Revisiting the World Wars through Literature and Music

Revisiting the World Wars through Literature and Music

Culture | Aug 31, 2018 / by Ishita Sen
  • 15

  • Likes

The war effort 

The historical phenomenon that stole the limelight in the 20th century and has reigned heavy on the collective human psyche since were the two World Wars. Along with the widespread chaos and bloodshed, the gory history of the wars has haunted humankind in a way that has caused ripples in the fields of art. World War I officially began on July 28, 1914, and ended four years later on November 11, 1918. But the shock was to continue in World War II, commencing on September 1, 1939, and continuing for even longer till September 2, 1945. The war dominated the world for more than four decades in the 20th century, and any hope for redemption from the first war was lost. George L. Mosse in the introduction to his book, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars has deliberated on the statistics of casualties in war and claims, “More than twice as many men died in action or of their wounds in the First World War as were killed in all major wars between 1790 and 1914.” The war came back with a vengeance in its second rendition, with the horrors of the Holocaust and nuclear bombing of Japan far outweighing the mass-killing of World War I.

The dates are familiar to everyone, as the history books today extensively cover the political history of the two World Wars. But reading about it in history tends to create a distance, a sense that it had happened in the past when in reality more and more facts are still being uncovered about the massacre that occurred worldwide. Photographs of mangled bodies and thousands killed in random bombings, adults and children included, are kept out of the book. While traumatic pictures are kept out of books meant for children today, the glory of the war had been celebrated in the years leading up to it, and the children were not left out of this propaganda. The Horatian sentiment of ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ which translates to 'It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland' was endorsed wholeheartedly by those in charge. But the attitude to war was bound to change when the people were faced with the reality of it. Wilfred Owen's poem 'Dulce e decorum est' written during World War I and published posthumously in 1920 was a fitting reply to the sentiment, tearing apart this idealised way of looking at the war. He reiterated in the preface to his collected poems which he had written in 1918, “This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

The shock from the World Wars and the sheer fragmentation ushered in a new era in art and culture. Modernism is a complicated phenomenon including several strands of diverse and ‘avant-garde' developments in various fields of art. But if there is one unifying feature, it is the active disregard and complete breaking away from tradition. Thus we see Cubism in painting, an amalgamation of perspectives that do not follow the conventional rules; loss of harmony in a lot of the music that appeared after the wars and erratic verse in poetry that does not conform to earlier traditions. 

The propaganda of war

No war can ever be an isolated event in history. It is always a culmination of the turmoil in the socio-political climate in a country and from the earliest time, the literature of a particular time and space has been a reflection of the dominant sentiments of the age. The literature that we have from the era of the First World War is not limited to poems, novels and drama, however. Diary entries, letters and memoirs have also come down to us through the years. But the function of literature is not merely reflective. The power of the pen holds sway on readers and can be instrumental in shaping public opinion, with social and psychological consequences. The political authorities well knew this, and before the wars we see nationalist feeling growing in the works produced at the time. One of the poems that were circulated in the newspapers extensively was Rudyard Kipling’s ‘For all we have and are’. The last paragraph of the poem succinctly sums up the sentiment:

No easy hope or lies

Shall bring us to our goal,

But iron sacrifice

Of body, will, and soul.

There is but one task for all --

One life for each to give.

What stands if Freedom fall?

Who dies if England live?


There were a number of pro-war poets writing at the time. Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate during the First World War published many poems that glorified the idea of the common man laying down his life for the country. His poetry ‘Wake Up, England!’ calls on the careless to rise and the peacemakers to fight, a poignant call to fight for their country. John Masefield, as the next Poet Laureate followed the pro-war routine in his celebrated poem ‘August 1914’. In Germany, war poetry by expressionist poet August Stramm came to be published later, and in Canada, the likes of John McCrae contributed to the war effort in the First World War. With the terrifying stories of war becoming popular among the civilians however, many poets understood where they went wrong. Robert Bridges lived to see the horrors that it brought to human life, he expressed the wish that his poem was suppressed and not circulated among the public.

The problem of incorporating war poetry into canon has been an ongoing issue. Authentic war experiences, whether they were diary entries or letters were generally suppressed. The work of the soldier poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg was excluded from the mainstream canon. The celebrated poet William Butler Yeats edited the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 in the year 1936, and refused to include anti-war poetry in the anthology. His ideas previously found expression in his poem ‘On Being Asked for a War Poem’ written in 1915: “I think it better that in times like these/ A poet’s mouth be silent.” And when war poetry was eventually allowed space in the canon, it ignored the poems written by women and other related demographics, excluding these ‘other’ experiences that focused on mourning and nursing at the war front.

The treatment of the literature centering on the Second World War was given much the same treatment, except that in the 1930s movies became the immediate medium of public expression, and were largely suppressed by the reigning authorities, especially Hitler in Nazi Germany. Literature in the Second World War took to the United States of America, where books became the voice of resistance, which then expanded to include other nations. Author of Williwaw (1946) and In a Yellow Wood, Gore Vidal was one of the first authors to emerge in the USA. The independent Writer’s War Board was founded two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served as a kind of asylum for publishers and writers from all over who eventually moved to the USA from Europe to avoid persecution under the fascist regime. Jean Paul Sartre remarked in an essay published in Atlantic Monthly in 1946: “The greatest literary development in France between 1929 and 1939 was the discovery of Faulkner, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Caldwell, and Steinbeck. . . At once, for thousands of young intellectuals the American novel took its place together with jazz and the movies, among the best of the importations from the United States.”

