Conference Paper “Home, Sweet Home”: Music and Identity for Colonial Troops during the First World War

Abstract for paper given at A Great Divide or a Longer Nineteenth Century? Music, Britain and the First World War Durham University, 21 January 2017

Untitled.pngThe band of the 21 Australian Battalion rehearse in the middle of a ruined farmyard, surrounded by debris, Cappy, France.
© IWM (E(AUS) 3325)

We have some grand sing songs at night sometimes. It is A1 up on deck on a moonlight night. We sang the old songs we used to have on the phonographs and it makes me think of home and what you are doing my dear.

Papers of Fabian Sperry, Auckland War Memorial Museum

Music had an important function for the troops from the British Empire who served across the global fronts during the First World War. Far from home, listening to music, singing songs and creating their own music was an important leisure activity that boosted morale, a distraction from both the horror and the boredom of military life. Music was, too, a way of feeling connected to home and discussions by the men reveal their emotional responses to music. Using the experiences of troops from New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies, as captured in letters, diaries, memoirs and newspapers, this paper explores how music was used by these men during the First World War, as a way of maintaining links to home and shaping collective, and frequently national, identity. I discuss, too, how music became a significant method for encounter between these men and other combatants and non-combatants, which in turn formed part of their developing identities and offered a point of cultural exchange.

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