Over there lies the long way to Victory. Songs for soldiering.

I can easily recall one happy childhood memory related to the school and, more particularly, to my English lessons. I went to the Jesuits school in my hometown, and there the Principal acted also as teacher of English. He was a well-humuored man, keen on cycling and other sports, and very enthusiastic about the English language, its teaching and its importance for the future (being a Spaniard, the knowledge of other languages has usually been regarded even with some suspicion). To encourage the young learners, Padre Fermín will open every lesson with a song. The ritual began when he opened the door, and we started to sing, standing. By the time he reached his seat the brief music was almost finished and so, in due order, we sat ourselves. The favourite song, the one we use to sing as if marching to find our future, was “It’s a long way to Tipperary” or better said, its chorus (I’m afraid our English was even worse at that time and that was all our little minds were able to learn by heart). Little we knew that particular song had been sung while marching to meet their future by many a young man, not so young as we were then, but young enough. And the future of many of them was a grave with no name in a foreign land. We may had not felt as happy if we had possessed that knowledge.

The fact is that WWI was consider a just and necessary war by lots of otherwise peaceful citizens. Volunteering was rife at the outbreak of war, and young men of almost every nation involved in the conflict join the rank and file with enthusiasm and, I daresay, in many cases with joy. Come to that, war was the epitome of manhood, courage, heroism, sacrifice, patriotism…(Most of us think otherwise these days, but now is now, and then was then). And with the joy of joining their fellow countrymen and engage the enemies in combat (and obviously defeat them; no one joins a fight to lose it) came the songs. After all singing is an obvious expression of joy (also of sorrow, but we are still at the outbreak of war, sorrow will come later, with pain and grief, and different songs) and those happy fellows who were to evict the “Hun” from Belgium, or to recover the lost Fatherland or whatever their sacred mission it was, had the need to express their feelings about King, Country, themselves and the enemy.

“It’s a long way to Tipperary” was one of the favourites within the BEF, as was “Keep the homes fires burning”. For the Germans it was “Die Wacht am Rhein” and for the French “Sambre et Meuse”. The Americans were still far away, but they will have their own song in “Over there”. But there are some subtle differences between what each ones were singing, reflections on the different approaches to war in each country.

For instance, both the French and German songs are military marches, while the English were popular tunes, more related with home than with the front. And the American was an engaging tune suitable for attracting recruits to a not really well-known conflict. “Over there” was also made for the occasion, and “It’s a long way…” was quite new at the time, been written in 1912. But the continental songs were older, both dating from the 19th. And both are far more warlike than their companions here.

Both the French and German songs are set against a long story of confrontation and territorial claims from either side of the river Rhine. “Die wacht”calls (roars like thunderbolt says the song) for someone “to defend the German Rhine”. But the Fatherland may rest at ease, because every German wants to be in The Watch and so no enemy will enter the shore “Solang ein Tropfen Blut noch glüht”; as long as a drop of blood (German, of course) still glows. Come the time of WWI a new stanza was added, the seventh, which goes as this:

So führe uns, du bist bewährt;

So lead us, you are approved 

In Gottvertrau’n greif’ zu dem Schwert!

With trust in God, grab the sword!

Hoch Wilhelm! Nieder mit der Brut!

Hail Wilhelm! Down with all that brood!

Und tilg’ die Schmach mit Feindesblut!

Erase the shame with foes’ blood!

Apparently this stanza was frequently used as propaganda in postcards and the likes during the war. Charming. Note the reference to Kaiser Wilhelm and the usual need of washing past offenses with the enemies’ blood. The enemies quite clear being the French. Not coincidentally the song was allegedly written in the wake of French Prime Minister Thiers claiming that the French border should be anchored in the Rhine river. Fittingly, the musical arrangement gained momentum and popularity in successive Sängerfest (choral competitions closely associated with German culture) thus competing as a kind of substitute national anthem with the nowadays official Deutschlandlied.

Following suit, “Sambre et Meuse” was composed shortly after the Franco-Prussian war and the crushing defeat suffered by the French army. The real name is, in fact, “The Regiment of Sambre et Meuse” and is begins with the verse “Tous ces fiers enfants de la Gaule”: All these proud children of Gaul…another call to all the nation to unite against the common enemy. In the chorus we can find another statement not to be taken lightly:

           Cherchant la route glorieuse                      Seeking the path of glory

Qui l’a conduit à l’immortalité                   That led them to immortality

One could say that those paths of glory usually led to death not immortality. But again, there is the call to arms, the urge to rally against the enemy, the soldiers refusing to retreat, surrounded, fighting til the last man, against all odds. And when the last man is taken prisoner, but better to be a captive he kills himself. Le Héros se donna la mort.

With all these appeals to death, sacrifice and bloodshed,on both sides the outcome of the war could well have been forecasted since that was the mood of the combatants, at least at the first stages. Later on, soldiers resorted to other songs, not so referring to slaughter and bravery, but to longing, fear and loathing.

“Tipperary”, in the other hand, was a popular tune adopted by units of an army away from home, with a sense of duty and of a certain faith “in the justice of our cause”, but filled with men that, given the opportunity after the first bouts of enthusiasm, would surely have preferred to be back at home, sipping their tea. It is humorous and light. No blood, no guns. Just a couple of commoners trying to outsmart the other, and a town far away where there is someone dear. Probably the exact feeling of almost every Tommy. And there were reports of this song sung by units as they arrive to France, even before they got engaged in combat. Maybe they were having second thoughts about their mission.

           It’s a long way to Tipperary,

It’s a long way to go,

It’s a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye, Piccadilly,
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It’s a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart’s right there.
Many of them will lose heart and soul in Mons, Somme, Passchendaele. And now they rest a long way from home, among their comrades, maybe singing Tipperary in the silent language of ghosts. They are still longing for home and their Molly-Os.
Still three years will pass until the US army get into the field. But they will bring their own song with them. One of those fresh, defiant, over-confident songs that so well described American spirit. They have no particular dislike for anyone but, when push comes to shove…well
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
Just in case you are not getting the innuendo, old boy. Over there was written and composed by music hall star George M. Cohan in April 1917 and was used to increase recruiting and sell the US public the view of a short expedition to put an end to the war that Wilson’s administration was favoring. A sort of friendly yet powerful “vini, vidi, vinci”. So the song was for internal consumption, and so there is just the slightest reference to “the Hun”: “Johnny, show the “Hun”you’re a son-of-a-gun”. Again, it sounds more like a little brag than a real threat to a bitter enemy. That was probably the approach most American citizens have to war in Europe: something went wrong absurdly, but the Yanks were coming to put and end to it and everybody would be friends again. It seems that Europeans were quite confused after almost three years of horror to get the point in Yankee counseling; they went over there and their lives were soon severed by machine guns and high explosive. Just like everyone else.
I can recall another happy memory. Me aged 12 or so watching the TV at night. Black and white film. James Cagney, for once, dancing and singing instead of killing people and calling his Ma’. A catchy song called “Over there”. I spent months humming that particular song. Again not knowing as with “Tipperary” the tragedy after the music. Now it seems so unfair that I should have such happy memories associated with songs that also represent the fury and madness of war. That I have so enjoyed what for others could have been a moment of grief. That my happy memories could be somewhat intertwined with other people sad reminiscences. There is just one thing to comfort me: at least I happen to know the lighter, and happier ones. But soldiers in 1914, or 1917 had to get to know all the hatred and bloodshed that was sung in the long marches to the front. I wonder if a tune came to their minds amidst the ghastly sounds of the fight. And which one was it.

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