One literary work that can give us a thorough idea of what went on in the era is Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, published posthumously and widely read to this day. Many other novels have been written in the backdrop of the World Wars over the years, including Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse V, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, among innumerable others. Literature has succeeded in revealing the real horrors of war to humanity and has left an unforgettable mark on the collective human conscience.

War Songs and their discordant notes

Just as the central authorities took pains to circulate poetry with a nationalistic agenda, music proved to be an even more potent medium. Pro-war sentiments were circulated widely during the First and Second World Wars that were heavy with patriotic and jingoistic sentiments. Songs like Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Goodbye Dolly Grey may be traced back to 1915 which were extremely popular at the time. The songs were resigned in tone and reminded the soldiers of home. It’s a Long Way to Tipperary is one of the most celebrated songs of World War I and was recorded by John Mc Cormack in 1914 due to immense popularity among the Irish and British regiments. The refrain of the song documents the journey to be taken to reach the destination:

It's a long way to Tipperary, To the sweetest girl I know! Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, It's a long, long way to Tipperary, But my heart's right there.

The role that music played in the Second World War was a particularly unique one as it was the first debacle to take place in an age where music was mass-distributed to the public through the radio and similar electronic devices. The news of the war was conveyed in between songs playing on the radio. Moreover, broadcasting was under the control of the respective governments, which enabled the powers to impose restrictions over what the public could or could not listen to. The songs popular in this era were later compiled in Bing Crosby’s album in the 1940s, Those Great World War II Songs which included tracks like The White Cliffs of Dover, The Army Air Corps Song and Yankee Doodle Dandy, among others. Famous solo artist of the 40s, Frank Sinatra also recorded a song which addressed the war that was released in 1980. The song was called World War None! :

Keep on feeding the fire, till the light is hot,

With those un-neighbourly feelings, we deny we've got.

Keep on trying for peace, until that peace is won.

Then you're practically ready for World War None.

(A whispered word or touch is louder than a bugle)

(A silent prayer is so much stronger than a sword.

There was approved and unapproved music. Jazz for instance, which commemorates the African-American population and was gaining increasing popularity was unapproved by Nazi Germany as they were labelled to be ‘Negroid’ and therefore harmful to high European culture. The fragmentation that people felt during and after the war era, gradually came to be represented in music as discrepancies in the natural form. There was a distinct loss of harmony as more and more was known about the war. As war poetry and other forms of literature were made accessible to the public, music in the 1970s captured the discord that people felt at the time. The note of resistance found expression in a song recorded by comedian and actor Arthur Askey, called 'Kiss me goodnight, Seargent Major', sung from the perspective of a British soldier mocking his officers. Other popular songs of the era include The Andrew Sisters' 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B', Spike Jones’s 'Der Fuehrer’s Face' and Dooley Wilson’s 'As Time Goes By' which was included in the movie Casablanca (1942), among many others.

The status of myth

Wars are a significant part of both human history and mythology and the world wars, almost exceeding the raw horror of these prior narratives, seems to fit right into the formula. However, about the world wars, it can be said that the war effort was mythologised even before the wars began. The war happening currently was regarded as the glorious opportunity to fight for the motherland, a test of heroism that was to compete with the stories of myth and history. The World Wars while revealing the depths of human depravity also debunked these ideas to a large extent.

And yet, the anthologies of poetry, novels, films, music, and art have covered the Wars to the degree that has served to revise and not debunk the significance of war. In popular culture, the history of the wars and mythology are continuously associated with each other. In the movie Wonder Woman (2017), for instance, the mythical world the Amazons is linked with the First World War in the space of a popular Hollywood flick, where the god of war Ares is to be blamed for the debacle. The famed comic book character of Captain America, reprised in Marvel movies, was designed as a super-patriotic soldier to fight the Axis powers in World War II.

We seem to keep revisiting the wars, be it through new and authentic evidence or fiction set in the backdrop of either the First or Second World Wars. Not merely to expose what the world needs to know often through artificial means, but also to uncover the remnants of humanity amidst the blood and tears. Many video and PC games developed relatively recently have a back-story in the wartime scenario. Sopwith (1984) was a video game that focused on the air war during World War I. While games like NecroVision, Call of Duty: Black Ops II and ‘The Great War’ mode in Napoleon: Total War set during the First World War emulate the violence inherent in the stories, a game like Valiant Hearts: The Great War follows a narrative where four characters help a German soldier reunite with his true love. The game was inspired from letters procured from the war fronts.

The wartime letters have been capturing the attention of people of late, as they show how love and relationships survived even when faced with such violence. The letter from Chris Barker to Bessie Moore in January 1945 was brought to people’s attention when actor Benedict Cumberbatch read it for the Letters Live channel on Youtube. It strikes a particularly poignant note, as more and more history related to the World Wars is revisited in search of the nuggets of human emotions and feelings to keep the hope alive.


Anderson, P. (2006). The World Heard: Casablanca and the Music of War. Critical Inquiry, 32(3), 482-515. doi:10.1086/505376, Retrieved from:

Brosman, C. (1992). The Functions of War Literature. South Central Review, 9(1), 85-98. doi:10.2307/3189388, Retrieved from:

 Druesedow, J. (2008). Popular Songs of the Great War: Background and Audio Resources. Notes, 65(2), 364-378. Retrieved from

Hutchinson, George, (2018) During World War II Literature Reigned Supreme, (Blog post). Retrieved from on August 30, 2018.

Mosse, George L.,(1991), Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, Retrieved from

Image source:


Share this article

Written By Ishita Sen

A student of English literature with confused clarity.

Leave A Reply