APATA – The Australian Performing Arts Teachers Association

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Music in the Great War

Apr 25, 2020

Anzac Day 2020 is very different for everyone this year but imperative we still stand as a country and honour our Anzac’s. Today we thought we’d pay tribute to all who have fallen and the those in the corp sharing their talents during times of great challenge – the musicians and bandsmen.

Music and theatre in the first world war played an invaluable service to raise the spirits and moral of those at home and especially those men and women on the front line. The following provides a small insight into the experiences of bandsmen, entertainers, soldier composers and their audiences while on active service during the First World War. Working through the archives at the Australian War Memorial and the Alexander Turnbull Library a wonderful collection of photographs, diaries, letters, instruments, concert programs and written sheet music can be found demonstrating that in times of great challenge, uncertainty and fear the importance in which music and theatre enabled people to deal with their experiences was an escape from the realities they faced providing some sense of normality and peace, if only for a short moment of time.

Music and songs have an uncanny ability to express feeling and ideas in a simple, relatable way; they have the capacity to bring people together and galvanise their spirits. So it should come as no surprise to discover that music of all kinds played an important role in the First World War. Whether through military or ceremonial music, official concert programs to entertain the troops, singalongs of popular songs in the barracks and trenches, or music written about the war and published as sheet music, in many ways it was music that gave people a way to frame and understand their experiences of the Great War.

In a time before the radio and the phonograph were fully developed, music was mostly a live experience. It was common for people to buy the latest tunes as sheet music to play at home, or to sing in company with friends. During the war, these popular songs travelled with the troops and often became a way of bonding brothers and sisters in arms. Concert programs organised to entertain service personnel were common events, at which popular songs of the day would bring people together. Popular wartime music reveals the relationships and experiences of those who served and those who remained behind. Music stirred feelings of loss, longing, nostalgia, and sometimes hope, and touched many in a powerful and emotional way.

Working through the archives it’s a joy to discover over 100 pieces of original sheet music, learn of 10 Australian composers, 55 Australian band members and 66 performing artists ranging from singers, actors, dancers and vaudeville through to comediennes and impersonators who served in the military.

Musicians and bandsmen were trained as soldiers with the expectation to fight and support their battalions in battle. Regulations prescribed that 25 bandsmen could remain behind the lines but they had to be prepared to move to the Transport Lines and assist as carriers during emergencies – stretcher bearers, food to the trenches or take part in battle. Bandsmen endured the front line experiencing the full brunt of war alongside their comrades. They fell ill, were wounded or lost their lives during combat. Only 8 of the original 31 members of the 15th Battalion Band remained after the campaign at Gallipoli. While bandsmen endured heavy loss and casualties by 1916 the importance of battalion bands was firmly established with orders from various division headquarters requesting that every battalion or brigade should have a “band of some kind”. These ranged from brass and pipe bands through to the efforts by the Fourth Division to establish mouth-organ bands. The nature of warfare and the dual roles of bandsmen continued as did the casualties among bandsmen.

The dedication and musical talents of bandsmen were generally appreciated for cheering up their audiences by contributing to the lighter side of war through their keen sense of humour and willingness to engage in new experiences. These bands had the ability to read the mood of their audience and used this to strike up melodies that seemingly fit the occasion. Establishing battalion bands required a supply of sheet music, instruments and trained musicians. Instruments were donated by wealthy individuals or acquired with the assistance of organisations like the Victoria Racing Club, Queensland Patriotic Club and the West Australian Trench Comforts Fund. Enterprising units organised their own concerts to raise money, while other bands drew upon personal supplies of sheet music and instruments brought from home.

One of the most moving stories involving battalion bands during the First World War, surrounds story of the 5th Infantry Brigade Band marching through the town square of Bapaume as they played the Victoria March on 19 March 1917. The band was led by Bert Peagam, of the 19th Battalion, and of this event he writes:

“The day after Bapaume was captured I entered that town with my band, and we played in the streets while the official photographers were taking moving pictures of us as we marched through the streets of ruined and burning buildings. We gave programmes every afternoon in the square, opposite the big Town Hall before it was blown up. … We were in Bapaume for nine days and were billeted about two hundred yards away from the Town Hall when it was blown up at 11.20 pm.”

  The Band of the 5th Australian Infantry Brigade, led by Bandmaster Sergeant A Peagam of the 19th Battalion, passing through the Grande Place (Town Square) of Bapaume, playing the ‘Victoria March’

Despite bandsmen having unofficial status their contribution under duress with the rest of their battalion was enormous and an important part of the Australia Imperial Force during the First World War.  They entertained fellow soldiers, maintained morale with their keen sense of humour, and adopted various roles when their battalions were mobilised.

Lest We Forget.

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