THE BALLAD OF A YOUNG SENTRY
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The soldiers’ song Lili Marlene was the ballad that crossed the trenches and won the hearts of soldiers of both the Allied and Axis armies during World War II.
The wistful lyrics were composed in 1918 by Hans Leip (1893 – 1983), a German infantryman of the Great War (1914 – 1918). The sensitive words were written shortly before he left for the Russian front. Lili Marlene is not a single lady but two. Lili, the daughter of a local grocer was his girlfriend. Marlene, a young nurse, was a comrade’s girlfriend.
Lili Marlene was originally a poem inspired by the torment of barracks life and pain felt by a soldier on being separated from his girlfriend. The poem was published in a collection of poetry in 1937 under the title, The Song of a Young Sentry, Hans Leip.
The poem’s evocative pathos captured the imagination of Norbert Schultze, the German composer of operas, musicals, and songs. In 1938, Schultze set the words to music.
The ballad was no more than mildly popular and had sold just 700 copies when German Forces Radio began broadcasting it to the Afrika Korps in 1941. The chanteuse was Lale Anderson. Such was the song’s popularity that Field-Marshall Erwin Rommel requested Radio Belgrade to incorporate the song into their broadcasts.
Norbert Schultze was the composer of the backing music to German period films and battle songs such as Bombs for England (Bomben auf Engeland) and Tanks Roll into Africa. (Panzer Rollen in Afrika). He composed many military battle hymns and marches, operas and musicals.
British soldiers serving in North Africa were criticised when the lament caught their imagination. BBC spin claimed Lili Marlene was a German prostitute; a failed attempt to deflect the song’s growing popularity.
British song publisher J. J. Phillips rebuked British soldiers for singing the German version. ‘Then why don’t you write us some English words,’ challenged one grunt.
Phillips and songwriter Tommy Connors came up with an English language version. Armed forces favourite singer, Anne Shelton was to bring popularity to the German poem. Vera Lynne, the forces favourite, sang it over the BBC and Britain’s Eighth Army adopted it as their ballad.
Lili Marlene was a chartbuster. An anonymous chorus brought it to No.13 in 1944. It hit the US charts again in 1968 and the Japanese charts in 1986.
There are a number of versions of Lili Marlene in a wide diversity of languages. The poem-song has been translated into 48 languages including French, Russian, Italian, and surprisingly, Hebrew.
This poignant off-the-cuff poem penned in a wistful moment by a twenty-five-year-old sentry who pulled heartstrings across the world is the most popular wartime song ever recorded.
After the war, the Allies classified Norbert Schultze as a sympathiser, banned his music, and forbade him to follow his profession as a musician. He then earned his living as a labourer in heavy construction and later worked as a gardener.
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