France was a new country following the revolution that began in 1789, and in need of a new anthem. With the country at war with Austria and Prussia, nothing could have captured the spirit of the time more than a marching song.
An army captain (and amateur musician) named Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle was posted in Strasbourg when he was tasked by the mayor with creating a tune the troops could really belt out. Bursting with patriotic fervour, he composed the Chant de Guerre Pour L’Armée du Rhin (War Song for the Army of the Rhine), devising the stirring music and lyrics over a single night in April 1792. Full of imagery like “Let us march, let us march! That their impure blood should water our fields,” its popularity spread almost as quickly as it took to write. Soon it was known as La Marseillaise, so called after being sung by volunteer troops from Marseille as they entered Paris, and on 14 July 1795, it became the national anthem.
For all its revolutionary symbolism – enhanced by it being later banned by Napoleon and the restored monarchs – its composer, de Lisle, was actually a royalist. In 1793, he came close to losing his head on the guillotine.
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This article is taken from the August 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed