 'great read' - a mind-awakening challenge and insight. It is even an introduction to music genres I have avoided until now.

There are some 1,500 modern popular songs about, or inspired by, the First World War, they are generously sprinkled through-out the book as clichés and myths are debunked while the contemporary perspective on national myth, poetry and literature is given.

With some 90+ bookmarks and tags sprinkled across its 303 pages I can see I will have quite a bit of note taking and chasing up of references to come. I am already citing National Myth and the First World War in Modern Music as I am currently completing an MA in History of Britain and the First World War. Many of the authors mentioned are familiar names and Peter Grant has an excellent grasp of how scholarship on the First World War has changed over the decades.

As my notes spill onto the page they will be shared.

Review by Jonathan Vernon

An illustrated lecture by Dr Peter Grant will support the offical launch of National Myth and the First World War in Modern Music

DATE: Tuesday, 7th March 2017

TIMING: 6:00pm for 6:30pm start. Approx. finishing time 8:30pm

VENUE: Cass Business School

City University London

106 Bunhill Row



The launch will include many musical examples from the great chansonniers such as Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens as well as folk maestros including Al Stewart and Eric Bogle; the socially aware rock of Bob Dylan and The Kinks; metal legends Iron Maiden and Bolt Thrower and female iconoclasts Diamanda Galás and P.J. Harvey.

Since the late 1950s over 1,500 popular songs from more than 40 countries have been recorded that make reference to or draw inspiration from the First World War. Peter Grant’s new book is a ground-breaking inter-disciplinary study of how music interprets history.

How were songwriters are influenced by their country’s ‘national myth’ of the War?

How does popular music help form memory and remembrance of such an event?

From Brel to Black Metal : Popular Music and the First World War is being read by a Western Front Association member and the review will posted to these pages. 

Copies of the book will be on sale at a 20% discount.

All you need to do in or to attend is to register here.

2016 Tour Dates

Zeppelin Crater
A Zeppelin bomb crater on a remote hillside on Holcombe Moor is one of the remarkable venues for a series of concerts the Western Front Association is involved in to mark the ongoing centenary of the First World War.

Further musical performances will take place at a village built in 1919 for disabled veterans and their families and inside a prison which held hundreds of conscientious objectors.

Folk OutfitThe folk outfit Harp and a Monkey has teamed up with Arts Council England and the Western Front Association for this unique project.

Starting in August, the trio will take their show to a series of highly unusual venues - including the bomb crater on Holcombe Moor in Greater Manchester which is believed to have resulted from a Zeppelin attack on the area in September 1916 that culminated in the deaths of 13 men, women and children in the town of Bolton.

Another show is planned at The Westfield War Memorial Village in Lancaster which is now occupied by veterans of the Second World War, Korea, The Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Some of the Second World War veterans actually grew up on the village as their own fathers had been severely injured in the First World War.

And the band will also be performing inside Liverpool’s Walton jail in a special concert for prisoners and staff who are ex-servicemen. The prison housed conscientious objectors in the Great War and is now home to many former servicemen who have struggled to cope with life after conflict.

The show, The Great War: New Songs and Stories in the Landscape, is made up of original songs and re-workings of traditional ones as well as field recordings of the people who lived through it.

It also includes anecdotes from the band’s frontman Martin Purdy, a long-standing WFA member and First World War historian, author and broadcaster whose work has included book commissions for the likes of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? franchise. He is also the co-author of Doing Our Bit (2006) and The Gallipoli Oak (2013) and has had numerous academic papers published on such varied subjects as religion in the trenches and the legacy of Gallipoli.

Martin, who lives in Ramsbottom, said: “To be playing up on the West Pennine Moor in what is thought to be a feature of the landscape that was actually created directly by the First World War is very exciting - and pretty challenging. The crater itself is like a natural amphitheatre but getting the equipment up there is going to be something else! Thankfully we have a solar-powered sound system and a team of willing local Sherpas on standby.

