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Oh What a Lovely War : Retelling the First World War in Post-War Britain

Dan Todman
Lecturer in Modern History
Queen Mary University of London

Paper for Giessen Conference

Please do not quote or cite without the author's permission

I'd like to start by thanking Vita Fortunati & Elena Lamberti for giving me the opportunity to share my work with you. The main focus of my research is the ways in which the First World War was mythologised in Britain in the eighty years after its end, with its focus concentrated on the interactions between family and national myths of war. In recent years, British military historians have pointed out the difference between modern popular beliefs about the war and the ways it was constructed, experienced and fought at the time. I have taken part in this - what is now too well developed to be called a ‘revisionist' – interpretation, but my main concern has been to find out how this gap in perceptions developed. Much of my research is therefore directly concerned with the fils rouges which we have been asked to consider: the construction of ‘memory'; the influence of the medium used to represent war on the finished product; and the effect of the social and political context. When they have looked at the representation of the First World War since 1945, British historians have tended to ignore the degree to which the culture of remembrance was shaped by commercial and market considerations: so the mention in our final fil rouge of the influence of ‘spectacularisation' is of particular interest.

I'd like to discuss these different strands in relation to a specific example: the ‘musical entertainment' Oh What a Lovely War , first performed by the radical company Theatre Workshop in 1963. Oh What a Lovely War is based around the songs which were sung by ordinary British soldiers during the war – often bowdlerised versions of popular classics, filled with parody and self-mocking humour. These songs quickly became a site both of identity and, in latter years, of memory. Oh What a Lovely War combines these songs with scenes from the trenches and the home front, all played out – in the play's central conceit – by a band of travelling clowns. The play immediately enjoyed great success on the London stage, and subsequently became a favourite of repertory theatre and amateur dramatic societies. It reached extremely large audiences through widespread media coverage and local productions. Even more important in extending Oh What a Lovely War 's overall reach was the film version, released in 1969, which will be known to some of you. Starring many of the leading lights of Britain's acting profession in the late 1960s, this film was not only a critical and audience success at the moment of its first release, but – largely because of the eminence of its cast – became a staple of public holiday television scheduling in subsequent years. Purely in terms of audience figures, Oh What a Lovely War is arguably one of the most influential texts in forming modern British attitudes to the war.

Certainly the ‘musical entertainment' has been blamed by modern military historians for falsifying popular perceptions of the First World War. They would argue that, if Britons now think of the war in terms of mud, blood, futility and asinine generals, it is not because that accurately represents what happened, but because in the intervening years a false version of the war has become culturally dominant. Alex Danchev, and more vehemently Brian Bond, have both argued that the 1960s was a key moment in that transformation (1). In that decade, they have suggested, new myths of the war were created to fit the rapidly changing social and political context. The war was used by those on the radical left to present ways of understanding the nuclear arms race, the war in Vietnam and the conflict between old and young, or between social conservatism and liberalisation (2). Here, it is claimed, Oh What a Lovely War was a crucial text: creating powerful images of the betrayal of soldiers by their stupid, uncaring generals which have become embedded in British popular culture.

I have argued elsewhere that although this explanation has some useful components, it is simplistic in its treatment of the decade in general and of audience reactions in particular (3).What I will suggest here is that by examining the production and reception of the different versions of Oh What a Lovely War we gain an insight into how wide a variety of factors shaped this popular text. These included, but went far beyond, the political and social context of its creation. By studying this range of factors we achieve a better understanding of the complex ways in which the memory and mythology of the First World War were re-written in the 1960s to meet a range of personal, political, representational and financial needs. We also come closer to understanding the ambiguous place that the First World War continues to hold in British popular culture.

The first version of what eventually became Oh What a Lovely War arose out of the family experience of a BBC radio producer called Charles Chilton. His father had been killed in action just after his son was born, in early 1918. Chilton's mother died shortly afterwards. He was brought up by his grandmother in circumstances of extreme poverty. Although his father was lionised, nobody knew anything of what he had done in the war or how he had died. Chilton attended Armistice Day parades in the 1920s and laid a wreath at the Cenotaph wearing his father's medals. After leaving school, he got a job working at the BBC in 1932. One of his tasks was to make deliveries to the ‘Addressing Department', from where the listings magazine Radio Times was sent out to subscribers. This department was staffed by facially disfigured veterans, men who could not work with others because of the disturbing nature of their wounds. Chilton fetched them lunch. Both Chilton and these broken faced men shared a conviction that they were being looked after because the Director-General of the BBC, Sir John Reith, was himself a facially scarred veteran, determined to look after his own. Whether or not this was actually Reith's intention is not important here: what matters is that Chilton grew up in a culture where the shared traumas resulting from conflict had formed powerful emotional bonds. (4)

Chilton was a signatory of the Peace Pledge, a nationwide movement in the early 1930s whose members pledged not to fight in a future war, and he took his promise seriously. He spent the first part of the Second World War as a conscientious objector, fire-watching at the BBC, before he was convinced to renounce his views and serve in the RAF. After that he returned to the BBC, where he became a successful producer. Chilton was drawn back to the war by his grandmother's continuing grief. As he later wrote:

In 1958 I was on holiday in France. At the request of my grandmother I visited Arras in order to photograph the grave of my father (her son) who had been killed in that area in 1918. I had no idea that there were so many soldiers' cemeteries around Arras. When at last I discovered my father's official memorial it was to find that he had no known grave [instead he was commemorated on the Arras monument to the missing].

What could possibly have happened to a man that rendered his burial impossible? What horror could possibly have taken place that rendered the burial of 35,942 men impossible and all in one relatively small area? (5)

Fascinated by his experience, in 1961 Chilton wrote and produced a radio programme for the BBC Home Service called The Long Long Trail . It contrasted the songs of soldiers on the Western Front with those sung at home. The primary emphasis of The Long Long Trail was on the valour, humour and endurance of the ordinary soldier: ‘In spite of mud, blood, hell and high water they smiled – and carried on.' (6) The programme attracted a large audience and a very favourable response from listeners. It was rebroadcast twice the following year, with the popular entertainer Bud Flanagan, himself a First World War veteran, narrating and adding some anecdotes of his own.

One member of that large audience was the theatrical producer Gerry Raffles, consort of Joan Littlewood, one of the founders of the East London-based Theatre Workshop group. They took up the concept created by Chilton, and with his help and that of the Labour MP and editor of Tribune , Raymond Fletcher, transformed the radio play into the stage production of Oh What a Lovely War . It was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, on 19 March 1963.

The final form of this production was Littlewood's idea: a show put on by a band of pierrots, with the stylisations of the music hall added to Chilton's more realistic script. In the transformation from radio to stage, the play became more ardent in its expression of radical left wing views, with the importation of scenes designed to stress the callous incompetence of the High Command and the ruling classes. The result was also affected by Littlewood's own directorial style. Although ultimately extremely autocratic, this attempted to involve the actors more fully in the play by encouraging a collective development of the script through research and improvisation by the whole cast. To this end the actors read a number of autobiographical and historical works about the war. They were also lectured by their ‘historical advisor', Fletcher, with a version of the war, as he put it, ‘one part me, one part Liddell Hart, the rest Lenin'. The result was in many ways a rehashing of existing views of the war – making use of texts produced in the 1920s and 1930s as well as more recent works of popular history – with a powerful political spin. The process of improvisation and alteration was far from complete when the play appeared before the public: indeed, a key part of Littlewood's directorial model was that the play would change over time as it was performed. (7)

For both Littlewood and Fletcher there were striking political and contemporary reasons for presenting their material as they did. Littlewood was keen to recast history from the perspective of the common man:

the story of us – the victims, the people, the underprivileged – has not been told before. We've heard the poets speak – and we admire them – and we've had Journey's End, and we know about the sacrifice of the people who supported the system. But what about our fathers, who went as their dupes? I know I have been accused by some critics of having an anti-officer bias. But the officers have had their day. They've had their theatre. They've had their poetry. They've had their culture long enough. (8)

Her intention was to make this representation of the war dramatic and didactic from an extremely left-wing perspective. For this reason she rejected scripts which offered a purely realistic depiction of life in the trenches. Littlewood and her cast were also, at this stage, eager to avoid what they saw as Chilton's overly sentimental approach. Littlewood, in her own memoirs, wrote of the songs which formed the core of the play: ‘Those songs took me back to childhood – red, white and blue bunting, photos of dead soldiers in silver frames, medals in a forgotten drawer, and that look as family and friends sang the songs of eventide – God, how I loathed those songs.' (9) Introducing a new edition of the playscript published in 2000, both Littlewood and Victor Spinetti, a member of the original cast, wrote of their reaction against the incipient nostalgia of Chilton's play. They aimed particular ire at the ‘soppy' presentation of the songs by the BBC choir. They stressed that the cast of Oh What a Lovely War aimed for a more ‘authentic' approach. (10) Littlewood made her actors play against any sentimental feelings, telling them: ‘Stop falling in love with it; it's not a sentimental subject. And don't ever mention a poppy in a corner of a foreign field, where there's likely to be some poor bugger screaming to death.' (11)

The result of these efforts was an original production which offered a black and white picture. Officers at all levels are stupid, callous cowards, while their men are sardonic heroes. The debunking of officers' culture is cruel, ahistoric and funny. Travelling to a meeting with their allies, Lieutenant General Henry Wilson asks his superior, Field Marshal Sir John French, whether he should organise an interpreter. ‘Don't be ridiculous,' is French's response, ‘the essential problem at the moment is that we must have the utmost secrecy.' French's successor, Sir Douglas Haig, prays to God for victory ‘before the Americans arrive'. (12)

Littlewood, Raffles and Fletcher were also concerned with the spectre of a war which had not yet occurred. They wanted to teach the audience about the dangers of nuclear holocaust. The power of modern weapons made military incompetence even more dangerous than before. As Littlewood put it: ‘the whole business – the accidents, the chaos, the small minority who were really for it – seems to be more like what we are trying to avoid now than the last war…' (13) Given the background to the play's production, in particular the Cuban missile crisis and developing American involvement in Vietnam, it could be argued that references to the approach of a new war had a special power. The redundancy of deterrence is emphasised several times in the script, and the play's programme drove the point home:

In 1960 an American Military Research Team fed all the facts of World War One into the computers they use to plan World War Three. They reached the conclusion that the 1914-18 war was impossible and couldn't have happened. There could not have been so many blunders nor so many casualties.

Will there be a computer left to analyse World War Three? (14)

It is clear that some audience members shared Littlewood's suspicion of the establishment and the military and accepted what they were shown as the ‘truth' about the First World War. For example, one reacted to the play's use of statistics – flashed on a digital display board at the back of the stage – by declaring his deep emotion at: ‘… the fact, never so clearly stated, that ten million men had died in unimaginable squalor for Kitchener's pointing finger, for a few yards of worthless mud, for patriotic lies, for the vanity of bad commanders'. (15)

This was, however, by no means the only reaction. Two things stand out from contemporary reviews of Oh What a Lovely War . First, very few reviewers perceived the play as an objective representation of historical truth. This was not an unsophisticated audience: they came expecting performances that were left-wing, experimental and controversial. It is worth bearing in mind that, despite Theatre Workshop's aim of bringing theatre to the working class, much of its audience at Stratford consisted of regular theatregoers who were willing to travel out from the West End. A significant part of the audience for the play's first year of performance in both Stratford and Wyndham's Theatre on the Aldwych, where it transferred for the second half of its run, was middle-aged and middle class. Much though the programme notes might claim that: ‘everything spoken during this evening either happened or was said, sung or written during 1914-18', many in the audience were critical of what they were watching on historical grounds. The Guardian 's reviewer noted that Oh What a Lovely War was ‘as unfair as any powerful cartoon'. (16) The Times criticised the play for portraying:

The familiar view of the 1914-18 war as a criminally wasteful adventure in which the stoic courage of the common soldiers was equalled only by the sanctimonious incompetence of their commanders and the blind jingoism of the civilians. This approach is hardly likely to send audiences storming out of the theatre: the war is a sitting target for anyone who wants to deliver a bludgeoning social criticism without giving offence. (17)

Many in the audience might have considered themselves well informed about the war. Oh What a Lovely War was not produced in a cultural vacuum. The war had recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as a topic for history books. Most adult Britons in 1963 had either lived through it or grown up, like Chilton and Littlewood, in an inter-war Britain in which it was a cultural constant. With an estimated two million veterans of the war still alive in 1961, the First World War had yet to disappear over the boundary of lived experience.

The second feature that stands out about critical reaction to Oh What a Lovely War that, no matter what their attitude to its politics, audience members approved wholeheartedly of its songs. The tunes and words themselves were less important than the emotions they inspired. An older reviewer suggested that:

For those who fought in that war and were lucky enough to survive it, this show conjures up memories that are not all painful. To hear the songs we sang – even though the younger generation doesn't know how to sing them – is to catch again a whiff of that wry, disillusioned, humorous resignation with which our armies faced trench life. (18)

As the Sunday Times put it: ‘this immensely brisk charade gives nostalgia a top-dressing of belated anti-establishment respectability.' (19) At least some of the audience interpreted the play in a way which was essentially nostalgic. (This may have been heightened by the use of photographs popular during the inter-war period as a backdrop for the stage). There is even some anecdotal evidence that, following the play's transfer to the West End, groups of old comrades visited it together as an informal regimental reunion. (20) Perhaps this should not surprise us. During the war, knowledge of these songs had been a crucial part of soldiers' entertainment and identity. After its end, they became a central part of its remembrance – often in terms of nostalgia for comradeship and humour – in the course of the 1920s and 1930s.

Adrian Gregory has written about the creation of the British Legion Festival of Remembrance in the 1920s: a commemorative event for veterans based around the rendition of popular songs. (21) The Festival established an inclusive form of public remembrance which sanctioned veterans' enjoyment of camaraderie without offending the bereaved. Not only did words and tunes call up a host of memories for those who had sung them originally, but the very act of mass communal singing was an emotionally stirring rehearsal of wartime behaviour. As one old soldier put it:

We did not realise until last night that the songs we sang in the army were bits of history. In them is embodied the comic fatalism which carried us through four years in hell. How easily we slipped back into it! … It seemed to me that we had caught the only decent thing in the war – the spirit of comradeship. We had come to the hall as individuals: we were now once more an army marching in our imagination to the old music. (22)

How exactly the creators of Oh What a Lovely War reacted to the wave of nostalgia they had unleashed is unclear. Their protestations about avoiding sentimentality notwithstanding, it seems that they altered the play to endorse precisely this reaction. In his history of Theatre Workshop Howard Goorney writes:

When I saw it in Stratford Victor Spinetti made the closing speech, which went something like ‘The war game is being played all over the world, by all ages, there's a pack for all the family. It's been going on a long time and it's still going on. Goodnight.' This cynical speech, which followed the charge of the French soldiers, was quite frightening and left you crying your heart out. When I saw it again, in the West End, I was shocked by the change of ending. After Victor's speech the whole cast came on singing ‘Oh What a Lovely War' followed by a reprise of the songs. All frightfully happy and guaranteed to send the audience home happy. I think it was George Sewell who said ‘The Management didn't take to a down ending'. As far as I knew, Joan and Gerry were the Management. (23)

The critic David Pryce Jones noticed this when he reviewed the play for a second time, as it closed its run at the Aldwych: ‘Showbiz has crept in to bespangle the poor relation from Stratford East, and make it more polite, and I fear that the latter audiences imagined themselves back in the days of the good old musical shows, wishing the girls were rather more gaiety.' (24)

Note that I am not suggesting that Oh What a Lovely War encapsulated many modern beliefs about the First World War. For younger audience members, seeing the play was a formative event in their attitudes towards the war. But whilst the emotional connection to the war and its aftermath remained, audience reactions were complex. Indeed, the only way to explain the play's success – and hence its ability to influence subsequent generations – is to acknowledge the nostalgia which suffused its first performances.

The implications of these different reactions for the text itself were visible when, in 1968, the play was turned into a film (adapted by Len Deighton and Charles Chilton, directed by Richard Attenborough), it underwent further changes. Although it retained some of the stylisations of the original, the film Oh! What a Lovely War shifted the action from the pierrot theatre to the seaside pier. Attenborough toned down some of the play's more extreme political attitudes, making one of his characters a junior officer and removing scenes showing international cabals of arms dealers. He himself stated that: ‘I thought the play was petty in ignoring the sacrifice of the upper classes.' (25) The political passion of the play was replaced with an overwhelming sense of grief – depicted most memorably in the film's closing shot, of chalk downland covered in white crosses – which arguably altered the audience's perspective from participation to observation (a move also perhaps inherent in the shift of medium).

The film's concentration on realism at the level of detail - the accuracy of costumes and accoutrements – and the presence of actors associated with a tradition of war films – particularly John Mills as Haig – may have heightened the nostalgia of the play. The film critic Derek Malcolm was moved to argue when it came out that the film was:

…particularly, and rather curiously, of its time. One says this because the film takes a great swipe (as did the play) at the squalor of history … but appears at the same time to be enamoured as well as repelled by the images it summons up so skilfully. In a way difficult to explain, it unwittingly indulges itself. … Its basic nostalgia is too comfortingly fond. (26)

As time went on, of course, what had become an iconic representation of the First World War in its own right became subject to its own process of myth-making. When, in 1998, the play was revived for a national tour – for the first time in thirty five years – it sparked of a new wave of nostalgia, not for the comradeship of the trenches but for a mythical hedonistic, radical 1960s. ‘I well recall', wrote the Financial Times critic, ‘the impact simply of hearing about this show during my 1960s childhood.' (27) The Guardian critic, Michael Billington, confessed that: ‘ Oh What a Lovely War itself has also become part of theatrical legend: for someone of my generation, present experience is overlaid by past memories.' (28) The touring company's performance to an audience of 4,000 soldiers at the Tidworth and Bulworth garrison seems to suggest that the passage of time and the laying down of nostalgia had also weakened the play's radical impact. (29)

To conclude, then, it is overly reductive to view Oh What a Lovely War simply in terms of the reaction by a radicalised 1960s audience to a specific set of cultural, social and political circumstances. Rather, we can see five distinct manipulations of a well established ‘site of memory': soldiers' songs of the First World War. First, Charles Chilton made use of them for a reason that was personal rather more than political – a rediscovery of, and tribute to, his dead father. Second, Littlewood, her associates and cast used Chilton's radio play to make explicit political points in a satire which was in some ways shaped by the medium of radical theatre. The form and meaning they intended, however, was subverted by some members of the audience in 1963. In a third manipulation, they rejected political caricatures, and celebrated instead their own emotional connection to the songs at the play's heart. The power of this audience reaction seems to have been strong enough to affect the play's final form. Its nostalgic overtones were heightened in a fourth manipulation from stage to screen in 1968-9. When the play returned to the national arena in the 1990s, it was over-written by a fifth layer of meaning. So famous had it become as an icon of the 1960s that it was itself viewed in nostalgic terms. Again, this nostalgia tended to overpower different understandings of the period in question.

It was precisely these sorts of multiple re-writings of memory that made the 1960s so important to the continuing ‘memory' of the First World War in Britain. They encoded the anti-establishment and anti-war feelings which had been present since before the Second World War, but had become more dominant in its aftermath. As the play reached a wider and wider audience, it began to appear as the ‘right' version of the war, in particular for a younger generation who were not bound up in the inter-war cult of remembrance. But the play also incorporated the much more ambiguous emotions with which many of those who had participated in the war regarded their individual pasts, including pride and nostalgia. The cultural prominence achieved by texts like Oh What a Lovely War depended on their malleability to a variety of purposes by creators and audience. That prominence also helped to enshrine their representations in subsequent versions of the war. They not only ensured that the First World War would continue to be ‘remembered', but what the shape of that memory would be.


1. B. Bond, The Unquiet Western Front (Cambridge, 2002), 65.

2. E. MacCallum-Stewart, ‘The First World War and Popular Literature', PhD (Sussex) 2005, makes the point that this represented a shift from ‘myth' to ‘parable'.

3. D. Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London, 2005, forthcoming).

4. Details of Charles Chilton's life from interviews with him by Alex Danchev, 8 August 1988 and by Dan Todman, 14 May 2000.

5. Oh What a Lovely War Programme , Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives (LHCMA), LH 13/61)

6. C. Chilton, The Long Long Trail As Broadcast Script, 27 December 1961, BBC Written Archives Centre Caversham, 22.

7. A. Danchev, ‘Bunking and Debunking: The Controversies of the 1960s' in B. Bond, ed, The First World War and British Military History (Oxford, 1991), 282.

8. Unsigned article, ‘Joan Littlewood', Tribune , 19 April 1963, 9.

9. J. Littlewood, Joan's Book (London, 1994), 676.

10. Theatre Workshop, Oh What a Lovely War (London, 2000), ix, 89.

11. H. Neill, ‘When Did You Last See Your Father Cry?, Times , 18 March 1998, 41.

12. Theatre Workshop, Oh What a Lovely War , 35, 77

13. ‘Joan Littlewood', Tribune , 9.

14. Oh What a Lovely War Programme . This theme of the failure of deterrence was attractive to AJP Taylor, who dedicated his Illustrated History of the First World War, which came out in 1963 and has the same underlying theme, to Littlewood.

15. P. Lewis, ‘I'm with you Mr Levin … raving!', Daily Mail , 21 June 1963, LHCMA LH 13/61.

16. P. Hope Wallace, ‘Review', Guardian , 21 June 1963, LHCMA LH 13/61.

17. Unsigned and untitled review, Times , 21 March 1963, LHCMA LH 13/61.

18. R. Hastings, ‘Sketches Aid 1914-18 War Songs, Daily Telegraph , 20 March 1963, LHCMA LH 13/61.

19. J. Lambert, untitled article, Sunday Times , 23 June 1963, LHCMA LH 13/61.

20. My thanks to Professor Alex Danchev for this point.

21. A. Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919-1946 (Oxford, 1994), 80-86

22. Quoted in Gregory, Silence of Memory , 82.

23. H. Goorney, The Theatre Workshop Story (London, 1981), 127-29.

24. D. Pryce-Jones, ‘Theatre Review', Spectator , 2 July 1964, LHCMA LH 13/61.

25. A. Dougan, The Actor' Director: Richard Attenborough Behind the Camera (Edinburgh, 1994), 17.

26. D. Malcom, ‘Fun and War Games', Guardian , 9 June 1969, LHCMA LH 13/61.

27. A. Macaulay, ‘How to survive in the post-war era', Financial Times Arts , 25 August 1998, 9.

28. M. Billington, ‘Laugh? I really cried', Guardian Week , 4 April 1998, 24.

29. R. Morrison, ‘Marriage of daring and imagination', Times , 26 May 1998, 18.

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