Is Famous Song Source of ‘When the Battle’s O’er’?

By Nicholas Taitz
By Nicholas Taitz

It’s a familiar call whether in pipe or massed bands: Green Hills / Battle’s O’er’.  Indeed, ‘When the Battle’s O’er’ is a tune almost every piper in the world has either played or heard more than once.

The tune is attributed to William Robb (1863 – 1909, pictured top). P/M Robb was born in Stirling and won the Gold Medal at Oban in 1893 and the Marches at the same gathering. In his Army service he was Pipe Major of the 1st & 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. In addition to composing ‘When the Battle’s O’er’, Pipe Major Robb also wrote the well-known competition march, ‘The 91st at Modder River’. He was clearly one of the elite players of his day, taking prizes in both piobaireachd and light music against the top competitors of his time.

P/M William Robb

The close similarity between ‘When the Battle’s O’er’ and the Irish song ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ has always struck me.  The latter is a poem by Irish poet, Thomas Moore, who was a friend of Byron and Shelley.  Moore wrote this poem in 1805 while at Jenkinstown Park in County Kilkenny, Ireland.  Sir John Stevenson set the poem to its widely known melody and this was published in the collection of Moore’s work called ‘Irish Melodies’:last-rose

And ‘When the Battle’s O’er’:when-the-battle-is-over

It is not clear whether Pipe Major Robb heard ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ and was inspired by it, or came up with the melody for ‘When the Battle’s O’er’ independently.  It seems highly likely that he would have heard the traditional Irish song, and no doubt this was at least the subconscious inspiration for the tune.

‘The Last Rose of Summer’ is a classic song for the soprano repertoire, and has been recorded by almost every great soprano over the last hundred years and more.  One of the finest renditions is that of South African singing legend, Mimi Coertse:

Another famous rendition is that of Lily Pons, a diva of the 1940s:

Whilst it is interesting to see the links between a traditional Irish folksong and its development, by whatever means, into a well-known pipe tune, the comparison of these two pieces of music also reveals that this melody makes a poignant and beautiful slow air.  Perhaps one of the top pipe bands will take this up and play ‘The Last Rose of the Summer’ as a slow air in their medley.  Indeed, the intro tune to the medley could be ‘The Battle’s O’er’, with the slow air being ‘The Last Rose of the Summer’.

• What do readers think? There is a clear similarity between the song and the tune so did P/M Robb use it as the basis for his famous tune?  Email your thoughts to ‘When the Battles O’er’ became a hit song for Scottish entertainer Andy Stewart who penned the following words to P/M Robb’s melody: 

I returned to the fields of glory, 
Where the green grasses and flowers grow. 
And the wind softly tells the story, 
Of the brave lads of long ago.

March no more my soldier laddie, 
There is peace where there once was war. 
Sleep in peace my soldier laddie, 
Sleep in peace, now the battle’s over.

In the great glen they lay a sleeping, 
Where the cool waters gently flow. 
And the gray mist is sadly weeping, 
For those brave lads of long ago.


See the tall grass is there awaiting, 
As their banners of long ago. 
With their heads high forward threading, 
Stepping lightly to meet the foe.


Some return from the fields of glory, 
To their loved ones who held them dear. 
But some fell in that hour of glory, 
And were left to their resting here.

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