Managed to see “On What a Lovely War” on Friday, at the northern stage. I’ve not see it before although I’ve been aware of the play since they did it while I was at school. I guess that being based on World War I, the show starts from an emotional strong point, but the mix of light-hearted and optimistic songs, set against the deaths of millions works as well as it ever did; this version of it was magnificent, with the instrumentation on stage, as props, actors moving backward and forward between playing, singing and acting. Perhaps the most moving section was the 1914 football match in no mans’ land, ironic as it has no music over it.
The whole play is encapsulated, though, by its version of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” — the original is a light and jaunty number, although with a melancholy for home. Here, it is performed by a lone nurse, lending it a poignancy that is in the song, but which is hidden in most versions; the combination of the simple lyric and delicate melody is heart-breaking.
I knew that it was an Ivor Novello song; I didn’t know that it was his first big hit and defined his career to the extent that his grave reads “Ivor Novello 6th March 1951 Till you are home once more“. Nor did I know that this epitaph are the words of another — Lena Guilbert Ford, an American poet who wrote the lyrics, but has otherwise moved through history leaving only this song and a forlorn edit page to show her passing. A little more digging got me to an archive from New York Times:
London, March 12 — Two bombs were dropped together on the house of Mrs. Lena Guilbert Ford, the American poet who was killed in the air raid last week, and on the adjoining dwelling, an army expert testified at the inquest today. The bombs exploded simultaneously.
The Coroner’s jury found the death of Mrs. Ford, best known as author of the war song, “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and that of her son, Walter was due to “suffocation from the collapse of a house caused by the explosion of bombs from a hostile aircraft”.
— New York Times (1918)
The rest of the article is a distressing account of the inquest, which tried to determine whether the mother outlived the son which had implications for inheritance.
She made little more impact on history because she was in it for only a short time more, dying in the declining years of World War I, a civilian casualty of a new form of warfare. One more tragedy among 20 million.