WWI insignia decorating sheet music

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Cover with the emblem of section TM 499 responsible for transporting material during WW1 in France. Published by Clapson in 1919 – Illustration attributed to Benjamin Rabier.

We recently found the historical explanation for an unusual series of sheet music covers that we have been collecting for years.

At the outbreak of the First World War the French army requisitioned private cars, commercial vans and trucks, taxis and all Parisian buses and their drivers. The military Service Automobile started with only a few dozen cars in 1914, and counted almost one hundred thousand (!) vehicles at the time of the armistice. It transported soldiers and provided the army with food and munitions. The Service Automobile was divided in sections, each with a specific task. The more than thousand Parisian buses of the RVF (Ravitaillement en Viande Fraiche) carried fresh meat to the war zone. The seats were taken out of the buses and meat racks were installed. The windows were replaced by canvasses. There was no refrigeration. A single bus could contain the meat for a whole regiment of about three thousand men.

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Parisian De Dion Bouton bus transformed for the RVF section responsible for the transportation of fresh meat.
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Bus transporting meat to the front during WWI

Other sections were charged with the transport of the wounded (the Sanitary Sections or SS), ammunition for the artillery (SMA), material (TM), or staff (TP). Every section was identified by it’s initials and a number, for example TM 670. Because this wasn’t easy to communicate, one soon began to use nicknames to indicate certain sections. For example ‘the lady bug’ or ‘the polar bear’. And in 1916, although against regulations, the sections began to paint their symbol in vivid colours on their trucks in order to be easily recognised. The inspiration for these nicknames and insignia was limitless: animals, soldiers, nurses, playing cards, geometric shapes, daily life, …

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Examples of insignia from the Automobile Section (from l’Album de la Guerre 1914-1919 – L’Illustration 1927)
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Insignia of a dragon on the canvas of a truck of the TM section.

Shortly after the war, 155 of these insignia were exhibited in Paris in honour of the Service Automobile and sold for charity. At the same time the Parisian composer and publisher Clapson edited a series of musical compositions (at least 35) on cheap post-war paper in remembrance of the Service Automobile. Each cover was illustrated with the emblem of one of the famous sections. The music was performed in the renowned Parisian venues such as the Casino de Paris, l’Olympia or Les Folies Bergère.

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Left, press photos of 4 insignia of the exposition in 1919 (source: Bibliothèque nationale de France). Right, the 1919 sheet music cover published by Clapson, and illustrated by Benjamin Rabier.

Two symbols in the press photo above, the ape and the cow, were drawn by Benjamin Rabier and were later used by Clapson to illustrate his sheet music. The head of the ape (the insignia of the section RVF B20) adorned the cover for the music of Le Singe à l’huile or Bully Beef. Tinned corned beef or bully beef was – and still sometimes is – translated in French as singe (singe being the French word for ape). This must have been a joke as the RVF only transported fresh meat. In a following post we will discuss the insignia of the laughing cow’s head, nicknamed la Wachkyrie.

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Left, the press photos of 4 insignia of the exposition in 1919 (source: Bibliothèque nationale de France). Right, the sheet music cover for ‘La Souris Blanche’ illustrated by M. Carvallo.

The red cross on the cover of La Souris Blanche leaves no doubt that this white mouse was the insignia for one of the sanitary sections.

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Covers illustrated by P. Garnier, de Scevola, Fetaz, Benjamin Rabier, Circa, Roubille and E.S. 1919-1920

On the left side of the second row in the above collage of Clapson’s songs is The Pelican. The cover was drawn by the Fench painter Guirand de Scévola. He is considered one of the inventors of military camouflage during World War I. The Pelican, a foxtrot composed by Clapson, was the biggest hit of the series. You can listen to this popular tune now, as if you were celebrating the end of The Great War at a thé dansant in the Savoy Dancing Club yourself.

One thought on “WWI insignia decorating sheet music”

  1. Mais où allez vous chercher tout ça? Vous devez passer vos nuits à visiter vos tiroirs ?….Surtout, continuez comme ça, ……!!!!

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