“This show highlights how real the threat of the First World War was to people at home who had previously thought Britain was impregnable as long as we continued to rule the waves.”

He added: “It is also going to be fantastic to play to the veterans of Westfield village. It has an atmosphere and back story that is very much its own, and it is a place that I know the wider community is rightly proud of. This show reminds us of the cost of war, the pride and dignity of those who served and were injured, and the often forgotten role that charity and philanthropy has always played in supporting the casualties of conflict.”

He continued: “The show in Walton prison will highlight different forms of bravery. We are familiar with the kind of remarkable courage that was so often shown by the troops and their families at home, but it also took courage to stand up for what you believed in - especially when it was contrary to the views of the wider public and came with often savage consequences.

“It will be particularly interesting to perform to ex-servicemen who are inmates and staff at the prison today. We are really keen to hear their thoughts on the issue.”

Martin added: “The aim of the concerts is to challenge many of the stereotypes of the Great War and we will be focusing heavily on the oft forgotten heroes – the men who came home - and the extraordinary achievements of ordinary people. To quote one veteran: ‘There was a lot more to the First World War than mud, blood and trenches you know!’”

Harp and a Monkey plan to expand the project in 2016 and already have a number of unusual sites with Great War links earmarked for future shows around the UK. They will also be making a 30-minute documentary of the project for broadcast, which will be available to view on the WFA website later in the year and for use as an educational tool in schools.

The Holcombe Moor concert (in the crater next to the local Peel Tower landmark) will take place on Sunday, August 23, and is open to the public. It is a free event that is suitable for all ages and starts at 2pm.

This show will remember the evening of September 25, 1916, when the German Zeppelin L21 was spotted off the coast of Lincolnshire before it headed over Yorkshire and into Lancashire, where it followed the tracks of the East Lancashire Railway line along the Rossendale Valley.

The enemy craft dropped bombs all along the route, including a half-dozen on the small hamlet of Holcombe. Different accounts suggest that either five or six bombs were dropped on the community, but only four were ever truly accounted for and it is has long since been suggested that the crater on the hillside above (where the trio will perform) is the result of one of the projectiles.

The Zeppelin was to go on to attack the town of Bolton in the early hours of the next morning, where 13 men, women and children were killed and many others injured.

Attacks from the air were to result in 557 deaths on British shores during the First World War, with a further 1,358 people wounded.

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OBrien bookPaul O'Brien

New Island, Dublin, 2014, £9.99, photos, 164pp.

ISBN: 978-1-84840-314-7

This is an interesting book which I would buy with my own money and it would not break the bank. It deals with events of March 1914 in the midst of the Home Rule crisis in Ireland and can easily be read in an afternoon. The subject matter is British army officers stationed at the Curragh camp who refused to obey potential orders to march against Unionists who were primarily, but not exclusively, in Ulster. It was to all intents and purposes an army mutiny, though it is now often described rather effetely as an "incident". Surely the British army refusing to obey orders a mere five months before Mons is a bit more than a mere "incident"!

The author explains the context, and how the whole issue arose from a bungling War Office and the crass behaviour of Generals Paget and Fergusson, who were in charge of the army in Ireland. More intelligent man management of their subordinates, and better communication and understanding all round would have headed off the whole problem. Churchill's "solution" was to deploy the Royal Navy to the Scottish coast and to offer to have "Belfast in flames in 24 hours". Thankfully, Prime Minister Asquith overruled him when he heard about it.

The author raises the interesting issue of whether the Curragh mutiny, and the distrust arising between the army and the politicians from it, damaged the performance of the army in WWI. He does not seem to provide a definitive answer, so in the absence of evidence to the contrary the answer must presumably be "no", but it is a fascinating matter to raise.

The attempts to solve the mutiny were as bizarre as the incident itself. These included Seely, the secretary of state for the War Office, even altering the compromise document without referring it back to the cabinet, which resulted in him being forced to resign at the end of March 1914. A similar fate befell Sir John French because of his involvement with that document, though of course he made a comeback, as it were, to lead the BEF in August.

