“America isn’t the only country with an official song that sprung from the pages of military history. Consider these.”
FRANCIS SCOTT KEY wasn’t much of a songwriter. In fact, friends of the Baltimore-based barrister remembered him as being tone deaf. Yet in 1814, Key would compose the most famous song in American history, The Star-Spangled Banner.
The unlikely librettist jotted down the words of what would become the U.S. national anthem while watching British warships bombard a fortress guarding the harbour of his home town.
Key, along with another Maryland lawyer named John Stuart Skinner, had days earlier rowed out to the enemy fleet under a flag of truce to negotiate the release of some locals who had been captured by overzealous redcoats during a recent shore expedition.
The British admiral, Alexander Cochrane, agreed to free the prisoners, but in the interest of operational security, he insisted that the delegates remain on board until the Royal Navy had completed its mission in the area.
So on the evening of Sept. 13, Key found himself standing on the deck of HMS Tonnant watching as the 19-ship British flotilla battered Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. The cannonade lasted all night and into the following day. As shells rained down upon the beleaguered ramparts, the defenders defiantly unfurled a 30 x 42-foot flag, the largest American standard in existence at the time. It flew all night, illuminated in the darkness by exploding shells and Congreve rockets. Despite the ferocity of the British blitz, the invaders failed to destroy the outpost and eventually withdrew into Chesapeake Bay.
Key was so moved by the scene he’d witnessed, he published a poem about it in his local paper. Years later, he set his verse, that he entitled The Defense of Fort M’Henry <sic>, to the melody of a bawdy British drinking tune called To Anacreon In Heaven and named the composition The Star-Spangled Banner. In 1931, a resolution by Congress would make the patriotic ballad the anthem of the United States.
Of course, America isn’t the only country with an official song that sprung from the pages of military history. Consider these.
“Rebellious Scots to Crush?”
Although the origins of Great Britain’s national anthem, God Save the King (or Queen depending on the gender of the monarch), can be traced back to the 17th Century, the song was first played publically in London playhouses in the autumn of 1745. The performances were intended to bolster the city’s sagging morale amid an invasion of England by nearly 20,000 Scottish rebels under the leadership of the Jacobite pretender Charles Edward Stuart. The grandson of England’s last Catholic monarch, the deposed James II, Charles (aka “Bonnie Prince Charlie”) sought to drive the Protestant George II from the throne and seize it for himself. Legend holds that the three-verse patriotic song, which appeals to the Almighty to “scatter” the sovereign’s enemies and “make them fall,” initially featured a fourth stanza that referred specifically to King George’s top military commander, as well as the Papist enemy.
Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
May by thy mighty aid
May he sedition hush,
and like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush!
God save the King!
While no doubt a fun story, myth-busting historians have pointed out that these stirring lines were likely added much later, as contemporaneous song sheets make no mention at all of crushing Scots. Listen to it below:
Song for the Army of the Rhine
France’s eminently catchy national anthem, La Marseillaise, was born as a call to arms amid that country’s turbulent Revolutionary Wars. Yet despite being a hymn of the radical anti-monarchists, it was actually written by a staunch royalist army officer who very nearly lost his head to the guillotine. Captain Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle composed La Marseillaise, which was originally entitled Chant de guerre pour l’armée du Rhin or Song for the Army of the Rhine, shortly after war broke out between Austria and Revolutionary France in 1792. It featured the rousing refrain of “to arms, citizens,” and features some especially vivid lyrics intended to play on citizens’ fear of foreign invasion:
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!
De Lisle’s tune quickly gained popularity with volunteers in the city of Marseille, who turned it into a marching song for local regiments. The piece soon made an impression on the revolutionary government when a regiment from the south of France marched into Paris signing the song lustily. By 1795, the regime had proclaimed it the national anthem, naming it in honour of the song’s adopted city. Listen to it below:
Mr. Stalin’s Opus
A foreign invasion was also the inspiration of Russia’s national anthem. The song, which would gain international notoriety in the Cold War, was first ordered by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin shortly after the launch of the Nazi conquest of the U.S.S.R. Desperate for music to instill fighting spirit in Russian citizens, Stalin turned to a 60-year-old composer named Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov for help. The resulting song premiered on Soviet radio on New Year’s Day, 1944 and featured lyrics by Sergey Mikhalkov and Gabriel El-Registan. Even though German troops had not yet been fully driven from Soviet soil, the chorus anticipated the downfall of the Axis by boldly proclaiming:
We fought for the future, destroyed the invaders,
and brought to our homeland the laurels of fame.
