During World War Two, soldiers on both sides of the conflict found solace in singing songs that reminded them of home and the loved ones they left behind. Popular refrains such as White Cliffs of Dover and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy were sung in both military camps and on the battlefield, and helped soldiers cope with the stresses of war and maintain a sense of hope and camaraderie.
In the time since the war ended, these songs have evolved into cultural symbols and reminders of the multi-faceted aspects of the conflict, from gallows humour explorations of death to melodies that pine for a lost love at home.
Here are 8 popular soldier songs from World War Two.
1. Lili Marlene (1915, 1939)
Originally written as a poem in 1915 by German soldier Hans Leip, this love song was first released by Lale Andersen in 1939 as as Das Mädchen unter der Laterne (The Girl under the Lantern). The song became popular across Europe and the Mediterranean amongst both Axis and Allied troops during World War Two, since soldiers sang their own edited versions.
2. Over There (1917)
Written in 1917 by George M. Cohan, Over There was popular with the US military and public during both World War One and World War Two. Designed to encourage men to enlist and fight the ‘Hun’, the song is well known for a line in the chorus: ‘The Yanks are coming’. The song has been revised and re-used in the time since, and though not heavily used during the Vietnam War, it has been used since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
3. God Bless America (1918)
First recorded by Irving Berlin during World War One, God Bless America was revised by him in 1938 in the run up to World War Two. The revision was because Berlin, as a Russian-Jewish immigrant who had arrived the US aged 5, wanted to respond to the worrying rise of Adolf Hitler and his ideology.
This later version was recorded by Kate Smith, and became her signature song. The song was also later used by the Civil Rights Movement, and also by Christian conservatives to signal their opposition to secular liberalism, in favour of communism or opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War.
4. I’ll Be Seeing You (1938)
Written by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal, I’ll Be Seeing You is about the longing that comes with being separated from a loved one. First inserted into the Broadway musical Right This Way, which closed after 15 performances, the song tells the story of a soldier who is excited to see his love again after the war. Though not the first recording of the song, Bing Crosby’s 1944 rendition quickly hit number 1 for the week of 1 July.
5. We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line (1939)
One of the most famous songs sung during World War Two, We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line was written by popular Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy, who wrote it while serving as a Captain in the British Expeditionary Force during the early stages of World War Two. A comic show of defiance and morale booster, the Siegfried Line refers to Germany’s fortified western border with France. Commonly sung amongst troops, notable recordings were made by by Flanagan & Allen, Arthur Askey and Vera Lynn.
6. White Cliffs of Dover (1941)
Arguably one of the most famous songs related to World War Two, White Cliffs of Dover was written by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, then first recorded by Vera Lynn in 1941. The song tells the story of a soldier longing to see the white cliffs of Dover again, and after being played repeatedly on the radio to help boost morale, became a hugely popular anthem of hope amongst soldiers.
7. Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (1941)
Written by Don Raye and Hughie Prince, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy is a jump blues song which tells the story of a boy playing his bugle to entertain troops. It was first introduced by The Andrews Sisters in the Abbott and Costello comedy film Buck Privates (1941), and was hugely popular, reaching the top 10 of the US pop singles chart in spring 1941, and later being ranked at number 6 on ‘Songs of the Century’. In addition, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
8. Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me) (1942)
Originally titled Anywhere the Bluebird Goes, the melody was written by Sam H. Stept as an update of a nineteenth-century Enlish folk song named Long, Long Ago. The lyrics were written by Lew Brown and Charles Tobias, and the song debuted in the 1939 Broadway musical Yokel Boy. After the US entered the war in 1941, Brown and Tobias changed the chorus to end with ‘…till I come marching home’.
The song stayed in number one position on ‘Your Hit Parade’ from October 1942 to January 1943, marking it as the longest period for a war song to hold first place.