There are moments when a connection between the past and the present, fraying for decades, finally snaps. As a child in Britain in the late 1960s, I remember the old men from the Western Front marching past the Cenotaph, the survivors of Ypres, Passchendaele, and all the other killing fields. As the years passed, their ranks thinned, then dwindled to a handful in their wheelchairs. Then there was no one.
Sadly, another fading of the guard is well underway, as the veterans of the Second World War march into their nineties and beyond. On Thursday, Vera Lynn, Britain’s “forces’ sweetheart,” died at the age of 103. For Brits, she was the last great living symbol of “the war,” as so often it is still referred to, a conflict that needs no other identifier, a reflection of the grip it still has on the British psyche — for good, or some say, ill.
To Luke Turner, writing in the Guardian:
Throughout her postwar career, Lynn’s fame was trapped in symbiosis with the anxiety of a nation in decline, forever doomed to look into the past, to the time when Britain had its “finest hour”.
Much of Turner’s focus is on Lynn’s most famous — and most evocative — song, “We’ll Meet Again,” written in the last weeks of a doomed peace and recorded by Lynn shortly after the war began. It has a lovely, lilting melody and lyrics that, as the troops went off to war, perfectly reflected the uncertainty faced by millions: “We’ll meet again/Don’t know where/Don’t know when.” It acknowledged the pain of separation; “Don’t let this parting upset you/I’ll not forget you, sweetheart,” recognized the challenge ahead (“dark clouds”), and put a traditionally British emphasis on presenting a good face (“keep smiling through”) to the world:
So will you please say hello
To the folks that I know
Tell them I won’t be long
They’ll be happy to know
That as you saw me go
I was singing this song
And, of course, the promise that ran through this song was that this parting was not forever: We’ll meet again.
The best-known British soldiers’ songs of the First World War — in its initial stage (later they became more sardonic) — such as (the prewar) “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” or 1915’s “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag” were for marching. While they had plenty of equivalents in World War II, it perhaps says something that the one song more than any other to define that era for Brits came in a sadder, slower tempo: The illusions of August 1914 were gone for good.
In a 1939 newspaper poll, British servicemen picked Lynn as their favorite entertainer. She had caught the mood.
Turner maintains that “perhaps the most powerful use of [We’ll Meet Again] is in Stanley Kubrick’s ever-timely Dr Strangelove, when in the final scene it drifts out, with savage irony, across a world disappearing into atomic fire.” A curious verdict, but then that wildly overrated film (don’t @ me) has attracted many of those. If I want a tune to mock and mourn our perennially imminent nuclear annihilation, I’ll go for Tom Lehrer:
And we will all go together when we go
What a comforting fact that is to know
An inspiring achievement
Yes, we all will go together when we go
Nevertheless, Kubrick, like Turner, recognized the mythic power of this song, as did the Queen (like “the war,” she needs no other identifier), when in the course of a (rare) address to the U.K. as COVID-19 shut it down, she focused on 1940. The “finest hour” still looms very large in Britain’s vision of itself, and, as she made clear, it is a year that she remembers well. This latest broadcast, she noted, reminded her of her “very first,” made, she recalled, “in 1940.”
And towards the conclusion of this section of her speech, she said this:
We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.
The allusion was not missed.
Born in 1917, towards the end of the First World War and in a far from glamorous part of outer London (her father was a plumber), Lynn began singing before live audiences at the age of seven and was already embarked on a showbusiness career by the late 1930s. She thought that World War II would put an end to that. Instead it transformed her into an icon, and not only because of that one miraculous song. She sang through the Blitz; she sang to Londoners sheltering from the bombs in tube stations; and she sang for the troops, sometimes by the bedsides of the wounded; she sang on the home front; and (after some stops on the way) sang to “the boys” of the “Forgotten Army” in Burma, not infrequently with the Japanese rather too close for comfort. Decades later she was awarded the Burma Star.
A corporal who heard her sing there wrote:
We went mad. Never have I yelled, bellowed, hollered or clapped so much before . . . we gave her an ovation, all right. She couldn’t sing for 10 minutes and she cried, too. Broken hand or not, I made it clap . . . I saw blokes crying with joy at seeing our own Vera.
She had her own radio show, Sincerely Yours, for the troops overseas, on which she sang and read out letters from her listeners. The broadcast always ended with “We’ll Meet Again.” Some MPs criticized Sincerely Yours for being too sentimental — “sloppy muck” and so on. A more martial replacement was introduced. It flopped.
Lynn sang other songs, of course, in that period — typically sentimental ballads — and one or two numbers that became patriotic standards, “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover,” and the somewhat bombastic “There Will Always be an England” (the latter also written by the same duo behind “We’ll Meet Again” just a few weeks before the outbreak of war), but, just as the war overshadowed everything else Lynn did afterwards — something she accepted with grace — so “We’ll Meet Again” overshadowed everything else she sang.
Over the years she was to reprise this song on numerous occasions and in different ways, but to understand its power, the best version is one in which a chorus of servicemen join in. “Deeply affecting,” writes Turner — and that is putting it mildly. It is impossible to listen to without thinking of what lay ahead for those men, and it is impossible to miss the sense that she, they, and, by extension, her listeners, were all in this fight together. An abbreviated take can be heard (and seen) at the end of We’ll Meet Again, a movie shot in 1942, and released in January the following year, days before the German defeat at Stalingrad and months after the British victory at El Alamein. As Lynn sings — and, in the film, the RAF sings along — the evolution of the song since she first recorded it, accompanied, oddly, by a Novachord, (a proto-synthesizer, with a slightly cheesy sound to it) into an anthem is there to hear and — check out the clip — see. Somehow it now looks back at what the country has been through and resonates with a more confident belief, even if the words are unchanged, in the victory to come, one day, if still not quite yet:
We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day
Keep smiling through
Just like you always do
‘Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.