We have a long history of wartime songs, the best example being France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise, which originated during the French Revolution.
My favourite wartime songs aren’t anthems. They’re the ones beloved of servicemen of both world wars and, once, you could wander into any Canadian Legion and find veterans singing the songs they sang “over there.”
In fact, Over There, written in 1917 by George M. Cohan, is considered America’s best-loved First World War song.
It’s a Long Way to Tipperary is older, dating to the very beginning of that first Great War. It pre-dates Over There by about four years. Tipperary was a favourite during both wars.
English songbird, Vera Lynn, known as “The Forces’ Sweetheart,” was likely most famous for We’ll Meet Again. Although she also sang Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye, this one is generally considered a Gracie Fields standard. An early Vera Lynn war song was A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
Some of the best-loved songs originated with the enemy. Lili Marlene, so beautiful in English, is even more lovely in its original German.
When Lili Marlene was first sung by English servicemen in 1941, it wasn’t yet translated. Not until about 1943, were English lyrics written. The original was penned by a German soldier, Hans Leip, in 1915, but became popular only in the Second World War.
Who doesn’t know The Beer Barrel Polka, also called Roll Out the Barrel? Written pre-war by Vaclav Zeman, a Czechoslovakian, The Beer Barrel Polka was adopted by Germans after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939. The German version was soon translated into English by Allied troops and is popular to this day.
Many war songs promote patriotism or boost morale — There’ll Always Be an England, Till the Lights of London Shine Again, When the Lights go on Again all Over the World, Rosie the Riveter, Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer, White Cliffs of Dover.
But many others want to make us laugh. Good examples are: We’re Gonna Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line, Run Rabbit Run, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, They’re Either too Young or too Old, Mademoiselle from Armentières (First World War).
The funniest wartime song must be the wonderful Spike Jones number, Der Fuehrer’s Face. The chorus, “When der Fuehrer says ve is die master race/We heil, heil, right in der Fuehrer’s face,” always gets everyone singing. But the lyrics are so clever it’s possible to miss some of the humour, for example, “Is this Nazi land so good/Would you leave it if you could?/ Ja. This Nazi land is good/We would leave it if we could.”
Few Second World War veterans and none from First World War survive today. Those who remain are old and many are ailing. But, once, thousands of young soldiers, sailors and airmen kept their spirits high by singing these wonderful songs so we must do our best to keep them alive in their memory.
Comic singer, George Formby, said it best when he gave us Bless em All in 1944.
I second that.
To Second World War veterans — Bless ’em All.