O’er the Hills and O’er the Plains

Through Flanders, Portugal and Spain

King George Commands and we obey/ Over the hills and far away.”


For reasons known only to the Most High, and perhaps because of my father’s military service and both my parents’ taste in music I grew up listening to military songs, from sea chanteys to marching tunes and bagpipe airs, along with a lot of other bits and pieces.

And did I mention watching films like Zulu and Battle of Britain, and The Enemy Below when they were on TV and later on VHS? I sang sea chanteys ranging from “Shenandoah” (suitable for all audiences) to “Santy Anno” and a few that I didn’t understand the meanings of and my parents never bothered to tell me. I picked up “Men of Harlech” and (different words, same tune) “Hal Far Bis”, which is about the airfield on Malta during WWII. And “Marching to Pretoria,” “Lilli Marlene,” and other bits of songs, including, “The Battle of Suliman (No Bombs at All),” “Bless ’em All” and “The Bells of Hell.” My adopted grandfather inadvertently taught me “Blood on the Risers (Gory, gory what a hell of a way to die).” Did I mention that I have a very good memory for repetitive lyrics?

I had not thought about my mental album for some time. Then I started reading up on the Long 19th Century, which lasts from 1789 until 1914. Yes, it began with the French Revolution and Napoleon, which led to great battles, which led me back to Sharpe’s Rifles and the other bits of that series, especially the music. You see, Cdr. Ni Drako’s “cell phone” rings “Over the Hills and Far Away” when the 58th Regiment’s alert system calls. She and Joschka learned the song while they were in Bavaria, chasing Napoleon and a would-be outside intruder in 1811 (See, A Cat Among Dragons for details).

I suspect that most people in the US, if asked about military music, would think of the “Marine Corps Hymn,” “Wild Blue Yonder,” maybe “Anchors Aweigh,” and possibly the “Imperial March” by John Williams. And possibly “Hail to the Chief” or “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Canadians or people who have seen older (British) war movies would toss in pipe and drum tunes I suspect. There’s a great deal of other music, not just marches, but drinking songs, laments, thumb-to-nose odes like “Bless ’em All,” and probably some work songs that linger, and newer ballads such as the (in)famous “Durka, Durka, Mohammed Jihad” aka “Haji Girl.”

Music lets people vent steam, but it also connects, inspires, and can answer a challenge. Work songs help people pull together (literally in many cases). Military music falls under what might be termed “blue-collar song” for the most part; earthy, every day music about every day things – hauling sales and winding rope, pounding railroad spikes, loading ships, keeping cattle calm, marking the end of the work day, remembering past glories, and making fun of bad managers and worse food (“Drill Ye Tarriers”). It also inspires, teaches about the past of the service branch or unit, and cements the sense of belonging.

And it can be fun to sing and listen to, provided you are in the right company. 😉



2 thoughts on “O’er the Hills and O’er the Plains

  1. It can go from sad but reverent, to lighthearted and downright funny. Whenever military music is mentioned, the first thing that always comes to my mind is Yellow Ribbon, and no, I can’t tell you why, it just is.

  2. As you said, military music could be called “blue-collar song,” and that’s part of its appeal. Anyone can sing it because the melodies aren’t that complicated with a fairly narrow range (the pipe tunes have to, otherwise they don’t fit), and the lyrics tend to either tell a story or be repetitive, both of which make them easy to memorize.

Comments are closed.