When The War Came

Album: The Crane Wife (2006)
Play Video

Songfacts®:

  • "When The War Came" is the sixth track on The Decemberists' smash hit 2006 album The Crane Wife. It was written by Colin Patrick Meloy, the Decemberists' lead singer and lead guitar.

    This song is about the Siege of Leningrad, a blockade that occurred from September of 1941 to January of 1944, during World War II. It is widely regarded as the deadliest siege in military history. Germany was attacking Russia, and Hitler opted to surround Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and bombard it, rather than invade directly, having predicted that the city would "fall like a leaf." Instead, the siege lasted 900 days, and through heavy casualties Leningrad citizens continued their war and munitions industries even though they were down to a few slices of bread per adult per day. Hitler ordered bombers to drop propaganda pamphlets over the city warning them that if they did not surrender, they would starve to death. Some 632,000 citizens died of starvation and hypothermia due to being without fuel for heat. Some of these casualties included the 400,000 children who lived in the city. Mass graves and history obliterate the records; some estimate that the death toll was closer to 800,000. It is still remembered today in Russia as an event of uncommon suffering and heroics. Here is a page with a hair-raising account of the Siege of Leningrad, if you have the nerve to read more.
  • The Decemberists fit this into their concept album The Crane Wife, with songs inspired by the Japanese folk tale comprising the first cycle and songs relating to Shakespeare's The Tempest for the second.
  • Meloy's wife is Carson Ellis, an artist producing covers for children's literature and album covers. That includes covers, posters, and promotional artwork for all of The Decemberists albums, plus the cover of Colin Meloy's book Wildwood: the Wildwood Chronicles, and covers for work by Lemony Snicket.

Comments: 3

  • LegatoI used to think this was about WW1 especially with the lyrics "They're picking allies" and "with the poison cannonballs." Both of these seem to be misheard to me though cause the lyrics most people consider correct by an overwhelming margin say they actually say "they're picking out our eyes" and "with the poise of a cannonball". I still don't think that necessarily means its not about ww1, but it seems much more vague and not specific to ww1 imagery. I dont know if this is about Leningrad like mentioned above, but I imagine if Colin Meloy said thats what it is about then I must oblige. Im curious if he said something on the matter. I would think he would have somewhere at some point.
  • Mark from Austin, TxI love The Decemberists and this song, but...um...it kinda sounds exactly like Kashmir by Led Zeppelin. The first time I heard it, I thought they were covering Zeppelin. Another song on the album, The Perfect Crime, sounds almost exactly like Life During Wartime by the Talking Heads. (Mainly the riff at the beginning.)
  • Rustin from Waco, Tx"The last great book I read was Hunger by Elise Blackwell. It's about the siege of Leningrad in World War II, and there was a botanical institute. During the siege, which lasted a long time, the entire population were starving, but all of the botanists in the institute swore themselves to protect the catalog of seeds and plants and things, from not only a starving population, but also from themselves. It's pretty amazing. I actually ended up writing "When the War Came", a song on the new record, about that." - Colin Meloy
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Judas Priest

Judas PriestSongwriter Interviews

Rob Halford, Richie Faulkner and Glenn Tipton talk twin guitar harmonies and explain how they create songs in Judas Priest.

Carol Kaye

Carol KayeSongwriter Interviews

A top session musician, Carol played on hundreds of hits by The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Frank Sinatra and many others.

Victoria Williams

Victoria WilliamsSongwriter Interviews

Despite appearances on Carson, Leno and a Pennebaker film, Williams remains a hidden treasure.

Peter Lord

Peter LordSongwriter Interviews

You may not recognize his name, but you will certainly recognize Peter Lord's songs. He wrote the bevy of hits from Paula Abdul's second album, Spellbound.

Holly Knight ("The Best," "Love Is A Battlefield")

Holly Knight ("The Best," "Love Is A Battlefield")Songwriter Interviews

Holly Knight talks about some of the hit songs she wrote, including "The Warrior," "Never" and "The Best," and explains some songwriting philosophy, including how to think of a bridge.

Justin Timberlake

Justin TimberlakeFact or Fiction

Was Justin the first to be Punk'd by Ashton Kutcher? Did Britney really blame him for her meltdown? Did his bandmates think he was gay?