Working from home? Switch to the DIGITAL edition of School Band & Orchestra. CLICK HERE to signup now!

Sousa in World War One

Major Patrick W. Dugan • Features • November 4, 2018

Of all the bandmasters active in 1917, it should come as no surprise that John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) would head the list of those who served during World War I.

Even though he was 62, he was enrolled in the provisional rank of lieutenant in the Naval Coast Defense Reserve, Class Four, of the United States Naval Reserve Force, on May 31, 1917, to serve for a period of four years.

His job title on his fitness report was “Musical Director-U. S. Naval Station, Great Lakes, Illinois,” but his duties were to conduct and lead bands for Liberty Loan, Red Cross Drives, etc. He actually did anything the navy wanted him to do, concerning bands, music, and performing.

Sousa’s entry naval rank was the same level rank as a captain in the U. S. Army or Marine Corps. On February 24, 1920, Sousa was promoted to the provisional rank of lieutenant commander, which corresponds to the same rank as major, in the other services, and almost immediately transferred to Class Six, with a date of rank to be from February 11, 1920.

According to law, the pay retainer for all provisional officers in class four, before confirmation, was twelve dollars per year, which is the equivalent of one dollar per month. That was what Sousa was paid as a provisional officer. Sousa was never on active duty as a confirmed lieutenant commander, and therefore, did not received confirmed pay. Sousa received a 120-dollar gratuity payment for uniforms from the paymaster on December 10, 1917, while at Naval Station, Great Lakes, Illinois. He went from a provisional lieutenant commander to being in a confirmed status in that rank dating from March 15, 1920. His commission as a confirmed lieutenant commander was dated August 27, 1920.

His initial four-year enlistment expired on May 30, 1921 and he was re-enrolled June 13, 1921. On August 10, 1922, Sousa was informed by a letter from the Acting Secretary of the Navy that he was now being dis-enrolled because he was over sixty-four years of age (which he had reached in November 1918!). Sousa, whose service number was 15971, was proud of serving America as a commissioned officer in the Naval Reserve during World War One and continued to wear his uniform from that day on when he conducted his own band in concert, even after he was discharged.

The Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, wrote the following words of commendation to Lieutenant Sousa on September 29, 1919: “The Department takes this opportunity to express to you its high appreciation of the splendid services you have rendered the Navy in the recent war by your beautiful, inspiring, and patriotic music, which I assure you has gone far towards exciting a greater love for country and zeal in its enterprises.”

He continued: “It is of historic record that music has played a wonderful and important part in all wars, stimulating men to greater action, and I feel that the Navy owes a debt to you, which it can only repay by holding your services as an inspiring example in any future war in which this Nation may be involved.”

Although he had many more decorations, Sousa typically only wore six medals on his uniform from that time until he died. The World War One Victory Medal, issued by the United States government to Sousa on January 25, 1921, was one of them, and was worn at the head of the row on Sousa’s chest.

Because this war was fought between the Allies, which included the countries of France, Great Britain, and starting in 1917, the United States, against the Central Powers, which included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey, anything German was unpopular and distasteful to some people in the United States.

This not only included German made products, but also German newspapers, food, records, and music, especially the traditional “Here Comes the Bride,” song traditionally played at weddings in the United States.

Many people know this composition was written in 1850, by German composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), as the Bridal Chorus, and was from his opera, Lohengrin. The other famous and traditional piece of wedding music also had German roots.

The Wedding March in C major was written in 1842, by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), another German composer, for use in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and is often played at the end of a wedding ceremony, as a recessional. Because this music was written by German composers, some people sought to suppress it, in favor of compositions by American composers.

In May 1918, Mrs. Oliver Cromwell Field (1862-1957), President of the American Relief Legion (a war welfare charity organization) acting on a resolution passed by that group, asked Sousa to compose an American alternative to these traditional wedding pieces.

Isabel Louise FitzSimons Engelbert Wilmerding Field had been educated at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, and presumably was familiar with music, and Sousa.

While the result was accomplished by Sousa in record time, it was finished just before the war ended. Sousa’s American Wedding March manuscript for band was ready on July 31, 1918. Sam Fox and Company published the piano music on October 7, 1918. Sousa dedicated it to, “The American People,” and the performing rights were unrestricted, and the march could be played at any time, and any where, “without payment of tax.”

Germany surrendered, and the war ended with the Armistice signed in November 1918, and the American Wedding March by Sousa, was quickly forgotten, in spite of the fact the Sousa Band performed it at their concerts in 1919 and 1920. After a one-year break,

Sousa returned it to the concert lineup from 1922 to 1927. Even so, sheet music sales of this Sousa march must have been few, and are rarely found, even today.

Besides the American Wedding March, he also wrote several other marches during this time period, including the Liberty Loan, U. S. Field Artillery, Bullets and Bayonets, Flags of Freedom, Sabre and Spurs, and Solid Men to the Front. He dedicated the Anchor and Star March to the Navy and the Naval Reserve March to the, “Officers and Men of the Naval Reserve.”

Major Patrick W. Dugan has served as a non-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps and the Navy. He is a “Mustang,” having received his commission from the ranks, and graduated from Regular Army Officer Candidate School, at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, GA. He is retired from the Army of the United States.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!