One of the many chilling scenes in Oh What a Lovely War takes place at the Music Hall, where gorgeous showgirls entice young men in the audience with manipulative songs of recruitment.
Lured to the stage by the promise of a kiss, egged on by loved ones, and eager for instant heroism before their peers, these brave young fools soon stumble into reality when a sadistic sergeant major drills them offstage.
But the songs were damn clever. At The Passing Show at London's Palace Theatre in the summer of 1914, Gwendoline Brogden sang:
We've watched you playing cricket and every kind of game,
At football, golf and polo you men have made your name.
But now your country calls you to play your part in war.
And no matter what befalls you
We shall love you all the more.
Then how about this for a hook:
Oh, we don't want to lose you but we think you ought to go.
When veteran performer Vesta Tilley sang this song round the halls, children were trained to hand white feathers to those men who declined to join up on the spot.
Another powerful song starts almost maternally:
It makes you almost proud to be a woman.
When you make a strapping soldier of a kid.
And he says, 'You put me through it and I didn't want to do it
But you went and made me love you so I did.'
Then the chorus makes explicit the promise of sex.
On Saturday I'm willing, if you'll only take the shilling, to make a man of any one of you.
Insensitive artistes could pick the wrong time to exploit the popularity of these songs. The Encore magazine of 25th March 1915 tells of a certain lady singer invited to provide entertainment at a hospital for wounded Tommies. All was going well, the invalids appreciated the music and the attention. Then for some foolish reason she chose to sing, 'We don't want to lose you, but we think you ought to go.' As the paper wrote, 'The faces of the crippled heroes were several studies.'
Remember, this was early in the war, when unadulterated jingoism still held sway. Yet a popular paper was happy to highlight the bitter downside of such meretricious puff.