Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
There is a famous World War I poem by Siegfried Sassoon called “Everybody Sang!
Sassoon is describing the elation of the armistice and the happiness amongst those who suddenly knew in November 1918 that they would live. It’s an easy feeling to share, for most of us view war as an aberration, to be survived if we’re unlucky enough to have it forced upon us. Greek poets certainly had it so 2,500 years ago, and the sentiment became quite common even among the officer class with the rise of conscripted armies.
I thought of the poem recently while reading accounts of the siege of Dien Bien Phu in Indochina in 1954. At one of the crisis points in the eight-week battle, the tiny band of French defenders took the counter-offensive after 11 days of holding off a Viet-Minh assault on the key hills of the base’s eastern defenses. Starting at 6:10 a.m. on April 10, three broken companies of the 6th Colonial Paratroop Battalion, about 180 men, retook one of the base’s most contested points—a fortified hill known as Eliane 1. Casualties were heavy, but flamethrower teams had advanced under fire to burn the Viet-Minh out of the blockhouses, and the vicious hand-to-hand fighting that followed left the paratroopers in possession of the summit. The Viets immediately counterattacked. And though the French held on, the attacks kept coming. The battle hung in the balance at dark, and the fighting continued under the ghostly light of parachute flares. The French commander in charge of the attack radioed an appeal for any units that could be released from the other beleaguered strongpoints to come to their aid.
The first to arrive were the 2nd and 3rd companies of the 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion. Though companies normally contain 150 to 200 men, a month of fighting at Dien Bien Phu had reduced these to about 50 riflemen each. As they ascended the hotly contested hill in the flares’ green-tinged light, they began singing their regimental marching song, “Contre les Viets”:
To its slow cadence—88 steps a minute, as opposed to the ordinary 120 of the French Army, which is why the Legion always brings up the rear of the parade in Paris on Bastille Day—they advanced into the maelstrom.
By report, they were singing in both French and German as befits a unit drawn from a wide variety of World War II veterans and a melody with a long history. For “Contre les Viets” was once “Contre les Rouges,” the battle song of the Charlemagne regiment of the Waffen SS. Formed in 1944 to amalgamate French volunteers serving in various German Army units, the Charlemagne regiment was sent to fight on the Eastern Front where the verses to “Contre les Rouges” were written to the tune of “Die dunkle Nacht ist nun vorbei” (“The dark night is now over”), a popular Wehrmacht marching song. Quite a number of Foreign Legion marching songs have always been in German thanks to the heavy influxes of Alsatians and Lorrains in the 1870s and after World War I. There are even a few in English thanks to generations of Irish “wild geese.”
The Legionnaires advancing up Eliane were singing as men once tended to do as they worked. And they weren’t alone. Just after they began their march up the cratered and corpse-covered hill, the 2nd and 3rd companies of the 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion arrived to offer their help. Only recently raised, the Vietnamese paratroopers didn’t have their own marching song, but they were proud warriors. They advanced in pursuit of the Legionnaires singing a slow march version of the Marseillaise. By midnight the hill was securely in paratrooper hands, and they would hold it for 20 more days.
These professional soldiers sang as they took the battle to the enemy. Sassoon’s conscripts sang because they knew they would survive. War is better left to the professionals.
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