Our glory will live in the memory of nations
and all generations will honour her name.
Within three months, Moscow had declared the song the Soviet state anthem displacing the socialist hymn, The Internationale. After the death of Stalin in 1953, the song’s original lyrics were revised to strike all positive references to the deceased despot. The updated version would continue to be played until the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. The newly independent Russian federation immediately adopted an entirely instrumental version known simply known as Patrioticheskaya Pesnya or The Patriotic Song. In 2000, new non-Soviet lyrics were commissioned by president Vladimir Putin. It remains Russia’s national anthem to this day. Listen here:
The March of the Volunteers
Strangely enough, China’s militaristic national anthem, The March of the Volunteers, began as the theme song to the 1935 patriotic war film Children of Troubled Times. The movie, which was a smash hit among the country’s communists, tells the story of a thoroughly bourgeois Chinese intellectual who abandons his life of luxury to take up arms with peasants to fight off the Japanese invaders in Manchuria. Inspired by western revolutionary standards like La Marseillaise and The Internationale, the song calls on listeners to sacrifice their “flesh and blood” to build a “new Great Wall” as the country faces “its greatest peril.” Ironically, the composer, a Marxist orchestra leader and record producer with the Pathé label by the name of George Njal, wrote The March of the Volunteers while visiting his brother who was living in Japan at the time. The song was embraced by Maoists during the wars against both the Japanese and the nationalist Kuomintang. Upon their victory in 1949, the communists declared it the anthem of the People’s Republic. The song briefly fell out of favour during the 1966 Cultural Revolution, when Njal was purged as a counter-revolutionary. The party re-adopted it in the 1970s after revising the lyrics, but by 1982, it was reinstated in its original form. In 2004, the Chinese Communist Party enshrined The March of the Volunteers in their country’s constitution. Listen to it below:
Song of Advancing Soldiers
Like China’s March of the Volunteers, Vietnam’s national anthem, Tiến Quân Ca, The Marching Song or Song of Advancing Soldiers, is also a throwback to the war against the Japanese invaders. The tune, written in 1944 by a 21-year-old Vietnamese composer by the name of Văn Cao, became the hymn of nationalist Viet Minh guerrillas. When Ho Chi Minh declared his country’s independence from France following World War Two, he named Song of Advancing Soldiers the national anthem. It would continue to be played at ceremonies throughout what was known by communists as the Anti-French Resistance War and later during the war against South Vietnam and the United States. Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, Song of Advancing Soldiers would become the national anthem for the reunified Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It is performed to this day. Listen to it here:
The 1868 Battle of Bayamo, which saw a rag-tag band of Cuban nationalists defeat a Spanish army, inspired the song that would eventually become the Caribbean island country’s official state anthem. According to legend, Pedro Felipe Figueredo, a 50-year-old revolutionary and poet who fought in the famous clash, wrote the lyrics while in the saddle of his horse at the urging of his fellow soldiers. The song, which was entitled El Himno de Bayamo or simply La Bayamesa includes lyrics that call upon Cubans to “run, brave ones, to battle!” and reminds listeners not to fear a “glorious death, for to die for the motherland is to live.” Other lines referred to the “fierce Iberian” enemy as “tyrants” and “cowards.” Figueredo was captured by the Spaniards and shot in 1870. Defiant to the end, he reportedly sang out his famous lyrics as the firing squad carried out the execution. A revised version of El Himno de Bayamo, one that jettisoned the anti-Spainiard sentiments, was adopted as the Cuban national anthem in 1902 and was by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government in 1959. Give it a listen below:
A History of Violence
Perhaps the most martial of all the world’s national anthems belongs to the Italy. Canto degli Italiani or Song of the Italians, was written in the 1840s by Genoese revolutionaries Goffredo Mameli and Michele Novaro during the Risorgimento, or struggle for national unification. The song’s original five stanzas take listeners on a veritable blood-soaked tour of military history, invoking everything from the ancient Roman Scipio Africanus’ victory over the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War to the Lombards’ 12th Century defeat of Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano. Even Polish and Cossack blood spilled in defiance of Russian rule are celebrated and linked to the spirit of the nationalist movement. Along the way, the songwriters also take jabs at the Austrian’s eagle having lost its plume in the face of Italian resistance and the swords of foreign mercenaries being as useful as “reeds” from a pond. The song was a patriotic standard for decades until a shortened version was adopted as an unofficial national anthem after World War Two. In 2012, it was finally given the official nod. Check it out here: