The Edge of Beyond
Ralph Vaughan Williams in the First World War
By Stephen Connock
245 pages, including appendices and index.
With black & white illustrations and photographs
First published 2021
Albion Music Ltd
The cathartic effect on European civilisation of World War I has long been acknowledged and was brought even more into prominence when the centenary of the conflict was commemorated between 2014 and 2018. The toll on British musical life was great, with promising composers such as George Butterworth and Ernest Farrar cut down long before their prime. Others, most notably Ivor Gurney, were scarred, physically or mentally. Inevitably, attention has primarily focussed on the impact of the war on the younger generation, such as the three aforementioned composers, but in this timely book, Stephen Connock describes and discusses the war service of a slightly older composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Vaughan Williams was two months shy of his 42nd birthday when war broke out in Aug 1914. As Stephen Connock reminds us, at that age there was no compulsion on him to enlist. Indeed, it was not until 1918 that men in VW’s age bracket were conscripted. However, as Connock clearly demonstrates, the composer had a strong sense of patriotic duty. Furthermore, he was not the sort who would have been comfortable sitting at home while musical friends and colleagues signed up. His first step was to volunteer as a Special Constable in the summer of 1914, and by the end of August he had been promoted to the rank of sergeant. Not content with this service, however, VW determined to volunteer for active service and on New Year’s Eve 1914 he enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Connock makes an important point in reminding his readers that VW was a Cambridge-educated gentleman – and one, moreover, with important connections in the establishment. He could easily have sought a commission as an officer yet he enlisted in the rank and file.
In the pages that follow, Stephen Connock chronicles in detail VW’s training as a military ambulanceman in the London Field Ambulance Territorial Force, his subsequent deployment to France in June 1916, and the hazardous and challenging service he then performed as a wagon orderly. In that role, VW’s primary job was to bring the wounded back from the front line by night. He was responsible for loading the wounded onto a motorised ambulance and then unloading the wounded for treatment. He and a driver would transport the wounded back from the front line: that must have been a terrifying and arduous job in pitch darkness. After several months of this unrelenting, dangerous work, in November 1916 VW’s unit was redeployed to Salonika as part of British reinforcements for the war in Greece and the Balkans. Stephen Connock’s coverage of this part of VW’s war service is valuable, not least for reminding us that military service in that theatre of war could be every bit as arduous and dangerous as in France, not least on account of the extremes of the weather. For a time, VW was stationed in Greece near Lake Doiran and I was amused to learn that, ingeniously, he let his wife, Adeline, know his rough whereabouts by sending her a note which included a scale in the Dorian mode. It seems that the composer got bored with his role in Greece and, keen to do more of ‘his bit’, he applied for a Temporary Commission as an officer in March 1917. His successful application meant that he was deployed back to England for training.
Hitherto, VW’s war service had entailed looking after casualties. The next part of his career in uniform was as part of a unit engaged in inflicting casualties. He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA). The RGA operated the heavy artillery; their role was to fire long-range guns at enemy positions, operating from a distance several miles behind the front line. On the face of it, this was a less perilous occupation than the field artillery, who operated up at the front line, and Connock speculates that strings might have been pulled to get VW a role away from the front line. However, as he later makes clear, it wasn’t as simple as that: the heavy artillery was likely to be fired on by their German counterparts, sometimes to devastating effect: indeed, one of the most compelling parts of Connock’s narrative is the passage in which he describes the chaos and danger of the British retreat during the German Spring offensive of March 1918, in which VW’s unit was fully caught up.
After training in the UK, VW’s unit of the RGA was deployed to France in early March 1918, just before that German assault. One interesting thing, which I hadn’t previously appreciated, was that the artillery would be moved around the theatre of war, as the strategic situation demanded it, to support various infantry divisions. So, VW saw combat service in a number of parts of France and, eventually, when the Allies pushed the retreating enemy armies back into Germany, his was one of the units which advanced into the Rhineland. His role with the Artillery was to command a troop of horse which ferried supplies of ammunition and hauled the guns themselves. This was a key and challenging role. The coda to VW’s wartime service finally saw his musical talents utilised. After the Armistice, it simply wasn’t feasible to demobilise the huge numbers of soldiers in France quickly and a lot of effort was made to entertain the bored soldiers and ready them for civilian life. Probably as a result of influence being used in London on his behalf, VW was appointed Director of Music for the First Army, based in Valenciennes. In this role, very successfully organising all manner of musical activities among the troops, VW saw out his last three months of military service until he was demobilised in February 1919.