This whole incident should be viewed in the light of British policy in Ireland of the era, which managed to go from inept to appalling, by the end of the decade. The book reminds us that the Germans supplied weapons to both the Unionists and the Nationalists, not least to create a diversion for the British from their problems in continental Europe both before WWI and during it. The author does deal effectively with the German connection, as it was in 1914 (and which later reached its peak with their practical support for the Easter rising in 1916).

The chapters at the start and end of the book deal with some background on the politics of Ireland, and also the aftermath of the incident. These are the less successful aspects of the book. To my mind, they should either not be there at all, or be more comprehensive and more balanced. Without wishing to walk on anyone's toes, these chapters are somewhat slanted toward an Irish Nationalist viewpoint, and so lack the balance achieved by the writings on Irish political history of authors such as ATQ Stewart or Keith Jeffrey. By way of example, yes, there were atrocities against northern Catholics in the early 20s, but there were also murders of Protestants especially in county Cork, resulting in an appeal from the protestant church leaders in southern Ireland to the then president, Arthur Griffith. Why mention one but not the other? Anyway, what relevance do events of the 20s have to the Curragh incident? And why is there a chapter on the murder of Sir Henry Wilson in London in 1922 at all? At least in dealing with period of the Curragh mutiny the book is thankfully clear that Wilson was a southern Irish protestant, a fact which seems to elude English writers on WWI, dare I say it, who forever refer to him as an Ulster Unionist. There were also southern Irish unionists and he was one of them!

It is an interesting book.

Reviewed by Trevor Adams


Doctors Gt WarIan R Whitehead

Pen & Sword 2013, Pen & Sword Ltd, Barnsley South Yorkshire (Previously 1999)

£14.99, 309 pp, ill, sources, bibliog, index

ISBN Number 978 1 78346 174 5

his work by historian Ian R Whitehead highlights an area of the Great War that has been obvious to any student of the war, but not analysed and explored in detail until now. He has researched a vast number of official sources and non-official in an effort to ensure that those who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) can have their contribution to the Great War laid out in a fascinating timeline. Such was the demand for medical assistance that by 1918 he explains that 1 in 2 registered doctors, some 18,000 doctors, were on active service. This meant that half of all British medical doctors were serving mainly in France and Flanders and thus unable to provide the nation with medical care due to military service. He shows the impact this had on both the nation and the military.

The book is not a history of the RAMC and does not cover any impact this shortage of doctors had on civilian health. It covers the change that the war had on those qualified, registered medical practitioners who were taken from towns and cities across the nation and sent to deal with medical emergencies that so few had actually seen before. Moving from the quiet backwaters of medical practice in a town to the horror and devastation of the Western Front was a challenge for the medical men in so many ways.
The book takes us, from the background of military medical service from 1854, to 1914 when a step-change of incredible proportions took place. The military medical service up until then had been very poorly provided for and medical officers were seen as low status personnel and not being "fellow officers"; as such they lacked the authority and had no support mechanism to collect wounded men. As a result of the low status their pay was below that of other officers and many expenses had to be met by the doctor out of his own pocket. Such conditions dampened enthusiasm for medical recruits. Even Florence Nightingale had warned of the dire consequences the training, pay and conditions were having, and would have, on doctors but no one took heed. Doctors were seen as just doctors and not men who needed to understand military tactics.
Principal medical schools began to boycott the Army Medical Services and in 1898 the War Office reluctantly gave them equality of rank in a unified corps. One of the first tests of the new service was the Boer War and even then the British Medical Journal (BMJ) wanted to see an increase in medical officers.

When the Great War began, the medical military service was unprepared for the number and severity and wide-ranging injuries. Medical men in civilian practice began to volunteer. Retired doctors were brought back to take over civilian practices while the owner was away on medical services. War Emergency Committees were set up to help mobilization and to determine if a doctor who had attested to serve in the war should go. The Military Service Act of 1916 treated doctors as a separate case to others and the War Emergency Committees still considered if it was best for a doctor to leave his practice and go to war. Ultimately the end result was that neither the military or civilian service had an ideal result.

