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When This Bloody War is Over

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When This Bloody War is Over: Soldiers' Songs of the First World War. By Max Arthur. Introduction by Lyn Macdonald. (Piatkus Books, 2002.) ISBN: 0-7499-2354-7

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - December 24, 2002

The Great War, a.k.a. World War I, was a momentous and horrific period. Slaughter on an unprecedented scale scarred the landscape and psyche of Europe. For perhaps the first time in history, war became universally seen as unglamourous and evil. Yet, no matter how cruel and inhumane the war may have been; it never managed to inhibit mans innate ability to find solace, strength, and encouragement in the power of song.

In When This Bloody War is Over, Max Arthur has gathered together the lyrics to almost 100 songs that chronicle the events, and feelings, of that bloody war.

Many of the songs in this book are still sung today, such Keep the Home Fires Burning, Mademoiselle From Armenteers, It's a Long Way to Tipperary, and How'ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm. Others may be unfamiliar to you, such as the haunting song, Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire. Whether these songs are old friends, or new acquaintances, you will be struck by their poignancy and an almost universal underpinning of humor in the face of such awful suffering.

The lyrics in this book are arranged in thematic categories, including: Besides the wealth of songs sung during the war, this book also includes one postwar song, Stony-broke in No-Man's Land. A fitting song to conclude the book as it emphasizes the dismay felt by many of the returning soldiers who returned to their prewar jobs only to be fired a short time afterwards by employers unappreciative of the sacrifices the soldier's made during the war.

While the lyrics are by far the most important element of this book, it is not the only one. Included with each song is a brief annotation that discusses ths historical background of the song, or which explains unique aspects of the song. As well, when possible, Arthur has listed the tune to which the song was sung. For example, the bawdy song Fray Marie was sung to the same tune as My Home in Tennessee.

The text is also prefaced by an introduction by Lyn Macdonald that sets the stage for the creation of the songs that populate this fascinating book. Macdonald also discusses how the songs were popularized, and how they were received by the soldiers, as well as how the songs sung by the common soldiers changed as the war progressed.

When this Bloody War is Over is an intriguing work, both for the lyrics and its historical content. It also provides a unique perspective on a war that will be, for most of the book's readers, 'ancient' history. Yet the feelings of the soldiers in the trenches during World War I, who faced not only bullets but mustard gas as well, are no different from the feelings of those in the military facing danger today. All they want is for the fighting to end, and to return safely to their family and loved ones. Unfortunately, now as then, many will never get to go home...

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Myths & Legends of the First World War, by James Hayward.
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