Music was an important part of cultural life in Australia during World War I. Brass bands played at recruiting events and marched enlisted soldiers off to war. Where a full band could not be found, a simple drum and fife band might suffice. The National Anthem (God Save the King at this time) was sung at public events and in schools, to inspire patriotism. Its shortened version was often played at the beginning of concerts, or at the cinema, as a mark of loyalty and respect. It was customary (even obligatory) to stand for the anthem.

At a popular level there were songs for all occasions - stirring songs to encourage patriotism ('Australia Will be there'), sentimental songs to console those at home ('Keep the Home Fires Burning', 'Send Me Away with a Smile'), even a few humorous songs like 'Oh it's a  Lovely War', carefully composed to avoid the censor and first performed on the vaudeville stage.  People heard these songs in the music halls, or if they were lucky, on the new phonographs, but most probably learned them around the piano in their own and others' homes. There was a strong trade in sheet music during the war.


Songs associated with the conscription debates

We know a little about the songs sung at conscription meetings, although more about those sung by the 'No' side, than the 'Yes'. That is because the details of 'No' meetings and demonstrations were often recorded by plain-clothes policemen in the audience, looking for proof of sedition. Their laboriously hand-written notes are preserved in the archives and they include references to the songs they heard.

Newspaper accounts sometimes mentioned that songs were sung at pro-conscription meetings.  They included the stirring song of loyalty to Empire 'For auld lang syne, Australia will be there', written for the AIF in 1914 by Walter William (Skipper) Francis and performed for the King in 1915. Pro-conscriptionists sometimes disrupted anti meetings by singing this song loudly, along with 'Boys of the bull dog breed'.

Supporters of the 'No' campaign had access to a range of socialist songs, imported into Australia with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They included 'Solidarity Forever' and the 'Red Flag', songs that continued to serve the labour movement for many decades. The IWW or Wobblies made great use of song to stir their supporters and to unite them in the workers' cause.

Amongst women of the anti-conscription movement the most effective song of the war was undoubtedly the American anti-war song 'I didn't raise my son to be a soldier'. It was often sung at the start of meetings of the Women's Peace Army by socialist feminist singer Cecilia John.  Her fine contralto voice stirred listeners so effectively that government banned the singing of this song for the duration of the war. Those who persisted in singing it could be arrested - and were.


The recordings - The Victorian Trade Union Choir

The Victorian Trade Union Choir very kindly recorded some of these songs for the exhibition A Nation Divided: The Great War and Conscription. The recordings can be accessed here.

The lyrics as recorded are reproduced below.

The Red Flag

Lyrics by Jim Connell

The people's flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts blood dyed its every fold.


Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

Look round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,
The sturdy German chants its praise,
In Moscow's vaults its hymns are sung
Chicago swells the surging throng.
It waved above our infant might,
When all ahead seemed dark as night;
It witnessed many a deed and vow,
We must not change its colour now.

It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.

It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man's frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.

With heads uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward till we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

Australian hymn of freedom

Arouse ye mothers of the free,
Stand loyal to your trust,
Lest all that stands for liberty
Be ground into the dust;
And the future of this country
That should be great and grand,
Shall be burdened with the sorrow
Caused by a tyrant band.


Mothers, wives and sisters of Australians
Would you have your kinsmen bond or free?
Vote No! Preserve their liberty,
For “Yes” would mean our slavery,
And all the little children
Would future conscripts be
Shall we permit this passively?
Vote No! No! No! No!
Australia will be free
Australia will be free.

Now raise the slogan valiantly,
And all assist to see
That where men fought as free men
Still free men they shall be;
And the struggles of your fathers
Shall not have been in vain.
Let us preserve our freedom
Or Australia’s honour stain


For Auld Lang Syne, Australia Will Be There

By Walter William (Skipper) Francis

There has been a lot of argument going on they say
As to whether Dear Old England should have got into the fray,
But Right thinking people
All wanted her to fight;
For when there’s shady business
Britannia puts it right.


Rally round the banner of your country,
Take the field with brothers o’er the foam
On land or sea, wherever you be
Keep your eye on Germany,
But England home and Beauty have no cause to fear
Should Auld acquaintance be forgot
No! No! No! No!
Australia will be there
Australia will be there.


You’ve heard about the ‘Emden’ that was cruising all around,
It was sinking British shipping where’ere it could be found
Till one fine summer morning,
Australia’s answer came:
The good ship ‘Sydney’ hove in sight
And put the foe to shame.
When Old John Bull is threatened
By Foes on land or sea,
His Colonial Sons are ready
And at his side will be
From Africa, India, Canada
Come men to do or die,
And Motherland is glad to hear
Australia’s Battle cry


Solidarity forever

Lyrics by Ralph Chaplin

When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong


Solidarity forever, Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might
Is there anything left for us to do, but organize and fight?
For the union makes us strong


They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong


In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand fold
We can bring to birth the new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong


For the union makes us strong!

'I Didn't Raise My Son to be a Soldier'

Composed by Al Piantadosi, lyrics by Alfred Bryan
(Original version 'I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier')

Once when a mother was asked would she send
Her darling boy to fight,
She just answered ‘NO’
And I think you’ll admit she was right.


I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy:
Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder
To kill some other mother’s darling boy?
The nations ought to arbitrate their quarrels,
It’s time to put the sword and gun away,
There’d be no war today if mothers all would say
I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier.

All men are brothers, our country, the world;
The glories of war are a lie:
If they ask us why
We’ll just tell them that mother’s reply.


The lyrics of some other popular songs, not recorded follow here.

Keep the Home Fires Burning

Composed by Ivor Novello, lyrics by Lena Guilbert Ford

They were summoned from the hillside
They were called in from the glen,
And the country found them ready
At the stirring call for men
Let no tears add to their hardships
As the soldiers pass along,
And although your heart is breaking,
Make it sing this cheery song:


Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning.
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There's a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
Till the boys come home.

Overseas there came a pleading,
"Help a nation in distress."
And we gave our glorious laddies -
Honour made us do no less,
For no gallant son of Freedom
To a tyrant's yoke should bend,
And a noble heart must answer
To the sacred call of "Friend."