Peat Bog Soldiers

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Memorial at the place of the entry to the former concentration camp "Börgermoor", where the song originated. The stone shows the first verse in German.

"Peat Bog Soldiers" (German: Die Moorsoldaten) is one of Europe's best-known protest songs. It exists in countless European languages and became a Republican anthem during the Spanish Civil War. It was a symbol of resistance during the Second World War and is popular with the Peace movement today. What makes it perhaps so poignant is the knowledge that it was written, composed and first performed in a Nazi concentration camp by the prisoners themselves.

Background[edit]

This song was written by prisoners[1] in Nazi moorland labour camps in Lower Saxony, Germany. The Emslandlager[2] ("Emsland camps") - as they were known - were for political opponents of the Third Reich, located outside of Börgermoor, now part of the commune Surwold, not far from Papenburg. A memorial of these camps, the Dokumentations- und Informationszentrum (DIZ) Emslandlager, is located at Papenburg.

In 1933, one camp, Börgermoor, held about 1,000 Socialist and Communist internees. They were banned from singing existing political songs so they wrote and composed their own. The words were written by Johann Esser (a miner) and Wolfgang Langhoff (an actor); the music was composed by Rudi Goguel and was later adapted by Hanns Eisler and Ernst Busch.[3]

It was first performed at a Zircus Konzentrazani ("concentration camp circus") on 28 August 1933 at Börgermoor camp. Here is Rudi Goguel's description of it:[4]

The song has a slow simple melody, reflecting a soldier's march, and is deliberately repetitive, echoing and telling of the daily grind of hard labour in harsh conditions. It was popular with German refugees in London in the Thirties and was used as a marching song by the German volunteers of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. It was soon picked up by other nationalities and it appears in almost all the collected anthologies of Spanish Civil War songs.

The French Foreign Legion use the French version of the song, "Le Chant Des Marais", as one of its marching songs, the sombre tone and timing matching the 88 paces per minute distinctive of the Legion.[citation needed]

The "short" (three-verse) lyrics[edit]

Langhoff and Esser's original song[5] runs to six verses, plus refrains (see below). For performance - and, therefore, for most translation - shorter lyrics are used. These omit verses two, three and four of the original.

Die Moorsoldaten

Wohin auch das Auge blicket.
Moor und Heide nur ringsum.
Vogelsang uns nicht erquicket.
Eichen stehen kahl und krumm.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.

Auf und nieder geh´n die Posten,
keiner, keiner kann hindurch.
Flucht wird nur das Leben kosten,
vierfach ist umzäunt die Burg.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.

Doch für uns gibt es kein Klagen,
ewig kann nicht Winter sein,
einmal werden froh wir sagen:
Heimat du bist wieder mein.

Dann zieh´n die Moorsoldaten
nicht mehr mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Dann zieh´n die Moorsoldaten
nicht mehr mit dem Spaten ins Moor

Peat Bog Soldiers

Far and wide as the eye can wander,
Heath and bog are everywhere.
Not a bird sings out to cheer us.
Oaks are standing gaunt and bare.

We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.
We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.

Up and down the guards are marching,
No one, no one can get through.
Flight would mean a sure death facing,
Guns and barbed wire block our view.

We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.
We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.

But for us there is no complaining,
Winter will in time be past.
One day we shall rise rejoicing.
Homeland, dear, you're mine at last.

No more the peat bog soldiers
Will march with our spades to the moor.
No more the peat bog soldiers
Will march with our spades to the moor.

The full version[edit]

For completeness, here is the full six-verse German version, together with a literal English translation.

Die Moorsoldaten

Wohin auch das Auge blicket.
Moor und Heide nur ringsum.
Vogelsang uns nicht erquicket.
Eichen stehen kahl und krumm.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.

Hier in dieser öden Heide
ist das Lager aufgebaut,
wo wir fern von jeder Freude
hinter Stacheldraht verstaut.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten etc

Morgens ziehen die Kolonnen
in das Moor zur Arbeit hin.
Graben bei dem Brand der Sonne,
doch zur Heimat steht der Sinn.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten etc

Heimwärts, heimwärts jeder sehnet,
zu den Eltern, Weib und Kind.
Manche Brust ein Seufzer dehnet,
weil wir hier gefangen sind.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten etc

Auf und nieder geh´n die Posten,
keiner, keiner kann hindurch.
Flucht wird nur das Leben kosten,
vierfach ist umzäunt die Burg.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten etc

Doch für uns gibt es kein Klagen,
ewig kann nicht Winter sein,
einmal werden froh wir sagen:
Heimat du bist wieder mein.

Dann zieh´n die Moorsoldaten
nicht mehr mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Dann zieh´n die Moorsoldaten
nicht mehr mit dem Spaten ins Moor

Literal translation

Wherever the eye watches
Bog and heath all around
No chirping of birds entertains us
Oaks are standing bare and crooked

We are the bog soldiers
And we are marching with our spade; into the bog
We are Bog soldiers
And we are marching with our spade; into the bog

Here inside this barren marshland
the camp is built up,
Where we are, far from any joy,
stowed away behind barbed wire.

We are the bog soldiers etc

In the morning, all of us
march towards our work.
The we dig under the searing sun,
But our mind yearns toward our home.

We are the bog soldiers etc

Homeward, homeward everyone yearns
to the parents, wife and children,
some chests are widened by a sigh,
because we are caught in here.

We are the bog soldiers etc

Up and down the guards are walking
Nobody, nobody can get through.
Escape would only cost your life
Four fences secure the castle.

We are the bog soldiers etc

But for us there is no complaining,
It can't be an endless winter.
One day we'll say happily:
"Home! You are mine again!".

Then will the bog soldiers
march no more with the spades
to the bog.
Then will the bog soldiers
march no more with the spades
to the bog.

References[edit]

Further reading

Recordings

Footnotes