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Oh What A Lovely War

Was it argues Henry Elkins

The first LP I ever bought was the stage recording of the musical Oh What A Lovely War, a Joan Littlewood production of the early sixties. As a little boy, brought up at time when much of the map of the world was coloured pink to reflect The British Empire, I initially thought it was a patriotic musical. I later learned how as far from that it was, instead an indictment of a War that killed off a younger and gilded generation.

Last night one of the forces behind the musical, Charles Chiltern, was celebrated by Roy  Hudd on the Radio 4 Archive Hour. Chiltern was fascinated by the songs of the war as sung by the boys in the trenches and persuaded Joan Littlewood to make the musical. Ian Hislop, who has made a programme about the satirical newspaper the Wipers Times contributed.  He raised the point, valuable to consider in the light of the centenary, as to whether the war should be judged from the distance of time, or placed in its own period. Young soldiers were happy to sign up for King and Country. Revisionist historians have argued now that the 1917 advance was a great of military achievement and not an army led by donkeys.

I never saw the Littlewood production but I did see the musical at the Open Air Theatre. The scoreboard of casualties made it clear that this was anti-war as well as the argument, probably false, that it was fuelled by arms dealers. My initial view stemmed from the songs not the content. However, it seems that as a little boy I was not so off-message. Roy Hudd is an expert on songs of that era and has done much to keep the traditions of music hall alive.  There are few songs that support the anti-war message. The early sixties were the most anti-establishment period of the century, perhaps ever, so it was no surprise that World War One was lampooned. I am not a apologist for the all those young lives lost, but I do ask that there is a proper historical examination.

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About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts