: Sounds of War. Music in the British Armed Forces During the Great War. Cambridge  2020. ISBN 978-1-108-48008-6

: Lili Marleen hatt' einen Kameraden. Musik in der Wehrmacht-Truppenbetreuung 1939–1945. Münster  2020. ISBN 978-3-8309-4254-2

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Morag Josephine Grant, Edinburgh College of Art, The University of Edinburgh

The recent centenary of the First World War gave rise to a number of publications exploring the musical history of the War.[1] Emma Hanna’s book on the British military is a welcome addition to that literature, and to the still small library of academic writings on music and military life. In her introduction, Hanna points out that with very few exceptions, the military and also civilian musicians active on the various fronts during the War have been written out of history, even though songs and musical practices have become such important lieux de memoires in Pierre Nora’s sense. Bringing these voices and experiences back to the fore is a strength of her book, as is the fact that she covers all branches of the armed forces in her discussion: the land forces, the Navy, and the newly established Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force). Her findings on the whole offer confirmation of trends noted in other publications, but are no less important for this, especially given the extensive range of primary sources she has investigated: from major collections such as those of the Imperial War Museum and the UK National Archives, to archives attached to individual military units and museums and other organisations that supported members of the armed forces during the War.

Hanna begins by providing basic context on musical life in Britain leading up to the War’s outbreak, including a useful summary of military music in Britain over the previous century. A chapter on the uses of music in recruitment practices and fundraising precedes chapters dealing more specifically with training for combat and the theatres of war themselves. Not surprisingly, this part of the book begins with a chapter on “Songs, Identity and Morale”, covering both the songs which music publishers and Commanding Officers (COs) reckoned ought to be sung by combatants, and those which combatants actually sang. Here, she reflects on the concerns expressed by COs and others of their class on the moral and physical state of their subalterns, and how singing and music could improve them — a typically late Victorian/Edwardian attitude which, however, also has parallels in Nazi Germany, as we shall see later.

Hanna moves on to address the uses of music in captivity (beginning, unfortunately, with some confusing and in part misleading information on the laws of war prior to the 1949 Geneva Conventions). In addition to information on the oftentimes elaborate musical entertainments developed by British POWs, Hanna also notes examples of these activities being used explicitly, and sometimes successfully, in organising escape attempts: musical rehearsals offered social but also acoustic covers for acts of tunnelling and the like. The growing recognition of music’s role in therapy and in administering to the wounded is addressed in a later chapter, with discussions on the provisions for this created in hospitals and convalescent camps.

An important takeaway from this book is the significant involvement of charitable and religious organisations including the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Salvation Army and the Church Army, in providing care and support to combatants, including through music. The war economy and the relationship between artists’ work and the work of war is likewise a major theme: Hanna looks closely at the contribution of professional musicians both on the home front and also in providing entertainments for the troops. She makes particular use of the case of Lena Ashwell, who worked with the YMCA to organise travelling concert parties that were an important source of live entertainment for the troops (another being concert parties featuring servicemen themselves, also discussed in detail in the book). Ashwell’s commitment was not just to the troops, however, but to the professional musicians and entertainers — particularly the women — whose livelihoods were impacted by the outbreak of war: she campaigned for a solution that would solve both issues by employing musicians and artists specifically to perform to the troops.

While the vast majority of the music made and received by the armed forces was performed live, by themselves and others — including on thousands of mouth organs provided through public campaigns — recordings played an increasingly important role and Hanna dedicates a chapter specifically to the gramophone. A short concluding chapter deals with events after the Armistice: it is here, poignantly, that she reveals the fates of many of those whose stories and experiences she cites.

In writing these protagonists back into history, Hanna often allows them to speak for themselves. Occasionally, however, this raises questions. There are extensive quotations from the memoirs of John Mackenzie-Rogan, for example, a leading figure in British military music at the time, but there is no overt reflection on the critical distance needed for such sources, which can be subject to hyperbole. Issues of a different kind are raised by the standard of proofreading, which is not always limited to numerous smaller errors: for example, at points there is a conflation between John Farmer, publisher of the book Scarlet and Blue, and the renowned historian of military music Henry George Farmer, who himself is variously indexed as Henry or more often, George (including the bibliography).

Despite these reservations, this remains an important and informative text which offers a comprehensive overview of the many ways in which music was deployed in this conflict. As such, it is likely also to be a useful introduction to the roles of music in military life more generally, including for advanced students with some prior, basic knowledge of the War from the British perspective.

A British historian facing the legacy of the British armed forces in World War I is in a very different starting position to a German historian — or indeed, any historian — approaching the German army in World War II: the cultural memory of the former has a baseline of sympathy towards those who served, for one thing. I was interested, therefore, to see how Heike Frey would approach her subject, and what the upshot of her investigations would be. In some ways, the similarities between what Hanna and Frey find are as striking as the differences, though this should not surprise us: military commanders and strategists have always looked to best practice to give them the edge in war, and this also applies to the use of music. Many of the musical developments that took place in World War I — in particular, the important role of civilian entertainers — are standard practice by World War II. A further development in this conflict, which Frey explores in detail, is the role of radio — most famously in establishing Lili Marleen as the ultimate soldiers’ song of World War II.

Many of the topics Frey brings into focus thus overlap with those considered by Hanna: the role of singing, and of military bands; the need for musical instruments, record players/records and in the later case, radios, to be supplied to combatants for recreational purposes; and as already noted, the role of professional civilian musicians. The differences are there too, however: they relate primarily to the level of control exercised by central authorities including the Reichsministerium für Propaganda und Volksaufklärung (RMVP). This was in part because, as Frey notes, combat fatigue had been regarded as a contributory factor to the German defeat in World War I: ministering to troops’ psychological needs was therefore regarded as of central importance. Ideology also played a role, however. British commanding officers of the early twentieth century may have bemoaned the moral discipline and culture of the common soldier and regarded the right songs and music as a way to better them; under Nazism, however, this belief became policy, to the extent that some of the ‘recreational’ events organised for soldiers were in fact compulsory. As was often the way with Nazi music policy, however, there was flexibility enough in the application to make sure that lighter music and entertainment was available when this was deemed important for soldiers’ mental wellbeing — and thus, for the war effort. Nazi policy and ideology impacted the music used in other ways: for example, Frey notes the tendency for newly composed marches and marching songs to be more explicitly militaristic in tone, which itself led to conflicts with some older military musicians. Generally speaking, and since Frey approaches this study as a musicologist rather than a general historian, there is more detail on such matters here than in Hanna’s book.

Much of Frey’s source material comes from what remains of official archives and documentation. Since many official records were themselves lost in the war, the picture in theory is incomplete — but the level of detail and analysis Frey offers on what remains does not leave us this impression. In one of the most striking chapters, she contrasts the situation for soldiers stationed in the semi-peace of occupied Norway and Denmark directly with that of those fighting on the Eastern Front. According to the logic of using music to administer to fighting forces, the troops involved in the brutal and devastating war against the Soviet Union could have expected the most support in this regard. As Frey shows, however, the logistical difficulties involved meant that significantly fewer resources were provided for soldiers there: fewer entertainers (and generally, of lower quality), fewer musical instruments, fewer devices for music by mechanical means; this was increasingly the case as the situation worsened. Troops in Norway and Denmark, meanwhile, had to suffer little more than boredom (particularly in the long Norwegian winter), but they enjoyed significantly more musical support. In addition to the lack of logistical barriers, this was also due in part to the way that public performances of German music were used as positive propaganda in occupied countries in western Europe — again, a feature that distinguished Nazi attitudes to the Western and Eastern Fronts, and which was grounded in the racist ideology that placed Slavic cultures well below Germanic and Romance ones.

Both these books bring home the sheer logistical effort associated with these seemingly peripheral aspects of modern warfare, underlining what an institutional and indeed, institutionalised undertaking war is on so many levels. Frey goes into sometimes painstaking detail to identify and pick apart the tensions between the various bodies involved, especially the RMVP and Kraft durch Freude, which was largely responsible for organising civilian contributions to the musical entertainment provided for the troops. She also looks closely at the musicians involved, noting amongst other things the generous reimbursement they could often expect. In her final chapter, Frey then looks at how both military and civilian musicians dealt with this aspect of their pasts after the war. She notes the tendency for musicians to focus on ‘the joy and spiritual relief that their performances gave to soldiers, [and] how important the entertainment was in distracting them from their cares and fears’ (pp. 324-325, my translation). Frey comments on how this strategy of justification for past deeds often works to infantilise the combatants concerned, and this is just one way in which it diverts from the obvious moral question of how, in helping combatants, these musicians may also have aided and abetted atrocities committed by them or in the name of the regime more generally. I say “atrocities” here to underline the obvious difference to the “normal” violence of war, although it is worth stating that there is nothing normal about the violence of war: it traumatises all in its vicinity, and this is one of the main reasons why musical rituals and therapies are such a prevalent feature of warfare. Yet this remains an understudied aspect of military history, and as such, both of these books are welcome indeed.

[1] See e.g. Stefan Hanheide / Dietrich Helms / Claudia Glunz / Thomas Schneider (eds.), Musik bezieht Stellung. Funktionalisierungen der Musik im Ersten Weltkrieg, Göttingen 2013; Michael Schramm (ed.), Militärmusik und Erster Weltkrieg, Bonn 2015; Susanne Rode-Breymann (ed.), 1914: Krieg. Mann. Musik, Hildesheim 2017; John Mullen (ed.), Popular Song and the First World War, London 2018.

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