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In the World War 1 movie 1917, when Lance Corporal Schofield washes ashore the river, he hears a person singing a song. He then advances towards the voice and finds a number of soldiers sitting around in the woods along with one standing and singing.

When the song ends the soldiers get up and align themselves ready to go for battle. William later finds out that they were D-Company and supposed to go in 2nd wave.

Why was that soldier singing it just before going to attack?

A speech by a commander before going to attack is common but is/was there any such practice of singing song in reality?

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As mentioned by BCdotWeb, the song is a well known gospel/folk song "The Poor Wayfaring Stranger" which talks about the difficulty of life and the hope of a heaven beyond. The lyrics would be very appropriate for anyone looking death in the face, especially during a battle where one is on the front line, as was the case of the men in the movie. They were minutes away from charging into almost certain death.

Here are the full lyrics as sung by Johnny Cash (note there are different variations but the message is essentially the same).

I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world below

The first lines reference the singer of the verse. The poor wayfaring stranger traveling through this world.

There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

The stranger is bound for a land with no sickness toil or danger, the opposite of the world he is wandering through now.

I'm going there to see my Father
And all my loved ones who've gone on

He is going to meet his family who have already passed through this world

I'm just going over Jordan
I'm just going over home

"Going over Jordan" is most likely a reference to the House of Israel in the Bible crossing the river Jordan to claim the Promised Land as their Home. In this case, the promised land is a metaphor for heaven.

I know dark clouds will gather 'round me
I know my way is hard and steep
But beauteous fields arise before me
Where God's redeemed, their vigils keep
I'm going there to see my Mother
She said she'd meet me when I come
So, I'm just going over Jordan
I'm just going over home
I'm just going over Jordan
I'm just going over home

This world is dark and difficult, but its bearable because of the hope of returning to that peaceful land with beauteous fields and where Mother waits for him, in the promised land over Jordan.

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    +1 for interpretation. I have updated question to know about realism of singing a song before going to attack. – Rahul Jan 24 '20 at 14:14
  • Just to confirm your interpretation: "Going over the Jordan" is a well known phrase in german. It means dying. "He went over the Jordan" means the person dies. It uses the same biblical meaning, albeit many people use it without knowing that. – Polygnome May 15 '20 at 18:41
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It is "The Wayfaring Stranger"

a well-known American folk and gospel song [...] about a plaintive soul on the journey through life.

Judging from the lyrics it seems rather appropriate for the situation those soldiers are in.

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  • Can you elaborate what makes the song appropriate for the situation? – Napoleon Wilson Jan 24 '20 at 0:42
  • Thanks for mentioning sources. I have updated question to know about realism of singing a song before going to attack. – Rahul Jan 24 '20 at 14:13
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In addition to the answers above, the song was likely selected as Schofield is not just facing death, but believes he may already be dead.

The script explains how Schofield views the soldiers:

EXT. PINE WOOD - CONTINUOUS

Shafts of morning light stream through the pine trees. Schofield walks towards the music. Uncertain if it is real. The music is in the air, a canopy, almost directionless. He can now make out a voice. And words.

VOICE (O.S.) ...there is no sickness, toil, nor danger/In that bright land to which I go...

Schofield picks his way through the thin trees... and suddenly the music has a source. A YOUNG SOLDIER stands in a small clearing.

A British COMPANY - about two hundred men - are gathered around listening.

The young soldier’s voice is pure, untrained. He sings the old folk song - “I Am A Poor Wayfaring Stranger”.

YOUNG SOLDIER (O.S.) I’m going there to see my Father, And all my loved ones who’ve gone on.

Schofield stops on the edge of the clearing. Unsettled by the world before him. Unsure if these men are living or dead.

If he is one of these ghosts.

He leans against a tree and slumps down on the outskirts ofthe group. The music washes over him.

Dawn is breaking.

He closes his eyes. Done.

YOUNG SOLDIER (CONT'D) I’m only going over Jordan. I’m only going over home.

The song finishes. A smattering of applause.

The song would make a fitting soundtrack for Schofield, surrounded by his dead comrades, as they entered the afterlife.

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Why was that soldier singing it just before going to attack? A speech by a commander before going to attack is common but is/was there any such practice of singing song in reality?”

Although there is a romantic appeal about a commanding officer giving a pep talk to the troops he is leading into battle, this would be done for large ceremonial gatherings. Otherwise, the time is better spent organizing the strategy and tactical aspects of battle plans. Individually or in small groups, downtime before a battle would be spent preparing your weapons and your mind for the battle. Any spare moments you can find will be used to commune with your god in any fashion you find most comforting to prepare your soul.

Although my time in the Army was done during peacetime, spiritual introspection, communion, and fellowship were still common before hazardous activities. A prayer or two amongst small groups was a common sight right before an airborne or air assault operation. You see the same happen before sporting events to make beseeching intercession for the safety of your fellow and opposing players.

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