A very illuminating picture of Vaughan Williams the soldier emerges from these pages. One can only admire his sense of duty and purpose, to say nothing of his courage, in volunteering for active service at an age when he didn’t have to do so. Stephen Connock makes it absolutely clear that from the outset VW ‘mucked in’, comfortable with his fellow squaddies. We know that George Butterworth rubbed along very well with the soldiers in the Durham Light Infantry alongside whom he served. But Butterworth was an officer; VW was one of the ‘other ranks’. He made some lasting friendships among his fellow soldiers, one of whom stands out in particular. VW got to know Harry Steggles very early on in his RAMC career. Steggles was a very ordinary chap and a lot younger than the composer, but the two hit it off and remained friends until VW died. After VW’s death, Steggles provided a detailed recollection of VW, which has been one of Connock’s most important sources. From Steggles we learn, for example, that VW regretted his decision to apply for a commission in 1917 because the result was that he had to say farewell to his comrades. Steggles also offers a memory which I found genuinely touching. While they were billeted together in Katerini in Greece in 1917, VW said to Steggles, ‘Harry, when this war ends we will a) dine at Simpsons on saddle of mutton and b) see Carmen.’ Decades passed and Steggles forgot all about this promise but VW didn’t; one day he wrote to Steggles out of the blue and invited him to London where he proceeded to fulfil both promises. I think this touching little story is the best illustration – of many – in the book of the essential humanity of Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Having covered VW’s wartime service in considerable detail, Stephen Connock goes on to discuss the impact of the conflict on VW’s subsequent composing career. In a chapter entitled ‘With rue my heart is laden’ he talks about several works from the 1920s, suggesting how the war experiences had a bearing on all of them. In particular, he identifies three major works which he labels the ‘Great War Trilogy’. These are the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, Sancta Civitas and the opera Riders to the Sea. The impact of the war on the symphony has been accepted for some time, with widespread acknowledgement that the music is far darker and more intense than a musical depiction of a rural idyll. Connock argues convincingly why the text of Sancta Civitas and the way it is set places it firmly in the ‘War Trilogy’. Some may be surprised – as I was, initially – that Connock regards the opera as a war-influenced work. However, he makes a very persuasive case. In essence, he reminds us that the leading character in the opera, Maurya, has already lost her father, husband and four sons at sea before the opera even begins and during its course, she loses her two remaining sons. Connock argues that VW used this great toll of personal bereavement as a metaphor for the losses inflicted on so many families during the war. I’m convinced.
I think Stephen Connock’s discussion of the post-war works is convincingly argued and though the discussion of each work, including several others besides the Trilogy, is brief, it bespeaks significant knowledge of and thought about the works concerned. He concludes that by the end of the 1920s VW had exorcised the ghosts of wartime and was ready to move on. I don’t disagree, though I’m mildly surprised that he didn’t include in his discussion reference to a work of the 1930s, Dona nobis pacem. I’d argue that this powerful score is VW’s way of saying ‘never again’.
Connock bookends his account of VW’s wartime experiences with chapters briefly surveying, firstly, his life and music up to 1914 and, secondly, his life from 1919 to 1958 with reference to a number of key works. I can see why these chapters are included: they set the war years in the context of his life overall. However, in truth, they are brief summaries that break no new ground. Though these chapters may be helpful to readers with little knowledge of the composer’s life and music, I rather suspect that most readers of this book will not fall into this category: they are likely to be existing VW aficionados, keen to deepen their knowledge of a key period in the composer’s life.
In that latter respect, Stephen Connock’s book fulfils its purpose admirably. Drawing on a variety of primary and secondary sources, he paints a detailed and very full picture of VW’s personal contribution to the war effort. His task was complicated because there is very little primary evidence from the subject himself: VW did not compile a diary and very little wartime correspondence from him to other people has survived. Nonetheless, sufficient material was available to enable a well-researched, rounded narrative. From this book we get a sense of VW’s humanity, humility, down to earth attitude and, above all, his firm intention to ‘do his bit’ without fuss or favour.
The book itself is very nicely produced, with clear typeface and the footnotes sensibly grouped at the end of each chapter. I would venture just one criticism of the presentation. The book includes 72 black and white photographs and a further 28 illustrations, a good number of which are reproductions of maps of the locations in which VW served. Unfortunately, the majority of the photographs and almost all the maps are less than full-page in size. This means that detail is sacrificed and I found the maps very difficult to read. I appreciate that if the illustrations had been reproduced in a larger form this would have significantly increased the size of the book; perhaps the answer would have been to be less generous with the number of illustrations? The text has obviously been very carefully checked: I spotted only a tiny number of errors, all of them insignificant.
Stephen Connock reminds us that had VW not survived the war he would still have left behind a significant number of important compositions. These included his first two symphonies, the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia, On Wenlock Edge, Songs of Travel, Five Mystical Songs and The Lark Ascending, albeit the latter would have been left unrevised and unorchestrated; VW undertook those tasks after the war. Nonetheless, English music would have been infinitely poorer had VW not lived on for another forty years to give us a host of additional great works. Furthermore, horrific though his wartime experiences must have been – and, besides the psychological impact, the hellish noise of the artillery barrages surely contributed to his deafness later in life – those cathartic years undoubtedly took him to new heights of eloquence, not least in his ‘Great War Trilogy’, and for that we can be truly thankful.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, this book fills out very significantly our knowledge of his experiences during World War I. As such, it’s a major contribution to Vaughan Williams scholarship.