An illustrated article recently discovered in the archive throws a spotlight on how the healing and morale-boosting power of music was harnessed by the British on the Western Front. Written in 1916 for the Strand Magazine by celebrated actress Miss Lena Ashwell (1872-1957), the article is entitled ‘A Year’s Music at the Front’, and reports upon the mission to bring uplifting concert music to soldiers during World War One. The article brings alive the positive impact the ‘concerts for the Front’ programme had on the mental and physical health of the troops, as well as Lena Ashwell’s energetic and inspirational personal involvement in this scheme.
Lena Ashwell pictured in The Sketch in March 1915
Ashwell writes that the idea of concerts for the front was first mooted in February 1915, when the Ladies’ Auxiliary Committee of the Y.M.C.A suggested that users of the Y.M.C.A huts(already visited by this blog) might welcome the diversion of a concert from rigours of life on the front lines. In fact, a concert troupe of actors and actresses, led by Seymour Hicks had already departed for the front in January that year, but Ashwell’s concerts were nevertheless to have a significant impact on those who enjoyed them. She writes, “It is very difficult for people at home to realise the monotony of life when life consists of hard work, rigid military discipline, and nothing else, and when one’s world is suddenly a town of bare huts in a sea of mud...” With mouth organs and gramophone already in demand in the trenches and at military hospitals, the uplifting and healing power of music was well known, but for “a real concert party with a programme of really good music” to be put on for the benefit of the troops, was something new.
A concert behind the lines at the Front with soldiers in drag, pictured by Fortunino in The Sphere in November 1915. Lena Ashwell sought to provide more professional, cultured entertainment for the men.
An ensemble departed for the front in early April 1915, including pianist and composer Ivor Novello(who also composed the popular WW1 song “Keep the Home Fires Burning”), with the first concert at the YMCA hut at Le Havre proving a great success. Spurred on by such an enthusiastic response from the troops, the concerts were rolled out to other locations, and Ashwell writes that in twelve months, one thousand five hundred concerts were given, not just in Flanders and Northern France, but as far afield as to Egypt and Malta, as well as to the bases and hospitals of the Mediterranean.
Ashwell herself travelled to the front, and became deeply involved in fundraising and logistics behind the concert parties, writing passionately about the positive effects the concerts had on the men. Through articles such as the one in the Strand, as well as fundraising concerts organised back home, she was able to publicise and report back on the work of the concert parties.
Ashwell recognised the uplifting and therapeutic power of music, seeing men “invigorated, refreshed and stronger merely for the change in outlook” that the concerts provided. She believed that, “The men welcome the music as if they were hungry and thirsty for the beauty and comfort of it…”At a time when the psychological hardships of life on the front lines were medically unacknowledged, the realisation of the power of something as simple as music to lift the spirits and help to knit together broken men was perhaps a surprising development.
Ashwell defended the entertainments against those who saw them as a frivolous diversion from the serious business of war, and stressed the good that such programmes could do. “For, quite apart from the pleasure the music brings into the hospitals, it does more than give the patients a happy afternoon. It seems to break the spell that the horrors and the deafening noise of modern military warfare lays on the nerves of so many men. The good it does is permanent. There have been cases when the music has bought back memory to a man who had completely lost it, and speech to another struck dumb; and though such cases are, naturally, exceptional, the music not only seems to make the men forget their pain and weariness for the time being, it soothes and calms their tense-strained nerves, and gives them happy memories, instead of horrible ones.” The comfort of familiar English music, brought especially for soldiers’ entertainment, provided a tonic for the homesick, war-weary and wounded that doctors could not prescribe. Theodore Flint, accompanist and musical director of the scheme, noted in a letter from the front to Lena Ashwell that “One army doctor found the ‘concert did wounded men more good than a month’s nursing.’”
Lena Ashwell’s article in the Strand Magazine concludes with a quotation from the medical paper Hospital, published in August 1915, which states that “Money for this purpose is just as usefully spent on splints and bandages, for diversion and amusement are valuable aids to recovery from bodily ills, whether they be fevers or bullet wounds. It would probably be true to say that these concert parties have actually saved lives.”
The notion of harnessing the therapeutic power of music via concert parties was in many ways ahead of its time, and it was through the vision of individuals such as Lena Ashwell that the scheme was made not only possible, but incredibly successful. Ashwell’s many other achievements are too abundant to detail here, but even just highlighting her passionate commitment to this cause, through this single article in the Strand, provides some illustration of her character, and a moving testimony to the power of music, and the difference that one woman can make.