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A war song is a musical composition that relates to war, or a society's attitudes towards war. They may be pro-war, anti-war, or simply a description of everyday life during war times.

It is possible to classify these songs by historical conflict: "First World War songs", "Second World War songs", "Vietnam War songs", and so on. There is also a miscellaneous category of recruiting songs, anti-pacifist songs, complaints about mess rations, excessive drilling and so on. Many national anthems are either a call to arms, or a celebration of military victories and past glories. There were a handful of anti-war songs before 1939, but this category has grown enormously since the start of the Vietnam War. On the other hand, new songs that are pro-war are becoming less common. Some national anthems have been adapted to be purely instrumental, or less bellicose in sentiment.


Anti-war song

An anti-war song is a musical composition that either states anti-war sentiments directly, or one which is perceived (by the public and/or critics) as having an anti-war theme. Some show the negative aspects of war, while others satirize war. Most promote peace, in some form or another, while others speak out against certain specific armed conflicts. Many of these songs are considered protest songs, and some have been embraced by various peace movements.

Early military campaigns

In England songs about military and naval subjects were a major part of the output of ballad writers from the sixteenth century onwards. Most of these fell into two groups, those that lamented the cost of war for the participants, and which can therefore be seen as early protest songs and those that were generally patriotic in nature an often veered into propaganda. Narrative descriptions, which had an important function in distributing news before the development of modern newspapers, fell into both camps, occasionally at the same time.

One of the earliest British ballads is ‘The Ballad of Chevy Chase’, which exists in several versions and deals, somewhat inaccurately, with the events of the Scottish victory of the Battle of Otterburn in 1388 and may have been written in the early fourteenth century, but the earliest surviving version is from the mid-sixteenth century. Stress is put on bravery, honour, revenge and the costs of war. This last factor is even more evident in an early seventeenth century version that notes that ‘the next day did many widows come/Their husbands to bewail.’[1]

The conflicts between England and Spain in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries produced a number of ballads describing events, particularly naval conflicts like those of the Spanish Armada.[2] The English Civil War (1642-1653) produced a sub-genre of ‘Cavalier ballads’, including ‘When the King Home in Peace Again’, while their godly parliamentarian opponents were generally happier singing metrical psalms.[3] Many of these were adapted and reused by Jacobites in England and Scotland after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, a tradition built on by Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.[4]

The Anglo-French Wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw more descriptive works, usually couched in patriotic terms, but some, like ‘Captain Death’ (1757) dealt with loss and defeat.[5] As regimental identities emerged songs were adopted for marching, like ‘The British Grenadiers’, based on a dance tune and with enthusiastic lyrics from at least the mid-eighteenth century.[6] Both sides make extensive use of ballads as propaganda in the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), but they became a flood during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1797-1815). The same period saw numerous patriotic war songs, like ‘Heart of Oak’ and the emergence of a stereotype of the English seaman as ‘Jolly Jack Tar’, who appeared in many ballads.[7]

The American Civil War saw huge numbers of ballads produced as recruitment propaganda and morale boosting songs on both sides, including ‘We are coming father Abraham’, rapidly written in response to Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms in 1862. Most successful on the Union side was ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1862, using the existing tune that had already been used a hymn and soldier’s song, with its rousing chorus of ‘Glory, glory hallelujah’. Some songs like ‘Weeping Sad and Lonely, or When This Cruel War is Over’ (1863), were sung on both sides, much to the consternation of the commanders.[8]

The name had probably been around in the eighteenth century, but it would not be until the late nineteenth century that British land forces received an equivalent to Jack Tar in ‘Tommy Atkins’, in Rudyard Kipling’s poems and in many music hall songs.[9] The Boer War saw a large number of songs, often aimed at praising the bravery of particular groups (such as Irish troops) or soldiers in general. From this period we know that some songs were widely sung by the troops themselves, including particularly leave taking songs, of which probably the most famous is ‘Goodbye, Dolly Grey’.[10]

World War I songs

Leading up to 1914, and throughout the war there were many patriotic or jingoistic songs, but it is notable that soldiers themselves tended to prefer songs that were resigned in tone, like ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ (1915), or that reminded them of home, rather than how to fight.[11] 'Goodbye, Dolly Grey' was still popular along with songs that were adopted by soldiers like ‘It's a Long Way to Tipperary'.[12] "The Conscientious Objector's Lament" (1917) was intended to ridicule pacifists, but it ended up being sung by soldiers longing to go home (See "When This Bloody War is Over" by Max Arthur, page 42). "Good-Bye-ee" (1917) pokes fun at the well educated soldiers who cannot stop themselves from using public school language such as "chin-chin!". "Oh It's a Lovely War" (1917) was the inspiration for the film "Oh! What a Lovely War". The singer is overly enthusiastic about mud and soldiers' food rations. It is an anti-war song disguised as a recruiting song. "Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire" concerns the search for a Sergeant (lying on the floor), a quartermaster (behind the line) and the privates (hanging on the old barbed wire). Officers tried to prevent privates from singing the last verse, but were usually unsuccessful.

Other examples are:

World War II songs

Irving Berlin wrote "This is the Army, Mr. Jones" (1942) for the revue This is the Army. It mocks the attitudes of middle class soldiers, forced to undergo the rigors of life in the barracks. "Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major" is a British soldier's song, mocking their officers.

Songs of the Spanish Civil War

List of songs about the Vietnam War

Miscellaneous war songs

The category "Protest song" occasionally relates to war, but often relates to civil rights or particular miscarriages of justice. Civil wars often have their own songs, as do revolutions (see Revolutionary song).


  1. ^ A. Goodman and A. Tuck, eds, War and Border Societies in the Middle Ages (Routledge, 1992), pp. 6-7.
  2. ^ V. de Sola Pinto and A. E. Rodway, The Common Muse: An Anthology of Popular British Ballad Poetry, XVth-XXth Century (Chatto & Windus, 1957), pp. 39-51.
  3. ^ C. Mackay, ed., The Cavalier Songs and Ballads of England, from 1642 to 1684 (London, 1863).
  4. ^ C. Mackay, ed., The Jacobite Songs and Ballads of Scotland from 1688 to 1746: With an Appendix of Modern Jacobite Songs (R. Griffin, 1861).
  5. ^ V. de Sola Pinto and A. E. Rodway, The Common Muse: An Anthology of Popular British Ballad Poetry, XVth-XXth Century (Chatto & Windus, 1957), pp. 159-60.
  6. ^ W. E. Studwell, The National and Religious Song Reader: Patriotic, Traditional, and Sacred Songs from Around the World (Haworth Press, 1996), p. 55.
  7. ^ J. S. Bratton, Acts of Supremacy: The British Empire and the Stage, 1790-1930 (Manchester University Press, 1991), pp. 33-5.
  8. ^ J. Shepherd, Popular Music of the World, Media, Industry and Society (Continuum, 2003), p. 390.
  9. ^ J. Richards, Imperialism and Music: Britain, 1876-1953 (Manchester University Press, 2001), pp. 347-9.
  10. ^ D. Russell, Popular Music in England, 1840-1914: A Social History (McGill-Queen's Press, 1987), p. 116.
  11. ^ J. Shepherd, Popular Music of the World, Media, Industry and Society (Continuum, 2003), p. 390.
  12. ^ D. Russell, Popular Music in England, 1840-1914: A Social History (McGill-Queen's Press, 1987), p. 123.

Further reading


  • Oh! It's a Lovely War: Songs Ballads and Parodies of the Great War, by EMI Music Publishing (1978)
  • Mud, Songs and Blighty: A Scrapbook of the First World War by Colin Walsh (1975)


  • When This Bloody War is Over: Soldiers' Songs of the First World War by Max Arthur (2001)
  • Dark Laughter: War in Song and Popular Culture by Les Cleveland (1994)
  • Goodnight Sweetheart: Songs and Memories of the Second World War by Frank E Huggett (1979)


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