Historical Songs

Goddamn, sometimes a good song can really affect you. I can’t pretend to be swayed by pop songs, or sex drugs & rock’n’roll songs, but a well-done song about a powerful piece of literature, or an amazing event can surely move me. Famously, I wept during the first time I heard “Paschendale”, by Iron Maiden. And who can blame me? Check it out.

Warning: SHAMELESS PLUG

“Paschendale” is the story about a soldier at the Third Battle of Ypres, best known as the Battle of Passchendaele. This battle was a brutal slaughterfest in a raining field of muck and mud that was intended to be the first part of a major operation designed to cut off a large force of Germans, and deny them a valuable U-Boat base on the North Sea. However, it failed; taking the village of Passchendaele was only supposed to take a week. It took six months and 508,000 casualties to take that damned village.

Passchendaele was a mess of muck and mud; a filth-ridden series of trenches swarming in putrid disease, rats, and human remains. The worst rains recorded in French history thundered down on the battlefield, ensuring that it was impossible to navigate; thousands drowned in the muck, or were wounded and simply hadn’t the strength to stay afloat. It was an unconscionable slog; a brutal and useless battle, and probably the worst fighting conditions in human history till Stalingrad.

The battle tells me the story of one particular soldier, who waits and waits for his turn to hop the trenches, waiting in terror and rain and fear. When the moment comes, there’s the solos, short, intense, rapid sounds, a verse lamenting slaughter, and the soldier’s violent death. It was probably the most hyped song of the Dance of Death album, and it hasn’t lost its poignancy yet.

So, what are some others songs that affect me the same way?

Let’s see. Let’s try…Gettysburg (1863) by Iced Earth.

Yes, the song is like 30 minutes long, and comes in three parts. The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent, where one hundred and sixty-five thousand Americans clashed over three violent days, resulting in around 50,000 casualties. (Yes, that is one in four.) Gettysburg was a fluke; advance columns of Harry Heth’s division of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia met with John Buford’s Federal Cavalry under the command of the Army of the Potomac.

Buford correctly identified the heights surrounding Gettysburg to be a critical defensive position that must be denied to the numerically inferior Confederates. Buford, and many other Union generals, were familiar with the ability of the Army of Northern Virginia to defend – the Battle of Fredericksburg was not so long ago, where James Longstreet’s Corps had handed the Union army a thorough drubbing from a strong defensive position.

Buford deployed his cavalry, dismounted, and engaged Heth. He held for some hours, waiting for reinforcements. Just before he was about to be pushed back, however, John Reynolds and the Union I and XI Corps arrived to reinforce. Reynolds (one of the most experienced and talented commanders in the Union army) took personal command until he was killed, likely by friendly fire. Winfield Scott Hancock arrived on the field to take command around noon; upsetting Oliver Howard of XI Corps who felt he was the senior commander.

Regardless, Robert E. Lee’s full army was coming down on two Corps, eventually forcing them back through the town of Gettysburg and onto the hills behind it – Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, and Cemetery Ridge, forming a defensive “fishhook” as other Corps arrived – II Corps (Hancock) and III Corps (Sickles) formed the left end of the line along the Ridge, to the hill called “Little Round Top”, while I Corps (now under Newton) and XI Corps held Cemetery Hill; XII Corps under Slocum entrenched on Culp’s Hill on the far right.

The second day started with Lee’s forces preparing an assault on the far left of the Union line. Longstreet formed up two of his three divisions for an assault. III Corps, responsible for that side of the line, moved forward out of position, and was caught in the attack by Hood and McLaws. III Corps was dissected and destroyed in detail; V Corps under Sykes was rushed into position, extending from the end of II Corps’s line to the top of Little Round Top, where the 20th Maine Regiment under Joshua L. Chamberlain was placed.

A professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin University, Chamberlain was not a likely soldier. However, operating at the extreme left of the Union line, finding the far right of Hood’s division coming up the hill at him, Chamberlain and his Maine boys performed admirably, firing till their ammunition was exhausted, then leading a charge down the hill with bayonets to rout their foe. Had the 20th Maine broken, the Rebels might have swept the line apart; by ending the charge, they ended the day’s danger.

On the third day, Lee decided on a grand charge. Three divisions (Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble) under Longstreet attacked Hancock in the line’s centre, trying to split the Union force in twain. Fifteen thousand men charged across a mile of field, being wracked apart by cannon and canister, by musket and rifle, and ending up in a vicious hand-to-hand battle. Armistead’s brigade of Virginians broke the line, and for a moment the Confederate battle flag flew over Cemetery Ridge. But Armistead was mortally wounded, and the Charge broken. Around half of those who set out never came back, or were badly wounded, or captured.

Lee’s final gamble failed spectacularly, and the Army of Northern Virginia was forced to retreat. Just as exhausted, George Meade and the Army of the Potomac followed, failing to press the issue. With around a third of the strength of both armies drained, neither felt like fighting too hard in the days following. It’s a terrible time in American history, but capturing it, remembering it, is oh so important.

We’ll do one more in this segment of “Historical Songs”…

Silver Wings by Bruce Dickinson is an examination of those who performed night bombing for Bomber Command during World War II, from the perspective of a pilot flying an Avro Lancaster four-engined bomber on a mission towards Germany. Night bombing was a thankless, exceptionally hazardous mission. There was no fighter escort, and by the late war, Germany had developed many, many effective night fighters to engage Allied airplanes.

The song laments the poor prospects of a bomber crew as they enter their raid over a German city – how the searchlight seems to have caught them, how they lose engines and have to dump the fuel, how the pilot advises the crew to bail out, and likely how his plane crashes to the pilot’s death. It’s a very…powerful song, both in the music and the words.

“Tonight, on silver wings, I am soaring through the mountains of the moon…on silver wings, flying where no angels fly”

Bruce’s lyrical ability highlights the incredible joy of flying (he would know, as a pilot), the power one feels, with the simple fact that they were harbingers of death for those in Germany. Flying where no angels could fly. It makes me a little teary just pondering that terrible contrast.

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