Outbreak of the war
End of the war

‘La Victoire en chantant’ – The French chanson in the First World War

Il suffit d’ajouter ‚militaire’ à un mot pour lui faire perdre sa signification. Ainsi la justice militaire n’est pas la justice, la musique militaire n’est pas la musique.“ (Georges Clemenceau)
(It is enough to add ‘military’ to a word for it to lose its meaning. Hence military justice is not justice, military music is not music.)

Musical life in the other belligerent states was hardly different from that in Austria-Hungary or Germany. There too folk songs were turned into battle songs and the vast majority of musicians placed themselves at the service of the patriotic cause.

In France the wartime mood found expression above all in the popular genre of the chanson, whose strongly marked concentration on the lyrics made it particularly suited to convey moods and messages. Whereas initially these lyrics were characterized by optimism and fighting spirit, in the course of the war it was the elements of entertainment and distraction as well as the joy of homecoming after the achievement of victory that became relevant.

La Madelon was appeared in 1914 just before the beginning of the war and became a veritable hit during the war itself. The chanson tells of Madelon, a loose-living barmaid who steals the hearts of soldiers by the dozen. She turns down any proposal of marriage, because, as she sings, ‘Why should I take just one man when I can love an entire regiment?’ La Madelon was translated and also became a soldiers’ song in England and Spain. In 1939 Marlene Dietrich sang the chanson in Paris on the French National Day, and during the Nazi occupation the melody, with a variety of lyrics, became a song of resistance.

Ma p’tite Mimi was written by Théodore Botrel, who had made a name for himself in Paris as a cabaret artist even before the beginning of the war. The government sent him to the front to provide programmes of entertainment for soldiers. In 1915 Botrel wrote a love song to ‘his little Mimi’, whose birdlike singing, ‘Taratara, taratara, taratatère’, enchants him, so that he loves her above all else. Mimi, as he lovingly calls his machine gun, accompanies the soldier throughout his life in the war, so that he swears eternal loyalty to her: ‘Jusqu'au bout, restons unis, Pour le salut du pays.’ (Let us stay united right to the end, For the good of the country.) At the end of the war, after the last salvo, the gun is wistfully sung to sleep as a farewell: ‘Et tes pleurs mouilleront mes yeux, En te faisant mes adieux.’ (And your tears will moisten my eyes, When I say farewell to you.)

After the French army was defeated in the Chemins des Dames and Craonne districts around the towns of Laon, Soissons und Reims in the north of France in one of the bloodiest battles that took place on French territory, one of the most popular anti-war songs, the Chanson de Craonne, was composed. It was a product not just of the defeat but also of mutinies and their suppression in the French army. The lyrics are by an anonymous author, while the melody was borrowed from a hit from the year 1913. This chanson was immediately banned (and remained so until 1974) because it was argued that it offended the honour of the army and war veterans. 

Translation: Leigh Bailey


Bouzard, Thierry: Le chant militaire français: un patrimoine vivant, in: Revue historique des armées, 242/2006, 98-113. Unter: (20.06.2014)

Chauveau, Philippe: Une histoire de la chanson française, Paris 2009

Tonaufnahme "La Madelon". Unter: (20.06.2014)
Text: (20.06.2014)

Tonaufnahme "Ma p’tite Mimi". Unter: (20.06.2014)
Text: (20.06.2014)

Tonaufnahme "Chanson de Craonne". Unter: (20.06.2014)
Text auf Deutsch: (20.06.2014)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    War and art

    Many artists, intellectuals and writers welcomed the outbreak of the First World War. They saw it not as an apocalypse but as the opportunity for a change for the better. As such they joined in the patriotic fervour of the first weeks and months of the war. What motivated them not only to devote their artistic energies to the fatherland but also to take an active part in the fighting? How were anti-war sentiments articulated by artists? What other forms of relationship were there between art and warfare during and after the First World War?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    The foreigner, the adversary, the enemy!

    To popularise the greeting “Gott strafe England” [“May God punish England”] and the response “Er strafe es” [“May He do so”] it was printed on posters, badges and postcards. The idea was to promote patriotism and hatred of England. Right after the start of the war, animosity and mutual attributions of blame by the two sides were manifest. Xenophobia was officially encouraged as a sign of patriotism. This singling out and denigration of the enemy was designed to strengthen solidarity and justify the country’s own war policy.