Singing in times of war. A social history of norms and identification among the lower and middle classes during the First World War

Start - End 
2013 - 2017 (ongoing)
Research Focus 
Research Period 
Research Region 
Research Methodology 
Additional tags 
First World War
Popular mentalities
Popular culture
Popular songs



With its 100th anniversary the First World War has received renewed attention in Belgium at universities, research centers, cultural and heritage institutions alike. Our knowledge and understanding of the great, four year war, that impacted the lives of so many in Europe and beyond, is growing, yet as always, a whole set of questions remain unanswered. One of those key questions is how the large majority of the Belgian population under occupation, the lower classes and the middle classes, reacted to the war, and how it (re)shaped norms, values and identities. It is generally assumed, for example, that the First World War boosted Belgian nationalism (at least during some periods of the war), and there has been considerable research that documents how the First World War radicalized a section of the Flemish nationalist movement. However for the most part research on identities during and after the war (nationalist and others) is not only scarce, but is also often limited to the views of the cultural, political, economic an administrative elites that produced the lion’s share of personal historical sources. The experiences, (national) sentiments and ‘identificational echoes’ of the largest part of the population in occupied Belgium therefore still remain largely uncovered.

This research aims to venture into the territory of wartime mentalities from below using a rich, overlooked, source of popular opinion: the many hundreds of popular songs that circulated in Belgium during and shortly after the war. For a long time, historians have considered these popular sources to be part of folklore rather than scientific research. Yet recently there have been calls for a ‘folkloric turn’ in history that values ‘oral literature’ (tales and songs) as relevant sources for historical analysis (Hopkin, 2012). Indeed, for social and cultural history, and especially the history of popular mentalities, songs can be of great value. The realization that popular songs can be considered as both a conditioner and a mirror of (historical) popular attitudes is all but recent (Simpson, 1966). On the eve of World War I popular songs circulated on a large scale, penetrating almost all aspects of sociability; public settings (such as streets, markets, pubs, festivities) as well as the workplace, schools and the intimate setting of the home. The advent of the war and the ensuing occupation of Belgium radically altered realities and relations of power, challenged (national) identities, and intensified social tensions. Wartime songs reflect the emotional hardship (insecurities and fears, parting and death) as well as the material deprivation (scarcity, destruction, loss of income and property) brought about by the war. Singing was a social practice that enabled the sharing of emotions, and offered a way to reconstruct identity and normativity in the unsettling circumstances of war and occupation. Possibly popular songs even gained importance during the war, analogous to the usual rise in personal writing in periods of deep crisis. In any case it has been suggested that the First World War boosted the production of songs in Belgium (Hessel, 2011).

As a rich source documenting the war experience of the lower and middle classes popular songs can give clues to a whole set of questions and themes. One of the most obvious and pressing ones is the question of the impact of war on feelings of patriotism and nationalism. This question relates to a more general need to understand how nationalist sentiments were in practice constructed from below (Van Ginderachter, 2015). World War I was a key moment for nationalism in Belgium, representing both the summit of Belgian nationalism and the cut-off point where a competing Flemish nationalism gained momentum. Wartime songs are typically saturated with patriotism and stigmatization of the other – the external or internal enemy. In the case of occupied Belgium they can thus provide important insights into the imagination and construction of the Belgian, Flemish, and Walloon identity around the time of the First World War. This research will look into the norms of good patriotic behavior and try to reconstruct images of the self and the other. Central to the investigation are the dominant narratives in the songs, the imaginative tropes through which the war experience was translated (or ‘condensed’) and framed in the imagination of millions of people. Additionally, however dominant and obvious patriotism might be, other issues of identification that are clearly present in the war songs will receive equal attention. With a country’s population under high social and economic pressure divisions and fractures deepened: the social tension between different social layers of society, between city dwellers and farmers, between nationalist vigor, war weariness and pacifism, etc. The absence of nationalist sentiments in a share of the songs (commonly referred to as national indifference; Ginderachter, 2015), and it’s undeniable co-existence with war weariness and pacifism, at least in a part of the repertoire, will be taken into account.

Out of a collected corpus of more than a thousand songs about the First World War that circulated during and shortly after the war in Belgium, five hundred songs will receive closer examination. The selected corpus will be geographically and linguistically balanced. Considering the various local experiences of the war, it aims to cover most regions of Belgium, and will consist of on average 250 songs in Dutch and 250 in French, including dialects. Popular songs originated and spread through a varied web of actors (commercial singers, welfare organizations, official repertoires, cultural elites, the press,...), were passed on in different places of performance (the street, the pubs and cafés, the cafés chantants, concert venues, workplaces, schools, homes,...) and are to be found in different kinds of sources (commercial fly-sheets, clandestine wartime publications, newspapers, personal notebooks and diaries, post-war repertories, radio emissions, songs recordings, retrospective transcriptions from memory,...). This research favors sources that allowed for a reliable reconstruction of original wartime songs and allowed taking the impact of German censorship into account. Therefore it will focus on use three main types of sources, that cover both the overt as the clandestine circuits wartime songs. The first and major type of sources used is a large collection of sold per piece fly-sheets (vliegende liedblaadjes, feuilles volantes musicales, broadsides) that stem from the commercial entertainment circuit of popular song. These fly-sheets continued to be printed under German censorship during the war, and especially after the armistice, when printing of wartime songs boosted. They are complemented with a second source that escaped German control: the clandestine patriotic and anti-German printing of fly-sheets secretly circulating during the war. As a third source it focuses on personal writing; (mostly) handwritten song-notebooks and diaries composed during or shortly after the war, that attest of the actual circulation of (the most popular) songs, censored as well as clandestine. These documents of personal (re)production are clearly interwoven with the other sources and give interesting clues on the function and performance of song culture. The selection will be organized in a database and will be analyzed using corpus linguistics as well as close reading techniques. The software-based technique of corpus linguistics will allow for detecting patterns in language use in this particular set of texts and will thus help to uncover – apparent and less apparent – meanings, ideologies and attitudes (software program: Antconq). This exploration of the corpus of song texts at a distance serves as a preparation (and useful check) for the eventual deeper, subjective close reading analysis, during which recurring tropes and themes will be coded.



D. Hopkin, Voices of the people in nineteenth-century France, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012

B. Murdoch, Fighting songs and warring words, New York, Routledge, 2002

R. Hessel, Marktliederen over de 'Grooten Oorlog' de Eerste Wereldoorlog gezien door de ogen van onze marktzangers, Torhout, Vriendenkring Houtland, 2011

M. van Ginderachter, Nationale onverschilligheid', de Habsburgmonarchie en België : een review van recente literatuur, Wetenschappelijke tijdingen op het gebied van de geschiedenis van de Vlaamse Beweging, ADVN, Antwerpen, 74:4(2015), p. 197-216

Simpson, The British broadside ballad and its music, New Brunswick, N.J. Rutgers University Press, 1966