Bertolt Brecht

Legend of the Dead Soldier

And when the war reached its final spring
With no hint of a pause for breath
The soldier did the logical thing
And died a hero’s death.

The war however was far from over,
And the Kaiser thought it a crime
That his soldier should be dead and gone
Before the proper time.

The summer spread over the makeshift graves
And the soldier lay ignored.
Until one night there came an official army medical board.

The board went out to the cemetery
With consecrated spade
And dug up what was left of him
For next day’s sick parade.

Their doctor inspected what they’d found
Or as much as he thought would serve
And gave his report: ‘He’s medically sound
He’s merely lost his nerve.’

Straightway they took the soldier off.
The night was soft and warm.
If you hadn’t a helmet you could see
The stars you saw at home.

They filled him up with a fiery schnapps
To spark his sluggish heart
And shoved two nurses into his arms
And a half-naked tart.

He’s stinking so strongly of decay
That a priest limbs on before
Swinging a censer on his way
That he may stink no more.

In front the band with oompah-pah
Intones a rousing march.
The soldier does like the manual says
And flicks his legs from his arse.

Their arms about him, keeping pace
Two kind first-aid men go
Or else he might fall in the shit on his face
And that would never do.

They daubed his shroud with the black-white-red
Of the old imperial flag
Whose garish colours obscured the mud
On that blood-bespattered rag.
Up front a gent in a morning suit
And stuffed-out shirt marched too:
A German determined to do his duty as Germans always do.

So see them now as, oompah-pah,
Along the roads they go
And the soldier goes whirling along with them
Like a flake in the driving snow.

The dogs cry out and the horses prance
The rats squeal on the land:
They’re damned if they’re going to belong to France
It’s more than flesh can stand.

And when they pass through a village all
The women are moved to tears.
The trees bow low, the moon shines full
And the whole lot gives three cheers.

With oompah-pah and cheerio
And tart and dog and priest
And right in the middle the soldier himself
Like some poor drunken beast.

And when they pass through a village perhaps
It happens he disappears
For such a crowd’s come to join the chaps
With oompah and three cheers.

In all that dancing, yelling crowd
He disappeared from view.
You could only see him from overhead
Which only stars can do.

The stars won’t always be up there
The dawn is turning red.
But the soldier goes off to a hero’s death
Just like the manual said.

Translation: John Willett
In: “Bertolt Brecht. Bad Time For Poetry”, edited and introduced by John Willett (London: Methuen, 1995), 5-8.

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Bertolt Brecht


Initially in favor of the war, Bertolt Brecht (b. February 10, 1898 in Augsburg, d. August 14, 1956 in East Berlin) soon became an outspoken anti-militarist and anti-imperialist. A student at the University of Munich since 1917, he was drafted as a medical orderly and posted to a military clinic in Augsburg in the fall of 1918, one month before the war ended. Written in 1917 or 1918, The Legend of the Dead Soldier is one of Brecht’s most famous ballads.