The First World War trenches – mud, blood and ….. music

The Menin Gate, Ieper/Ypres
Update, 16/10/2019. Added – video of the holiday cello in professional hands.
Brussels, 07/11/2018. My abiding image of the First World War is of the trenches. The fortifications that marked the front line between 1914 and 1918 spanned much of Europe, yet in Britain the strongest folk memories come from those in France and Belgium, the appalling carnage of the Somme and the low hills around Ypres.

Those memories stem not only from photographs, but also from the words of soldier poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; their lines emote all too clearly the horror of life in the trenches, the noise, the mud and the insanity.

Europe lost a generation in that war, a loss that changed society forever. Which is perhaps one reason why we commemorate the fallen from those battles still. Not only are the memories still clear; they mark a break in history, a break from a Victorian past that celebrated another time, a Britain of colonies and empire.

This year’s commemoration is an important one. Not just because it is the centenary of the end of the war, but also because (ironically at the moment of Brexit) those ceremonies will take place on the same day across the whole of Europe, including the UK.

We pay our respects

Across the continent, the eleventh hour, the eleventh day, and the eleventh month define the moment that we choose to make our tribute to the fallen. In Britain it is often a different day – the the nearest Sunday or Remembrance Sunday. This year however, the 11th November falls on a Sunday.

Which means, appropriately for the 100th anniversary of the ending of the war, that across the UK and the EU, hundreds of thousands of people will be commemorating the fallen on the same day. One minute of silence on that day (two minutes in the UK) will be shared by large numbers of European citizens, even if not exactly at the same time.

I think that is significant. And like most of my friends and family, I will also be marking the moment. It may not be at a public service, for I am sure that shrines like the Cenotaph, Thiepval and the Menin Gate will be crowded with the great and the good from across society.

So it will most likely be in the quiet of my own home, but I will be observing the moment nonetheless. Because even at a distance of one hundred years, the sacrifice made by our forebears was so remarkable and its consequences so tragic.

The Great War marked the end of an era. In Britain, one that until that point had been marked by locality (most people did not travel far), duty and respect for authority. By its end in 1918, social attitudes among the soldiers returning home had hardened, not surprising perhaps for those who had managed to survive.

My own family was perhaps lucky. My grandfather, Frederick William Hunt, was not called up for service on the front line (he was 36 in 1914). Perhaps because he was already a cook, he ended up working in the army kitchens on Salisbury Plain for the duration. But the war had its consequences even then; there was a distinct age gap between his older son Walter, born in 1911, and my father, who was born in 1920.

Looking for the finer things …

Tyne Cot CemeteryToday, the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele present a peaceful agricultural scene, with only the massed graves to remind us of what happened there a century ago. But there are enough records to remind us of what they were like at the time, of the horrors that those men endured.

I personally find it hard to imagine how anyone could have survived life in the trenches, where the next day might be your last, and still be able to preserve one’s finer instincts. Even harder to picture how soldiers could return from such an ordeal with any feelings for humanity, or for the better things in life.

Yet many did so. There are the stories of football being played across No Man’s Land at Christmas time. Not for long, because army hierarchy (in the British and French armies at least) considered such fraternisation to be bad for morale – those attempts at human kinship were quickly extinguished.

But there must have been moments of release amid the mud and the shelling. There was music being played in the trenches. No orchestral recitals perhaps, but individual soldiers and small groups of musicians were probably able to lighten the gloom of a murderous reality from time to time.

And the instruments would have been familiar to music lovers. Not just harmonicas and whistles, but the violin, the guitar and the cello, as well as the trumpet. British and French armies had their regimental orchestras, but there were also individual soldiers who brought a favourite instrument with them, especially if they knew the front would be a static one.

I am not a musician (unfortunately), but I am able to appreciate how a little music, even the very simplest of lines, must have gone a long way to alleviate the depression that would accompany life in the trenches. Whether the old saw that music can soothe the savage breast is true I do not know, but it is certainly able to lift the soul at times of sadness.

The trench cello
Holiday cello - Copyright Herman Gertner-Lauenstein.

My understanding of the importance of music in the Great War was cemented by a friend’s interest, possessing as he does one of the few so-called ‘holiday’ or ‘trench cellos’ in existence. This remarkable instrument is capable, apart from the bow, of being packed away into a container the size of an ammunition box, making it reasonably easy to transport.

