With the anniversary of World War One upon us there are a number of books relating to various aspects of the war that have recently been published. One that I have just read is And the Band Played On: How Music Lifted the Anzac Spirit in the Battlefields of the First Word War by Robert Holden. Interestingly I have recently discovered that there are very few books about music in World War One compared to the Second World War, so I was pretty excited to find one that was not only about WWI, but also about the ANZACs (for those readers outside of the Antipodes, or the British Commonwealth ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).
A small caveat: although this purports to be about the ANZACs it is mostly focused on the Australian contributions and reception rather than both Australian and New Zealand. New Zealand soldiers and musicians/entertainers do get mentioned, but not in equal amounts. As a New Zealander I could wish that there were more instances of New Zealand-ness in this book, but I suspect only other Kiwis will notice the lack, and it certainly does not ruin the book.
And the Band Played On was a highly entertaining and incredibly informative book about the role of music and musicians in the ANZAC forces during World War One. When doing a brief Google search before writing this review I noticed one page that stated that Holden had spent five years reading Digger (soldiers) diaries- I’m actually surprised that it was not longer, given the thought and precision that has gone into this book. This book is organised by different aspects of music (and more broadly entertainment) and how they related to the war, and appears to cover almost every possible type of instance: from gramophones/records for the entertainment and recovery of wounded, to the concert parties performing for the troops, to instances of music, or even the rescue of musical instruments, during fighting and many more. There were many surprising instances that do not get (and probably never have or never will be) mentioned in cultural or military histories.
There are many examples that I could give here, and most I had no idea about. For example, people in Australia fundraised money to buy and send musical instruments to bands stationed in Egypt during their staging period. However, in the early stages of war the musicians had to leave these instruments behind when they were sent to Gallipoli or Europe because the instruments were considered non-essential baggage and would not be of use of soldiers on the front lines. This attitude from the powers that be changed eventually because of morale boosting power of music, particularly once the war had dragged on for a couple of years.
Morale boosting became an important aspect of the use of music on the war fronts. Bandsmen within the ranks were generally used as stretcher-bearers so they could also fulfil musical duties such as playing the rest of the battalion out or in to camp before or after a battle (even to the point of getting up in the middle of the night to play in straggling units). However, stretcher-bearers had one of the most dangerous duties of the war going out to collect the wounded under fire, and they had some of the highest mortality rates of all the ANZAC forces. Eventually it got to the point that the mortality rate of the stretcher-bearer bandsmen was decimating the bands. By this time military leaders had decided that the role of musicians as morale boosters was more important than their roles as stretcher bearers and they were all reassigned to less dangerous roles.
Another very interesting story that Holden detailed is rather reminiscent of the Christmas Truce of 1914 when soldiers of both sides sang carols together. During the Gallipoli campaign an off duty soldier was playing his cornet, and as he played the fighting first slowed and then stopped entirely while the entire battlefield listened to his playing. When the soldier finished each side returned to fighting.
It is these and other stories that make this book so interesting. These are aspects of music that are rarely written about: music in war is more often discussed from the civilian side than the soldiers’ side and more often behind the lines than on the front line. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in music during times of armed conflict.