November 11, 2018, at 11am, is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1. The first shots were fired on July 28, 1914 when an Austro-Hungarian gunboat shelled Belgrade, capital of Serbia. By August 4, all the great powers of Europe had declared war. The Ottoman Empire declared war on Nov. 14, 1914. The United States joined on April 6, 1917. Songs went to war with the soldiers in 1914 and continued to be generated throughout the war, some retaining popularity even now. Also, songs about the Great War have become popular in the last 30 or so years. Here are some of the more famous ones.

When the war began, most people thought it would be over by Christmas. Men joined up with great enthusiasm, hoping to get in it before it was over. Soldiers sang patriotic songs and pre-war music hall hits while they marched or rested from marching. A German favorite was "Die Wacht am Rhine," “The Watch on the Rhine”. It had been a favorite already when Germans invaded France in 1870, and the French were the enemy that Germans felt they needed to defend themselves from. The last verse was added for this new war. “Wilhelm” refers to Kaiser Wilhelm II.

German lyrics

Verse translation

Es braust ein Ruf wie Donnerhall,

wie Schwertgeklirr und Wogenprall:

Zum Rhein, zum Rhein, zum deutschen Rhein,

wer will des Stromes Hüter sein?

The cry resounds like thunder's peal,

Like crashing waves and clang of steel:

The Rhine, the Rhine, our German Rhine,

Who will defend our stream, divine?


Lieb Vaterland, magst ruhig sein,

lieb Vaterland, magst ruhig sein,

Fest steht und treu die Wacht, die Wacht am Rhein!

Fest steht und treu die Wacht, die Wacht am Rhein!


Dear fatherland, no fear be thine,

dear fatherland, no fear be thine,

Firm stands the Watch along, along the Rhine!

Firm stands the Watch along, along the Rhine!

Durch Hunderttausend zuckt es schnell,

und aller Augen blitzen hell;

der Deutsche, bieder, fromm und stark,[N 1]

beschützt die heil'ge Landesmark.

They stand, a hundred thousand strong,

Quick to avenge their country's wrong,

With filial love their bosoms swell

They shall guard the sacred landmark well.

Er blickt hinauf in Himmelsau'n,

wo Heldenväter niederschau'n,

und schwört mit stolzer Kampfeslust:

Du Rhein bleibst deutsch wie meine Brust!

He casts his eyes to heaven's blue,

From where past heroes hold the view,

And swears pugnaciously the oath,

You Rhine and I, stay German, both.

Solang ein Tropfen Blut noch glüht,

noch eine Faust den Degen zieht,

und noch ein Arm die Büchse spannt,

betritt kein Feind hier deinen Strand!

While still remains one breath of life,

While still one fist can draw a knife,

One gun still fired with one hand,

No foe will stand on this Rhine sand.

Und ob mein Herz im Tode bricht,

wirst du doch drum ein Welscher nicht.

Reich, wie an Wasser deine Flut,

ist Deutschland ja an Heldenblut!

Should my heart not survive this stand,

You'll never fall in foreign hand,

Much, as your waters with no end,

Have we our heroes' blood to spend.

Der Schwur erschallt, die Woge rinnt

die Fahnen flattern hoch im Wind:

Am Rhein, am Rhein, am deutschen Rhein

wir alle wollen Hüter sein.

The oath resounds, on rolls the wave,

The banners fly high, proud, and brave,

The Rhine, the Rhine, the German Rhine

We all shall stand to hold the line!

So führe uns, du bist bewährt;

In Gottvertrau'n greif' zu dem Schwert!

Hoch Wilhelm! Nieder mit der Brut!

Und tilg' die Schmach mit Feindesblut!

So lead us with your tried command,

With trust in God, take sword in hand,

Hail Wilhelm! Down with all that brood!

Repay our shame with the foes' blood!

German Soldiers

German Soldiers Marching

The war began as a quarrel between Serbia and Austria-Hungary following the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Both of these countries went to war with martial, patriotic music. Austro-Hungarians sang the “Austrian Cavalry Song” by Hugo Zuckermann. Belgrade, in the last line, is the capital of Serbia.

“There in the meadow-land

Two jackdaws cry –

Is it on Danube’s strand

I’ll have to die?

Or in a Polish grave?

Before my soul shall fly,

I’ll fight a rider brave.

There on the field I see

Two raven scurry.

Shall I the first one be

Whom they must bury?

What’s that to me!

Many hundred thousands hurry

In Austria’s cavalry.

There in the evening breath

Hover two crows:

When comes the reaper Death

Who mows and mows?

We’re not afraid!

If but our banner blows

Over Belgrade!”

The Serbians resisted the Austrians singing “The March on the Drina”. The Drina is the river that separates Serbia from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which Austria had annexed in 1908 and whose capital is Sarajevo, where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. 

Austrian Soldiers

Austrian Soldiers marching

The Russians went to war because they had promised the Serbians help in case they were attacked. A popular song they sang was “Farewell of Slavianka”. “Slavianka” means “Slavic woman”, and the song had been popular since 1912 when it was written during the Balkan Wars. The lyrics below are the original ones. New lyrics have been written over the years. Many World War 1 songs were recycled for World War 2. The link is to the World War 2 version of the same song. There is even a version in Hebrew that was sung during the first Arab-Israeli war.

“Arise, Russian Land, defend your Faith!

We have composed many a song in our heart,

Glorifying the native land.

We've loved you no matter what,

You, our holy Russian land.

You've raised your head high,

Your face has been shining like the sun.

You've become a victim of betrayal --

by those who have cheated and sold you!


And again in march trumpet calls us.

We all stand in order

And go to the holy battle.

Arise, Russian Land, defend the faith!

Russia's holiness awaits victory.

Respond, the Orthodox host!

Where is your Ilya and where is your Dobrynia?

The mother is summoning her sons.

Under the banners of all we stand boldly

Procession with prayers go,

For the Russian right thing

The blood we shed Russian honestly.


We all are children of a Great Power

We all remember the forefathers' commandment:

For the Homeland, Honor, Glory,

Pity neither yourself nor the foes.

Arise, Russia, from your prison of slavery,

Victory's spirit is called: time to do battle!

Rise your battle flags

For Faith, Love, and Good.


Russian Soldiers

Russian Soldiers marching

In 1914, the French sang “La Marseillaise”, of course, their national anthem, but they also sang “La Madelon”, aka “Quand Madelon”, which became more and more popular as the war dragged on. It’s not a song about blood and death but about a woman who “loves the whole regiment”.

French lyrics

Literal Translation

Pour le repos, le plaisir du militaire,Il est là-bas à deux pas de la forêtUne maison aux murs tout couverts de lierre« Aux Tourlourous » c'est le nom du cabaret.La servante est jeune et jolieLégère comme un papillon.Comme son vin son œil pétille,Nous l'appelons la MadelonNous en rêvons la nuit, nous y pensons le jour,Ce n'est que Madelon mais pour nous c'est l'amour

At rest, a soldier's recreation

Is just a stone's throw away from the forest

A house with ivy-covered walls

"The Red Trouser-ed Soldier's" is the name of the Cabaret

The waitress is young and pretty,

As light as a butterfly,

As her wine, so her eye sparkles,

We call her "Madelon"

We dream of her at night, we think of her in day,

It is only Madelon whom we love.


–Quand Madelon vient nous servir à boire–Sous la tonnelle on frôle son jupon–Et chacun lui raconte une histoire–Une histoire à sa façon–La Madelon pour nous n'est pas sévère–Quand on lui prend la taille ou le menton–Elle rit, c'est tout le mal qu'elle sait faire–Madelon, Madelon, Madelon!–


–When Madelon serves us all our drinks

–Beneath the arbor we keep by her

–And everyone tells her a story

–Each telling a different story

–Madelon is not angry at us

–When we exaggerate our feats,

–She laughs, it's all she can do:

–Madelon, Madelon, Madelon!

Nous avons tous au pays une payseQui nous attend et que l'on épouseraMais elle est loin, bien trop loin pour qu'on lui diseCe qu'on fera quand la classe rentreraEn comptant les jours on soupireEt quand le temps nous semble longTout ce qu'on ne peut pas lui direOn va le dire à MadelonOn l'embrasse dans les coins. Elle dit « veux-tu finir… »On s'figure que c'est l'autre, ça nous fait bien plaisir.

We all have a maiden in the countryside

Who is waiting for us and we'll some day marry,

But she is far, too far, truth be told,

When what will we do until us soldiers return,

Counting the days we sigh?

And when the time seems long,

All we cannot tell others

We tell Madelon.

We kiss her in the corner [of her lip], she asks, "Do you want to finish?

When we realize it is her, it makes us very happy

Un caporal en képi de fantaisieS'en fut trouver Madelon un beau matinEt, fou d'amour, lui dit qu'elle était jolieEt qu'il venait pour lui demander sa mainLa Madelon, pas bête, en somme,Lui répondit en souriant:Et pourquoi prendrais-je un seul hommeQuand j'aime tout un régiment ?Tes amis vont venir. Tu n'auras pas ma mainJ'en ai bien trop besoin pour leur verser du vin

A corporal in a fancy kepi

Met with Madelon one morning

And, madly in love, told her she was pretty,

And asked for her hand in marriage

But Madelon, not stupid, in short

Replied to him with a smile:

"Why should I take one man

When I love the whole regiment?

Your friends will come, you will not have my hand,

I have too much need to serve wine.”

Quand Madelon

The British went to war largely because Germany invaded neutral Belgium, whose neutrality Great Britain, France and Germany had agreed by treaty to respect. Germany had had plans to invade France through Belgium for many years. The British public was not keen on going to war for France, Britain’s traditional enemy, but the callous invasion of Belgium was another matter, and the government and press used it to sell the war to Britons, who volunteered in droves. They marched off to war singing a sentimental music hall song written in 1912 called “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”. Tipperary is a town in Ireland, all of which was at that time part of the British Empire.

British Soldiers

Songwriters immediately went to work creating new songs for this new war. “Keep the Home Fires Burning” was published in October 1914 and quickly became popular.

Also popular with British soldiers in 1914 was “The Bells of Hell” an ironic parody of a romantic pre-war ditty.

“The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

For you but not for me:

For me the angels sing-a-ling-a-ling,

They've got the goods for me.

Oh! Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?

Oh! Grave, thy victory?

The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling

For you but not for me.”

Enthusiasm among the British for the cause of poor little Belgium began to wane when the wholesale killing set in. Already, before Christmas, British troops had begun to wonder why, exactly, they had been sent to die and answered the question with an ironic marching song, “We’re Here Because We’re Here”, sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”.

When Christmas 1914 came, the war was not only not over, the armies were dug into defensive trenches and no end was in sight. In the trenches, there was no more enthusiasm; there was only the cold, the wet, the mud, the lice, the rats, the diseases, and the obscenely grotesque killing. These conditions became emblematic of World War I and dominate our popular understanding of it today. Songwriters looking back from our perspective see little heroism and no glory but only misery and murderous futility. In 1984, American folksinger John McCutcheon wrote in this vein about a real incident when, on Christmas Day, German and British soldiers cautiously climbed out of their trenches and openly fraternized in No Man’s Land. When they learned of it, the generals on both sides were flabbergasted and ordered everyone back to their posts. No Man’s Land was bombarded to make sure no personal contact could continue as that might tend to make the enemy seem more human and less demonic.

Christmas Truce

Given that the Western Front was now deadlocked from the North Sea to the Swiss border, people began to look around for some other place to attack. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, thought an attack in the Dardanelles might roll the Turks up. Theoretically, Constantinople (Istanbul) would fall along with the Ottoman Empire, and the Balkans would be opened for an advance toward Austria-Hungary’s back door. Australians, New Zealanders, French, British and Indians attacked the Gallipoli Peninsula in April 1915, but all that resulted was a mini-Western Front, another miserable deadlock that would last until January 1916 when the last of the Allies evacuated. Eric Bogle, a Scot who moved to Australia, wrote a song in 1980 from the point of view of an Australian in the trenches at Gallipoli. The Pogues recorded a classic version of the song in 1985.

Australian Soldiers

1915 on the Western Front was a year of massive futile attacks like those at Artois and Neuve Chapelle with no result other than massive casualties on all sides. The British tried to keep a stiff upper lip with cheerful songs like “Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile”.

Both the Germans and the British had been in France long enough now to strike up relationships with French women. This was reflected in a popular British song, "Mademoiselle from Armentières”.  There were many versions of the lyrics, some far more risqué than others. The lyrics here were used by Americans after they arrived as we see from the word “doughboy”, the word used for American soldiers. To go “over the top” meant to climb over the trench’s parapet and attack. “Par ley voo” (“parlez vous”) represents the soldier’s attempt to learn French in order to communicate with the mademoiselles.

“Mademoiselle from Armentières Par ley voo,

Mademoiselle from Armentières Par ley voo,

Mademoiselle from Armentières,

She hasn't been kissed for forty years,

Hinky, Dinky Par ley voo.

Our top kick in Armentières

Soon broke the spell of forty years,

O Mademoiselle from gay Paree,

You certainly did play hell with me.

Farmer have you a daughter fair Par ley voo,

Farmer have you a daughter fair Par ley voo,

Farmer have you a daughter fair

Who washes the family underwear

Hinky, Dinky Par ley voo.

With her I flirted, I confess,

But she got revenge when she said "yes"

The doughboy he went over the top

Because he had no place to stop.

From gay Paree he heard guns roar,

And all he learned was 'je t'adore".

The day we sailed away from Brest

I said "Goodbye" and thought the rest.

Twelve long, rainy months or more,

I spent hunting for that war.

Where are the girls who used to swarm

About me in my uniform?

Mademoiselle from Armentières Par ley voo,

Mademoiselle from Armentières Par ley voo,

You might forget the gas and shell

You'll never forget the Mademoiselle

Hinky, Dinky Par ley voo.”

“There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding” was a sentimental American song from 1914, but the first British recording made it a hit with homesick British soldiers abroad.

In the United States, opinions about getting into the war were divided. The pro-war, pro-Allies party, which included Italian-Americans after Italy declared war on May 23, 1915, was led by former President Teddy Roosevelt. German- and Irish-Americans generally wanted either to join with Germany or to stay neutral, which was President Wilson’s intention. An American hit song, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” was clearly anti-war. The song was resurrected by the Eli Radish Band, an early “outlaw country” band, during the Vietnam War.

I Didn't Raise My Boy...

In February 1916, Germany attacked the French at Verdun. The French held but only barely and only with the help of a mostly British offensive on the Somme that began on July 1, 1916. The German trenches were bombarded continuously for seven days before the British assault began. No one believed the Germans could survive such punishment and that the assault would be, literally, a walk-over. So the Brits went over the top and walked toward the German lines, some kicking soccer balls. But the Germans, who had been sheltering in deep dugouts, manned their positions and machine gunned the advancing Brits. The British lost 60,000 casualties on that day alone, the worst day of the British Army. In 1991, Motörhead released “1916” with the same anti-war message as McCutcheon and Bogle had put into their songs.

French Soldiers

The Battle of the Somme went on until November 18; the Battle of Verdun went on until December 18. The British turned to gallows humor in their songs to express their disillusionment and war weariness. One of these songs was “Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire”. Broad nets of barbed wire were placed in front of the frontline trenches on both sides as a barrier to attacking enemies. The wire caught the attackers, who then became easy targets. Their bodies would hang there until they fell apart from being eaten by rats and from more enemy fire.

The River Somme flows through the region of Picardy, where British lads, when not in the line, might meet local women, who had little opportunity to meet local men because they were all off at the war, in hospital, or dead. Wartime romances were not uncommon and “Roses of Picardy” memorializes them. The song has been recorded many times since 1916.

In 1917, French General Nivelle had a plan for ending the war, an April offensive that required attacking up a ridge called Chemin des Dames and onto a plateau. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much different than all the other failed plans. The French lost 40,000 casualties on the first day. Twelve days later the number was 120,000. In May, the French soldiers, called “poilus”, “hairy ones”, because they let their beards and mustaches grow, mutinied or, as some said, struck. It was not that they refused to fight; they would resist the Germans if they attacked. It was that they refused to be sacrificed in suicidal and futile attacks of their own. A song began to circulate called “La Chanson de Craonne”. Craonne was a small town in the battle zone that was completely destroyed. The song caught on like wildfire. The composer(s) of the lyrics were anonymous, and the military authorities offered one million francs and immediate release from the army for information leading to their identification and arrest. They were never identified. The song remained prohibited in France until 1974.

The lyrics of “The Song of Craonne” in English:

"When at the end of a week's leave

We're going to go back to the trenches, Our place there is so useful That without us we'd take a thrashing. But it's all over now, we've had it up to here, Nobody wants to march anymore. And with hearts downcast, like when you're sobbing We're saying good-bye to the civilians, Even if we don't get drums, even if we don't get trumpets We're leaving for up there with lowered head.

Good-bye to life, good-bye to love, Good-bye to all the women, It's all over now, we've had it for good With this awful war. It's in Craonne up on the plateau That we're leaving our skins, 'Cause we've all been sentenced to die. We're the ones that they're sacrificing

Eight days in the trenches, eight days of suffering, And yet we still have hope That tonight the relief will come That we keep waiting for. Suddenly in the silent night We hear someone approach It's an infantry officer Who's coming to take over from us. Quietly in the shadows under a falling rain The poor soldiers are going to look for their graves

Good-bye to life, good-bye to love, Good-bye to all the women, It's all over now, we've had it for good With this awful war. It's in Craonne up on the plateau That we're leaving our hides 'Cause we've all been sentenced to die. We're the ones that they're sacrificing

On the grands boulevards it's hard to look At all the rich and powerful whooping it up For them life is good But for us it's not the same Instead of hiding, all these shirkers Would do better to go up to the trenches To defend what they have, because we have nothing All of us poor wretches All our comrades are being buried there To defend the wealth of these gentlemen here

Those who have the dough, they'll be coming back, 'Cause it's for them that we're dying. But it's all over now, 'cause all of the grunts Are going to go on strike. It'll be your turn, all you rich and powerful gentlemen, To go up onto the plateau. And if you want to make war, Then pay for it with your own skins."

French Soldiers 2

General Nivelle lost his job because of this failed offensive, and General Pétain, who was more popular with the poilus because he tended not to waste their lives in hopeless attacks, was called on to replace him. Pétain initiated reforms and quelled the mutinies. Nevertheless, the battle at Chemin des Dames ground on until October.

British General Haig, who believed himself led by God, had other ideas for an offensive and on July 31 began a British “show” or “push”, as offensives were often called, in Flanders, which has come to be known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Like Nivelle, he promised that if the objectives were not reached in a few days, the offensive would be cancelled. Like Nivelle, he ignored his promise. On the first day of the battle, three British brigades suffered a 70% casualty rate. The battle continued; rains turned the Flanders lowlands to fields of mud where men sometimes drowned in shell holes filled with water. This, too, is part of today’s popular memory of World War 1. Iron Maiden recorded their song about the battle, “Paschendale”, in 2003.

The Battle of Passchendaele went on until November of 1917 and achieved nothing of military importance except massive loss of life and resources. By then, revolution had taken Russia out of the war, which would theoretically free up German and Austrian troops for a spring 1918 offensive on the Western Front, and the United States had entered the war. Unrestricted German submarine warfare and the Zimmermann Telegram, in which Germany offered Mexico territory it had lost to the US in the Mexican War if it would attack the US, convinced Wilson that war was necessary. Exhausted by their failed offensives, the French and British decided to start nothing new until the Americans came over to help. In America, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” was out, and a new song by George M. Cohan, “Over There”, was in.

The Germans did attack in March of 1918 and broke through the British lines, driving them back for miles before the British could regroup and effectively resist just east of the city of Amiens. But by then the German attackers were exhausted, having gained more ground than the British had the year before. In addition, German soldiers, who had been living a malnourished existence in their trenches for lack of food, were so amazed by the British food depots they overran that they had to stop and eat their fill and, moreover, get drunk on the abundant alcohol, which they had also been suffering from a lack of. British hospitals once again filled to overflowing with casualties, and a new song hailed not the French mademoiselles, but Red Cross nurses. “The Rose of No Man’s Land” became a hit, and the song was recorded in a French version as well.

Battle of the Lys

The Germans continued to attack at one place and then another until they had advanced to the Marne River, which had been their highwater mark in 1914 before being driven back and forced to dig in. At last, the Americans arrived and, in July 1918, helped stop them and drive them back once again. The Allied advance was slow but relentless and didn’t stop until the war ended with the Armistice of November 11, 1918 at 11am.

The death total of military personnel in World War 1 was between 9 and 11 million. Civilian deaths were about 8 million. The total wounded runs from 22 to 23 million. In 1976, Eric Bogle wrote a song called “The Green Fields of France” (aka “No Man’s Land”, “Willie McBride”) that, by focusing on the death of one man, lamented all the loss and obscene futility of the war that people were encouraged to believe would end wars. 

WWI Cemetery

In Memoriam.


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