Medical students are discussed and the importance of ensuring they completed their studies in order to maintain an adequate supply of doctors in the future. One big change of the war also highlights the fact that the war caused many medical schools to open up their doors to females for the first time. Yet the army failed to appreciate the benefits that female medical doctors could provide them. The War Office was eventually forced to reconsider women in the RAMC.

For doctors who joined the RAMC they had to accept that their ethical code was in need of change. Loyalty to the need of the state took precedence over the needs of an individual, something that some found hard to achieve.

It was only by 1918 that the Army recognised that it needed to reconsider the training of Medical Officers. The process of evacuation of casualties is examined in detail, as is the advances in war surgery. It looks at the advances in preventing wound infection, so vital in the Casualty Clearing Stations. Medical Officers were paramount in maintaining heath and morale of the men. The RAMC was able to contribute significantly to treating and preventing traditional epidemical diseases while dealing with new diseases of the war such as Trench Fever and Trench Foot. The book points out that inoculation was still not compulsory and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases were conditions in which non-medical opinions were allowed to reign. Overall the Army Medical Services did a amazing job during the Great War.

The British government was forced to consider the contribution that the RAMC had contributed to the victory. The RAMC had to adapt and improvise medicine to face the new forms of injury that came in for treatment. Bullet and shell wounds, gas injuries, all horrific in their nature and so far divorced from what a medical man might see in civilian practice. The RAMC also made huge inroads into disease prevention, something the Army had to accept needed to be dealt with.

The book is a fascinating collection of facts about what took place in 1914-18. Today I work for Public Health, so was particularly keen to read this book. I was pleased to review and verify the facts of the story of the Doctors in the Great War. It is a book that has an easy-to-read style with sufficient detail to explain the various stages in the medical services during the war. It does paint a very clear picture of the challenges and victories won by the hard-pressed medical profession to change the way medical services were utilised then, and to provide a fit for purpose legacy for future combatants. I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone with an interest in the medical services and the Great War. The book is referenced in detail and contains excellent photographs to illustrate the changing face of the medical services during the war.

Highly Recommended

Reviewed by Peter Garwood


bellawaardeWritten by Carole McEntee-Taylor

Pen & Sword, 2014

£25.00 hbk 328pp ISBN: 978-178340-052-2

On 16 June 1915, Allenby's 5th Corps of Plumer's Second Army carried out a one-day attack on the Bellewaarde Ridge, east of Ypres. The author believes that the attack demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of the British Army of the time, and failed for two reasons: the total lack of communications from the attacking troops to and from their commanders, and the high number of officer casualties, both in the attack and in the preceding months, that led to problems of leadership and control in an army sent to a major war too small and ill-equipped. What was achieved was due to sound planning and the "tenacity and sheer bloody mindedness of the British soldier".

The book is very detailed, under-pinned by what must have been enormous research work by the author and by Martin Clift and his www.bellewaarde1915.co.uk website. Mrs McEntee-Taylor, author of other military histories, begins with separate chapters that take up just under half the book on the story in the preceding months and years of each of the individual British units and formations that played a substantial part in the battle. The account of the battle itself takes up around a fifth of the work, and after a 25 page summing up, 120 pages list in detail the individuals, British and German, who fell. The book is as much a memorial to all who fought in the battle as a history of it.

From the very start, the author combines vivid reporting using extensive quotation with convincing analysis. She introduces themes of the losses of trained officers and men and the shortage of shells early on. There are detailed if small biographies of the major commanders.

The account of the battle is richly detailed and quotes from many individual accounts of participants and of their units. This can make discerning the wood as opposed to the trees somewhat difficult, and is perhaps exacerbated by the placing and clarity of the numerous sketch maps provided.

This is an excellent memorial and work of reference that will be of use for a long time to come. The author's royalties are to go to The Bellewaarde 1915 Memorial Fund.

Reviewed by Peter Cox


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