This particular cello’s provenance is uncertain, since it was acquired at a flea market in the old East Germany. However only three similar wooden instruments are known to be in existence, and all were manufactured by the same noted instrument maker, Hill & Sons in London, around 1900. They were called holiday cellos because that was their purpose, to ease travel with your preferred instrument.

Of those that were taken to the battlefields, just these four instruments are known to have survived. Similar versions were produced behind the lines; they were usually made simply of plywood, although old steel oil containers were also used.

My acquaintance believes his instrument to have been professionally produced, despite the lack of markings. While the box itself is simply varnished plywood, the neck is beautifully carved from ebony, not a material easily obtainable in the fields of Flanders.

It has been played by expert musicians. And while such instruments may lack the depth and tone of a full-size cello, the sound they produce is recognisably the same. No less a performer than Stephen Isserlis has recorded a CD of pieces from Fauré, Debussy and Webern on a trench cello (The Cello in Wartime, Stephen Isserlis).

So why take a cello to war ….

Of course the obvious question is why. Why would anyone want to take a large, unwieldy instrument such as a cello, which to my mind is better suited to orchestral performances than solo repertoire, to a battlefield? Even a portable one is going to be heavy and unwieldy to carry.

I have asked this question repeatedly of cello players and enthusiasts, musicians, and indeed anyone interested, ever since. The mouth-organ I can understand, the whistle, the guitar, even the violin. All are smaller and reasonably portable. But a cello?

Eventually I gained an answer that I could understand. As one cellist explained it to me, many simply fall in love with the instrument. The cello is the one piece in the orchestra with a range that most closely resembles that of the human voice. It offers a unique appeal to players, and to audiences, for that reason.

Because of this similarity of voice (I understand), the cello has the ability to lift an audience’s mood in a way that other instruments cannot. That ability makes it an essential component in an orchestra, and a valuable addition to any small group performance.

Holiday cello - Copyright Herman Gertner-Lauenstein, 2018

In the past this ability may for the most part have lain buried within the confines of orchestral capability. Now however, more modern cellos (with wire strings, stronger string tension) can produce a louder, clearer sound that enables the cello’s unique tone to shine.

To my ears, the sound of the cello will forever be associated with certain prominent recordings – I think of Jacqueline du Pré’s performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. But the instrument’s unique voice has also had notable airings elsewhere. For example in film themes, of which one of the most moving is John Williams’ score for the film Schindler’s List.

More recently the cello has been exploited to raise the emotional impact of visual scenes in best-selling video series. For example I was struck by one winter-courtyard scene in an early series of Game of Thrones, a sequence which became almost lyrical thanks to its cello sound backing.

It is hope for the future 

So in attempting to find answers to the question, ‘Why the Cello?’, I have come to the following conclusion. It is probably an imperfect answer, but it is one that is to the best of my understanding.

It seems to me that the reason the cello retained its hold over individual soldier musicians, despite the manifest handicaps of size and unwieldiness, was the instrument’s ability to lift the mood, to provide a few moments of beauty amid the depressing constancy of some appalling surroundings. And perhaps to remind the players, and their audiences, that there were some things in life finer than killing, or playing your part in shooting at the enemy while hoping not to kill.

The cello in the trenchesBecause across the trenches of wartime Europe, the soldiers were the same. They were all human beings, they all wanted to live life, despite being forced to deal death to others. The most commonly expressed sentiment that I have heard was that ‘you were living on borrowed time’.

It is probable that war will always be with us, for as long as people and tribes disagree with each other. But I hope that there will also be poets, that there will always be musicians, individuals who can express human emotions in a way that lifts us above the ordinary or the commonplace in life to a vision of something better.

For me the trench cello is a reminder that even when large numbers of people are embedded in the worst kind of conflict, when the surroundings may resemble the end of civilisation, when the things you see and do bring disgust and depression, there remains always hope for a another future, one in which human beings are able to share the simple joys of human kinship, kindness and love.

Herman Gertner-Lauenstein’s holiday cello or trench cello, one of four known Hill & Sons instruments of this type still in existence, being played in 2019 by Belgian professional cellist Lieven Vanderwalle.

“Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward parts of the soul, on which they mightily fasten.” Socrates.

© Philip Hunt, November 2018.

And if you want to hear a particularly beautiful piece of cello playing:


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