World War I Songs

War Songs from the first half of 20th century


The First World War has always been a topic of fascination for Canadians because it was such a formative period in our country's history. Most agree that it was during the war years that Canada came into its own as a nation and was finally recognized as a country independent of the British Empire by the international community. This is the big picture. Less often discussed are the equally important changes that were taking place far from the global stage on the Canadian home front. World War I was a time of incredible transformation for Canadian society and in order to capture this period of change it is as important to examine the experience of the civilian as it is to account for the experience of the soldier. However, as we move further and further from this period of history, it becomes increasingly difficult to find sources through which to rediscover wartime Canada, particularly as most sources on the war take a 'big picture' approach, focusing on battles and alliances rather than munitions work and knitting socks. How then to explore this aspect of Canada's history?

Enter the war song, one piece of the puzzle that is the Canadian World War I experience. Music is an excellent source of information on Canadian society during this period as it is unaltered by time and untouched by faulty human memory. Moreover it is an emotional medium and therefore reflects what Canadians were feeling as the war progressed in a way that history books do not. In view of these factors, this website endeavours to explore the war songs that were sung in Canada during the First World War to tease out the story of what transpired on the Canadian home front. In particular, this is a site dedicated to the interpretation of the collection of World War I songs found in the archives at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario). Unfortunately, little is known about the origins of this collection, as it came to McMaster sometime between 1971 and 1975, before 1980 when full records of all acquisitions began to be kept. Presumably it was all part of one collection assembled by a Canadian donor, but beyond this, its provenance is unknown. There are 125 songs in the collection spanning the years 1898 to 1944; 80 of these songs are from World War I and are therefore the focus of this article. Of these 80 songs, 59 are from Canada and 21 are from Britain and elsewhere (some from the United States, one from Germany).

Here is a list of some of the content on this website. Links to this list and additional content are available on your right.

Introduction: This provides a brief overview of the concept of total war as it is relevant to the Canadian home front during the First World War and this song collection.

Song Catalogue: This section of the website provides an alphabetical listing of all 125 songs in the McMaster collection. Each song has been given a call number indicating in which war it was published (for example, the songs from the First World War are numbered WWI 1 - WWI 80). For each song a list of pertinent information is also provided including title, composer, date of publication, publisher, city of publication, number of pages, key signature, time signature, medium, any musical notations, the first line of the piece, the first line of the chorus and a full description of the cover. For all of the World War I songs, links are provided to colour photographs of all pages of the piece, the song's lyrics and, in some cases, a recording of the song. Please note that every effort has been made to be faithful to the lyrics as printed, and therefore grammatical and orthographical errors have been reproduced. For the non-World War I pieces, the lyrics have not been transcribed and only the cover has been photographed. This catalogue is designed to help you quickly skim through the collection and easily find the song you are looking for.

Numerical Analysis: A series of graphs are provided to better illustrate some of the trends in the collection. Bar graphs are used to show number of songs by year and by theme.

Music for Non-Musicians: In this section, definitions are provided for all musical terminology used within this website assuming no previous musical experience. For those with minimal musical background, this will likely prove unnecessary. For those with no musical background, these explanations and examples should prove sufficient to follow the musical analysis incorporated into this study.

Bibliography: In addition to citing all sources consulted, a brief description of each reference has been included. In some cases the entire source was relevant to this study, in others just a small part. While this is, of course, a study of a Canadian collection of music, it must be remembered that during this period of Canadian history Canada was still very much a part of the British Empire and the collection must be understood within this context. Additionally, Canadian World War I sheet music is a topic that has been largely overlooked in First World War and Canadian historical scholarship. Therefore, in many cases there were no Canadian resources available for consultation. As a result, where appropriate, this site often refers to scholarship on Britain during the First World War.

Analysis: The largest component of this website is the analysis of the songs themselves. The songs have been divided according to theme and analyzed within this framework. Of course, many of the songs have elements of more than one theme and so, while each song has been listed only with the topic with which it is best identified, many songs are mentioned in more than one section.