Christopher Latham considers the price paid by musicians as a result of the carnage at the Somme.

Excuse me for being so slow with my news but I have had a bad accident. On Sept 21 a shell exploded near me and blew up, taking with it my left arm. It is now amputated so I think I will have to say goodbye to my clarinet career. They gave me the military cross a few days back. It is little comfort in the face of my loss, but nonetheless it pleased me a great deal. (Maurice Jaspart, October 6, 1916)

In the Olympics of human suffering, two names top the list: Verdun and the Somme. Two vast 1916 slaughterhouses: flesh against iron; where every participant was a casualty, and those who learned to adapt through desensitisation became men of steel who could no longer feel. The most famous was Adolph Hitler, who fought the Australians at Fromelles. A generation later those living dead would reap a terrible harvest and make famous names like Auschwitz, Belsen and Dachau.

The Mud of Desolation: Frank Cozier (ART00211)

The first day remains the most costly 24 hours in British military history with almost 60,000 casualties, a third of whom were killed. Australia lost more troops at Pozières and Fromelles in 44 days than in the entire eight months at Gallipoli. Over one million soldiers from all sides became casualties in this most pointless of conflicts. It is a battle that killed bankers, bakers, shopkeepers, teachers, sportsmen, scholars, farmers and miners, and poignantly for civilisation, potential composers: those precious songbirds we could scarce afford to lose.

The Great War was the first where artists flocked to fight. In England they had their own regiment: the Artists Rifles, consisting of painters, actors, architects and musicians. In France, Paris Conservatoire students signed up in droves to avenge the killing of Albéric Magnard by German soldiers while defending his house, his manuscripts burnt in the ensuing fire. The Conservatoire lost over 120 students and graduates, the losses remorselessly tallied in Lili Boulanger’s Gazette, quoted above. It was not until the next war that Britten, Tippet and many of their friends became conscientious objectors. In WW1, the best and brightest signed up in droves. Only Percy Grainger absconded to America, where in 1917 when the US finally entered the war, he slipped into uniform, becoming a bandsman to avoid public scorn.

Vaughan Williams, who thought Butterworth a greater talent, was distraught

The young stars of London’s musical life were assembled at the Somme. Most know that Ralph Vaughan Williams and his friend George Butterworth served there: Butterworth dying a hero on August 5 at Pozières alongside the Australians. Awarded the Military Medal for courage, his body was lost in the subsequent shelling. Vaughan Williams, who thought him a greater talent, was distraught, going on to portray his experiences in his Pastoral Symphony of 1922 with its famous depiction of a bugler practising, and not quite hitting the top note.

Another was Gordon Jacobs, who served at the Somme with his brother Anstey, lost to the mud and the wire. Jacobs was taken prisoner in 1917 and spent the rest of the war in POW camps. In 1928 he would write the Lento e mesto in his First Symphony in memory of his brother.

Working Party at Flers: Frank Cozier (ART00212)

One notable group of emerging composers studying at the Royal College of Music under Parry and Stanford chose to enlist together at the outbreak of war. These five friends were Ivor Gurney, Arthur Bliss, the Australian Arthur Benjamin, Herbert Howells and Francis Purcell Warren, popularly known as “Bunny”. All were accepted for service, except for Howells, diagnosed with Graves’ disease and only six months to live. Radical radium injections over the coming two years meant he was eventually cured, living to the ripe old age of 90. Howells’ early orchestral work, The B’s, written in the halcyon days of 1914, pays tribute to this boisterous circle of friends.

Gurney is remembered as a great composer of songs, over 300 in total – an English Schubert. Refused for poor eyesight at the outbreak of war, he retried again in 1915 and was finally accepted into the 2/5th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment. He fought in the Somme where he wrote three songs: In Flanders, written at Crucifix Corner, Thiepval; Severn Meadows (the only song where he set his own war poetry); and By A Bierside, written in a trench mortar emplacement between Contalmaison and Ovillers-la-Boisselle. Later he published two highly regarded books of war poems, Severn & Somme (1917) and War’s Embers (1919). After recovering from his wounds in a hospital in Rouen, he was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, gassed at Passchendaele in September 1917, and sent back to London. Following the war he experienced a breakdown and in 1922 was committed to the City of London Mental Hospital, where he lived until his death in 1937.

I was still there in the trenches with a few men; we knew the armistice had been signed, but we had been forgotten

Arthur Bliss served with the 13th Royal Fusiliers, was wounded at the Somme, and finally gassed at Cambrai. In September he too lost his brother, Kennard, a talented clarinettist, in whose memory he composed his choral symphony, Morning Heroes. He wrote at that time, “although the war had been over for more than ten years, I was still troubled by frequent nightmares; they all took the same form. I was still there in the trenches with a few men; we knew the armistice had been signed, but we had been forgotten; so had a section of the Germans opposite. It was as though we were both doomed to fight on till extinction. I used to wake in horror.”

Arthur Benjamin would serve as second lieutenant with the 32nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers at Flers and Ligny-Thilloy in the Somme, where his unit lost half its men. In 1917, realising the likelihood of a short, brutal life, he transferred to the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps, serving as a gunner. He was shot down over Germany on July 31, 1918, by Hermann Göring, one of the Red Baron’s Flying Circus, and spent the rest of the war as a POW, writing his B Minor Violin Sonata to pass the time.

