Whose side are you on?

There was a new arrival in the Music Department at the UL, this week: a copy of Carl Wilhelm’s famous song, Wacht am Rhein, translated here, by Henry Brougham Farnie, as The Watch by the Rhine, or as it is more usually known in English, The Watch on the Rhine.

Somehow or other, this publication had slipped through the Legal Deposit net, when it was first published; but when exactly was it published? Anti-German sentiment was high during the First World War, it was very unlikely that it would have been published in London during that period, and although it makes an appearance in Casablanca, when it is sung by a group of Nazis (actually the actor, Conrad Veidt and friends, many of whom were themselves self-imposed exiles or refugees from Hitler’s Reich), the Marseillaise definitely wins that particular competition.

The secret of this publication lies in the phrase “Now being sung by The Army of the Rhine,” and an entry for Stationer’s Hall.

There have been several “Armies of the Rhine”, but the earliest was the army formed by the French during revolutionary times in 1791. This was evidently not the army referred to as Wilhelm’s song wasn’t composed till the mid-nineteenth century. The nearest army to that date was the French army of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The date fitted with the Stationer’s Hall entry for the Metzler publication, but this led to a further puzzle…

My initial thought had been that perhaps this was a case of musical appropriation. Occasionally a song can be unexpectedly treacherous, and can ally itself with the enemy. One of the most notorious examples of this was the Second World War song, Lili Marlene.

Following the accidental discovery of a box of gramophone records, the song became a particular favourite on Radio Belgrade, the German Forces Radio, where it was requested regularly.

It had a special place in the heart of the Afrika Korps, and at night, across the deserts of North Africa, men of the British Eighth Army heard the song, and joined in. (Spike Milligan, the comedian, once serenaded his fellow troops, playing Lili Marlene on the trumpet). The Nazis, believing that Lili Marlene could become a propaganda weapon, asked Lale Andersen, the original recording artist, to record it in English, for broadcasting to the enemy. This backfired spectacularly, as the war turned in the Allies’ favour, and Lili herself went over to the Allied side, with the song becoming the theme tune of the “Desert rats“.

Perhaps something similar had happened with The Watch by the Rhine? This however made no sense – the song, as you might expect with an English publication, had been translated into English; but the original German text is also published, and there is no sign of a French translation, or alternate French words. And then there was the cover…

At the time of the Franco-Prussian War, Germany was yet to become a unified state. But there was a growing movement within the country, largely fuelled by the ambitions of Prussia, for unification.

In 1870, Prussia was one of a group of North German states united as the North German Confederation. Joining together with some of the South German states, most notably Bavaria, at the start of the war, this was to be an important step forward in German unification. The flags on the front cover of our song represent Prussia to the left, while the flag to the right is rather more ambiguous, but has been identified as a flag that was flown over a royal residence in Bavaria, and appears to have links to several states. Bavaria is represented by the blue and grey (actually white) lozenges, while the red and black represents the Rhine-Palatinate.

The United Kingdom took a neutral stance during the war; but the publication of this song suggests that perhaps the situation was a little more complex than it may at first appear; and that British public opinion, at least, was firmly on the side of the German forces. In the previous decade there had been a vast programme of coastal fort building for fear of a French invasion, so, undoubtedly, the idea that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” would have had a certain amount of cache.

Queen Victoria and family. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On a sentimental level too, the UK was drawn towards the German side – the British Royal Family (at this time called the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) and the aristocracy of many of the German states had close familial ties, and relationships between the families were generally very cordial. These relationships had been strengthened by many of the marriages of Victoria and Albert’s children. Vicky, Queen Victoria’s eldest child, was married to Prince Frederick of Prussia; while Alice was married to the Prince of Hesse. Both Victoria and Albert were closely related to the aristocratic families of Wurttemberg, while Albert was born in Schloss Rosenau in Coburg, then closely allied with Bavaria.

All of which meant that surprisingly “The Army of the Rhine” mentioned here is not, as would generally be assumed today, the French army, but rather the army of what would shortly become the German Empire.

It’s only a short song, eight pages of music for popular consumption; but it’s a great example of how music can provide unexpected insights into history, and the mind of society at a specific time and place.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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