“Boys from Canada”: The Songs of the First World War


Music is an emotional medium, which preserves more than mere circumstance. The music in this case study gives us a window into how ordinary Canadians experienced the First World War.

'We've laid down the hammer and picked up the gun, Put down the saw for the sword, Britons world over are fighting the Hun, See where their blood is outpoured; Close up the ledger and put down the pen, Hark to the trumpet call! Britain is fighting for freedom men, and Britain needs us all.' from 'Canada, Fall In!'

'Think of the girls of Canada Not one minute they waste each day For they work on farm or they work in factory All for those who have gone away.' from 'The Hearts of the World Love Canada'

'So let us be up and doing Yes doing our bit alone For we can knit socks for our soldier boys and keep the fires burning at home.' from 'Here's to the Boys of the 1-6-0'

These are only a few examples of the kinds of lyrics in this World War I song collection. Most First World War scholars agree that World War I was the world's first total war and all of these quotations make some reference to this idea. But what does this notion of 'total war' mean?

Before World War I, any war in which Canada was engaged involved only professional soldiers who went elsewhere to fight. Those who were fortunate enough to return came back to a country that was relatively unchanged. For the most part civilians were unaffected by the war and, with the exception of the absence of the soldiers, life carried on as it always had. With the onset of the First World War, the experience of war was no longer reserved for professional soldiers. While the soldiers fought for the cause on the front lines, civilians contributed to the war effort on the newly named 'home front'. For the first time, non-combatants were as involved in the war effort as the soldiers and were absolutely necessary to the success of the fighting forces. Those living in Canada during the First World War could not escape the sudden pressure to 'do one's bit' and help assure an Allied victory, nor could they avoid the enthusiasm for the war that swept the country. As one woman said, 'Everybody wanted to be there; you were in the swim of things; everything was war, war, war' (Read, pg. 156). Through taxation, conscription, volunteering, war bonds, munitions work and so much more, the war effort involved everybody on the home front. Inevitably, this situation brought about many changes in Canadian society.

One major change was the increased use of propaganda to influence public opinion. As Caroline Playne writes, 'even the most popular war has to be stimulated by vigorous public propaganda' (Playne, pg. 292). Governments gradually realized that efficiency at the front was dependent on efficiency and morale at home. This led to the birth of the propaganda machine, intended to direct the civilian response to war (Haste, pg. 48). Since this war was to involve non-combatants as never before, Canada, like England, distributed official propaganda in the form of posters and pamphlets, urging civilians to do their part for the war. Unlike any previous conflict in which Canada had been involved, the First World War demonstrated the powerful influence of propaganda and brought about a significant change in the relationship between government and governed.

A second important change that came about was in attitudes to religion. For many, the trials of war resulted in strengthened faith and renewed reliance on the Church. During the war, people turned to the traditional comforts of religion, looking to God for answers to the unanswerable in the midst of inescapable hardship (Playne, pgs. 43, 253, 254). There was also a sense of moral righteousness in fighting evil that borrowed very heavily from religion. It was rumoured, for example, that the Germans had rejected Christianity for old pagan gods, that Germany had sold itself to the Devil, even that Kaiser Wilhelm was the Antichrist (Marin, pgs. 98, 118, 252). All of this helped people to accept the idea that war was necessary to combat such evil. However, there were some people, particularly in Canada, who observed a noticeable decline in traditional religious life. While there were many people who continued to put their trust in God, an attitude which this song collection reflects, the horrors of war shook many people's faith and made them question what they had previously accepted.

The First World War also had important consequences for the way in which women were viewed by society. With so many men fighting overseas, women were forced to take on many traditionally male roles. Indeed, many women felt an obligation to step into these roles on account of the war (Read, pg. 156). For some women, this was an opportunity to prove to a patriarchal society that women were capable of doing 'men's work' and thus advance the cause of women's suffrage (Playne, pg. 127). Canadian society was forced to accept these new roles for women due to necessity; according to one government official such change was acceptable not only because it freed men for the front lines but also because it 'resulted in a considerable saving by the Canadian Government' (Bindon, pg. 132). However, women were expected to give up their new positions to the men who returned when the war was over. To a limited extent, women's suffrage was achieved during the war. Initially, the vote was granted only to those women serving overseas or related to a soldier, as Prime Minister Robert Borden was seeking re-election on a conscription platform (Durflinger). It may be argued that the war did not bring about major changes to the place of women in Canadian society. However, the war did create the circumstances in which women could experience non-traditional workplace roles in the absence of the men who usually performed them, and this development laid the groundwork for future social change.

How do historians research these social trends? What are the major sources of information that can provide a picture about what was going on in Canadian society during World War I? To a large extent, we are dependent on the first hand accounts of those who lived through the war. However, we are now living in a time when this first hand information is no longer readily available. While history texts can be useful, accounts of key battles and their accompanying casualties often take precedence over descriptions of the conditions on the home front. It is for this reason that this archival collection of sheet music is such a valuable resource. World War I was a seminal period in Canadian history and it is just as important to understand the daily experience of the average civilian as it is to catalogue the battles in which Canadian soldiers fought. War songs have preserved this era of Canadian history. The songs can tell us about the society in which they were composed; they provide an unadulterated picture of the circumstances in which they were created. More importantly, because music is an emotional medium these songs preserve more than situational information; they reveal popular sentiments as well. They provide a window into what Canadians at home experienced throughout the war. In general, these songs do not reflect the idea of war as it is commonly thought of in popular imagination: battlefields, trenches and heroic charges. For the most part, they were not written for the soldiers. Instead, they reflect the thoughts of those on the home front regarding the effect the war was having on their lives and their country. In preserving Canada's visceral response to the effects of war on those at home, this music offers a more detailed picture of the conditions out of which post-war Canada grew.

Further resources

Bindon, Kathryn M. More than patriotism: Canada at war, 1914-1918 (Toronto: Personal Library Publishers, 1979)
Durflinger, Serge. French Canada and Recruitment During the First World War (Canadian War Museum Online. July, 2006)
Marrin, Albert. The Last Crusade: The Church of England in the First World War (Durham: Duke University Press, 1974)
Playne, Caroline. Society at War: 1914-1916 (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1931)
Read, Daphne, ed. The Great War and Canadian Society: An Oral History (Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1978)

Archival descriptions

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