Wipe your tears away with sandpaper

I’ve been reading Outside Verdun, the (very readable) new  translation of Arnold Zweig’s 1935 novel Erziehung vor Verdun.
I’ll be putting a full review online soon, but meanwhile, here’s a question.
Agreeing with the Crown Prince that the day’s activities had been pointless, an adjutant says:

We could just as well have stayed at home, Imperial Highness. Retreat or not – what difference does it make? ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary,’ as the Tommies sing – and our field greys sing: ‘For this campaign/ Is no express train/ Wipe your tears away/ With sandpaper’

I’d like to know: Was that an actual soldier’s song of the war? What are the original German words? And were sardonic songs as common among German soldiers as among the British?
One reason that I’m curious is that when in France recently I picked up a copy of Entendre la Guerre, the book associated with the exhibition at the Peronne Historial about the sounds of the war. In the chapter on songs at home and on the front, Martin Pénet writes:

Contrary to widespread opinion, songs of sedition during the Great War were extremely rare.

He then goes on to discuss the most notable exception, the Chanson de Craonne:

Adieu la vie, adieu l’amour,
Adieu toutes les femmes.
C’est bien fini, c’est pour toujours,
De cette guerre infâme.
C’est à Craonne, sur le plateau,
Qu’on doit laisser sa peau
Car nous sommes tous condamnés
C’est nous les sacrifiés!

Do songs play the same role in the cultures of all the fighting nations, or are there subtle differences in the ways in which songs are used to express feelings, to build group solidarity, or to let off steam?


  1. Posted June 9, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    The only observation I can add is that the songs sung by British soldiers were often very rude; whereas I was once at a parade here in Spain where the paratroopers of the Rapid Reaction Force sang in full voice to a statue of the Virgin Mary. Both groups, in their own way, emphasising the uniqueness of their identities.

    • Posted June 10, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      A very good point, and I like the image of the Spanish soldiers expressing their Catholic identity through song. But might they have other songs for other occasions? When it’s all boys together in a bar, maybe they’d be a lot less pious.

  2. Posted June 10, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Found it! It’s on page 14 of Max Bewer’s Humor ins Feld! aus Feldbriefen und dem Volksmund in Verse gebracht und Manches selber gemacht (1918) You can find a scan of the booklet here: http://digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/werkansicht/?PPN=PPN715792857&PHYSID=PHYS_0016

    The title means “Humour takes to the field! put into verse from letters home and popular song with some home-made parts”, which suggests Brewer was making use of his material rather than just collecting it.

    Judging by the content and tone, the book was published before the armistice. In the introduction, Bewer writes : “Humour is also one of God’s weapons of war! It is definitely a proof of the clear conscience of our nation.” He continues with the dubious claim “The French, English and Russian don’t have a sense of humour about the war.” (“Franzosen, Engländer und Russen haben keinen Kriegshumor.”)

    The text in German is as follows:

    O leb wohl, leb wohl, Marie!…

    Den Anfang im Volk gehört, erweitert und abgeschlossen:

    Dieser Feldzug Ist kein Schnellzug!
    Sehnen mußt du lange dich nach mir,
    Oft die Tränen wischen
    Dir inzwischen
    Ab mit Sandpapier, Marie!

    O Marie, Marie, Marie!
    Ach und sehen wir uns nie,
    Wenn für mich die Kugel fällt,
    Nie mehr wieder in der Welt,
    Denk an mich, ja denke dran.
    Einen andern nimm zum Mann!
    Denn der Kaiser braucht noch mehr
    Jungens für das deutsche Heer!
    Lebe wohl, Marie, Marie!
    Komm ich wieder oder nie,
    Wisch dir ab dein lieb Gesicht!
    Ich kann sterben, Deutschland nicht!…

    The part under the title means “Heard among the people, expanded and given an ending”. Zweig is quoting the first part, which is presumably authentic.

    • Posted June 10, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      Many thanks, Bruce. Once again the wide knowledge and scholarship of my readers has come up with the goods.

      With the help of Google Translate (my German is minimal) I’ve come up with the following literal English version:

      This campaign
      Is no express train
      Wipe your tears away
      With sandpaper, Marie!

      O Marie, Marie, Marie!
      Oh, and we never see each other,
      If the bullet gets me,
      Never again in the world,
      Think of me, but think of this.
      A different take on man!
      For the Emperor needs more
      Boys for the German army!
      Farewell, Marie, Marie!
      I will come back or never
      Wipe your loving face!
      I can die, not Germany!

      If Brewer added the patriotic ending – wonder, did the song originally have a more subversive one?

      • David
        Posted June 10, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink


        An interesting item , as always.

        Do you think perhaps that the phrase
        “A different take on man!” might be translated instead as ” take on a different man!” ? This would then more sense of the following lines which tell Marie to produce more boys for the Kaisers’ army.

        My german language is not enough to be sure so perhaps another blog reader can look at the translation to give us a better idea of the sense of the song. If however I am nearer in getting the sense than the Google, then it would make the song more subversive and in line with the initial refrain.

  3. Posted June 10, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Good suggestion, David. That makes much more sense of the whole thing.

  4. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Other than civilian hits and patriotic songs like G. M. Cohan’s “Over There,” the American songs were rather like the British – and in some cases were the same song. My impression (all one can go on) is that the two favorite U.S. “soldiers’ songs” were “Hinky-Dinky Parlez-Vous” (in various versions, often ephemerally inflated) and “I Want to Go Home.” Numbers three and four on the parade of folk hits may have been the very American (and highly obscene) “Lulu” and improvisations on W. C. Handy’s popular “Hesitation Blues.”

    Fliers sang both the English “Dying Aviator” as well as their own “Beneath a Belgian Water Tank.” The bawdy “Bastard King of England” had nothing to do with George V or any other historical monarch.

    Then there was the “Marines’ Hymn,” which, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, is a genuine folksong in spite of its operatic melody.

  5. Posted June 11, 2014 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    David is right: it’s “Take another for a husband/For the Kaiser still needs more/Boys for the German army”.

  6. Bill
    Posted June 11, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting that the Germans thought those they were fighting lacked a sense of humour, given our own stereotypes of the humourless Hun. Is this a universal trait, do you think, the idea that only our own side can see the funny side of slaughter?

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