Voices through sound and song

A soldier’s description of the sounds at the front line can be used as a starting point to explore the different styles, audiences, and purposes of music during the war. The hook also includes three links about “The Last Post”.

Diary entry by William Malone, 1915. Alexander Turnbull Library. MSX-2546-063

Diary entry by William Malone, 1915. Alexander Turnbull Library. MSX-2546-063

The following links are about “The Last Post”, a well-known item of music associated with war and commemorations of it:


Malone’s diary and tragic story have been the focus of a number of books, a play, and also a movie. Here his descriptions of night fighting at Gallipoli are startlingly vivid and onomatopoeic. Ironically, his statement “The real danger was from premature bursts or short ranged shell from our own batteries” was tragically prophetic. It is now thought Malone was killed on Chunuk Bair by a shellburst from New Zealand or British artillery. Bugle calls were traditionally used to signal particular times of the day during military events. “The Last Post” was played to signal the end of the soldiers’ activities for the day. It is still used today at military funerals and memorial services. Its use in funerals indicates that the serviceman or -woman’s duty is complete and they can rest in peace.

Music and song played an important role during the war, both in motivating troops and in comforting those at home. Music was an important social activity at the time and helped raise large amounts of funds for the war effort, with military-style brass bands especially popular. Many songs were composed with a war theme: songs such as “Pack Up Your Troubles” became iconic and are still well known today. To build morale, soldiers sang as they marched and in some cases were led into battle by a piper.

Possible discussion questions

  • How does the use of onomatopoeia help you visualise the scene described in Malone’s diary? What emotions does he convey with his words?
  • How do you think soldiers in the field would have felt when they heard “The Last Post”? Why do you think it is played at funerals and remembrance services? What emotions does “The Last Post” evoke when it is played in these settings today? How do these emotions differ for various groups of people?
  • Why was music so important to soldiers and to those at home during the First World War?
  • What technology enabled them to listen to music? What or how did people make and listen to music if there was no technology available to them?
  • How did Māori and Pasifika use music during the First World War? What are the similarities and differences with how Pakeha used music?
  • Do you think it is important to remember the voices of the past? Why or why not? How do songs and music help us do this?
  • What relevance do the songs and music of those living during the First World War have for us today?
  • Do you think sharing people’s experiences through music and songs is more or less important today than it was in the past? What factors have led to this change?
  • What do lyrics of songs tell us about what is important to people? How has this changed over time?
  • How do you use music and songs to communicate your own voice or hear others’ voices?
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