Francis Purcell Warren, a star violist and a promising composer, served as a Second Lieutenant in the 10th Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment. Reported missing on July 3, he was probably killed the previous day south of Thiepval. His body, unrecovered, has no grave. His most significant final work, the Adagio from his unfinished Cello Sonata, demonstrates a passionate outpouring of melody, promising more than time would allow him. Hubert Parry spoke of him in 1917: “I am afraid there is no longer any hope of young Purcell Warren being alive. He was one of the gentlest, most refined and sensitive of boys, attracting all our love. He was a very promising violist, and had began to show characteristic qualities as a composer which were quite surprising, for there was a subtlety and a dexterity about his compositions which made us look upon him as likely to make a personal mark.”

Howells was particularly distraught by Bunny Warren’s death. He and Leon Goossens were looking at Warren’s photo when Howells was suddenly struck mute with grief. After a long silence he said simply, “He was everything to me,” and began to sob uncontrollably. The next year he would dedicate the hauntingly beautiful Elegy for Viola and Strings to Bunny Warren’s memory.

Some say that the artist who best captured the Somme was JRR Tolkien who served there as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. All but one of his closest friends died in the War. He told his son that to survive the experience he “took to ‘escapism’… transforming experience into another form and symbol.” The Lord of the Rings distils all that violence and mud-drowned foulness: “Here nothing lived, not even the leprous rats that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails on the lands about.”

The most terrible legacy however was the effect it had on the living. By hardening oneself against this devastating experience, one could become numb to the pain. This desensitisation cruelled the heart. The trauma was at the centre of much of post-War art: the 1920’s avant-garde was a cathartic vomit of violence and pain by those who had served. This “cutting off” during the war was sometimes called “blinking off”, seemingly easy to do. The real challenge was “blinking on” again and returning to feeling. Often the love of a woman redeemed those who came home, the feminine caress of mothers, wives and nurses, patching up those who returned.

Curiously in all of that century’s retelling these stories, there remains one missing voice. “The Somme: the whole history of the world does not contain a more ghastly word,” wrote German officer Friedrich Steinbreche. The German defenders, bombed continuously in their deep shelters, slowly went mad. Johannes Schmiedgen wrote his Requiem: Das Hohe Lied vom Tod, (The High Song of Death) in those dugouts during their defense of the Somme. Born in Dresden in 1886, killed in 1916, his Requiem is likely the largest work written in the trenches during the Great War. It could be the classic description of the German experience of being bombed for weeks and months on end, but for the manuscript going missing since the 1919 premiere. If found, it might give voice to the 450,000 German dead. I dearly wish someone reading this piece might be able to help us find it.  

One particular cruelty of the Armistice agreement was that Germans could only place flowers on graves of their war dead one day each year. Where forgiveness could have helped, animosity was bred. With no outlet for grief, rage flowered, giving birth to the angry baby of modernism.

Tired Out: Frank Cozier (ART00214)

What of New Zealand, the infant nation of the South? They lost their only boy. Willie Braithwaite Manson, from the Braithwaite clan of NZ musicians, was picked age 12 to sing in the Queen’s Chapel Royal Choir. At the Royal Academy of Music, he won prizes for composing, ahead of my great uncle and veteran, the musicologist Peter Latham. On young Private Manson’s 20th birthday, which was the first day of the Somme, in the 1st/4th London Scottish, he was killed at Gommecourt by an incoming shell. What remained was never found. His name is inscribed on Thiepval’s Memorial for the Missing. In all, he left us just six songs. After the War, his father founded HMV in Australia and, with the money he earned, endowed five Manson positions at the Royal Academy in London. So New Zealand lost its then finest composer.

Australia’s great loss is Frederick Kelly, “Sep” to his friends. Pianist, composer and gold medal winning rower, a Lt. Commander in the Royal Naval Division, Kelly’s last two creative acts were to finish the Elegy he wrote at Gallipoli and his final piece, an opening Lament for a planned set of orchestral variations, which was completed on October 28, in a basement of a ruin, in Mesnil near Thiepval. A fortnight later on November 13, 1916, the last day of that battle, he was killed in the third German trench at Beaumont-Hamel. His men carried him back through the hell of No-Man’s Land to ensure his burial in a marked grave. He lies in Martinsart Cemetery, where we will play this July 22.

Kelly was praised by his friends, New Zealand’s Bernard Freyberg and the British PM’s son Arthur Asquith for his courage and humour – for making them laugh. They missed him deeply. His first portrait CDs will be released on ABC Classics this coming November. With Kelly, we lost one of our best and did not even know it.

The gift that saves this story from being an unrelenting tragedy is the radiant happiness of much of the music written in the trenches, depictions of home, of green fields and flowers. It transcends  physical reality. Where the worldly body was corrupted by mud and violence, the spirit spoke pure. It’s a curious thing that the last piece a composer writes before they die is often their calmest.

All of these losses are just the tip of the iceberg: those who were recognised in their time for their talent. History does not record whether Maurice Jaspart was the leading young clarinettist of his generation before his arm was blown off or merely an also-ran. Nor where and what he would have played, or who he would have taught. The vast majority of the Somme dead still lie entombed within that silent submerged bulk, which hangs unseen and forgotten, a frozen ossuary of talent, invisible in the deep blue water of the past.


The Flowers of War is a partnership between the Anzac Centenary Cultural Fund, Mission Centenaire 14-18, DVA, Australian War Memorial, High Court of Australia, Orchestre de Picardie, L’Historial de Peronne, Musée de l’Armée, Somme Tourisme and the French and German Embassies, Canberra. It plays Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney from June 21-24 before touring France in July

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