Brothers in arms

The calm before the storm.
A production of The Tempest performed in the opening days of the First World War for a local charity at Leintwardine House, Herefordshire.
Kennard Bliss (back row, far right) plays Ferdinand, and Arthur Bliss (front row, middle) Caliban.
A week later Arthur Bliss would be at war.

As I mentioned in last week’s MusiCB3 post this week we’re going to be looking at a very personal experience of war; that experienced by Sir Arthur Bliss and his family. Bliss was just about to have his 23rd birthday when war was declared in 1914. The afternoons of August 6th-7th were spent taking part in an outdoor performance of The Tempest. Bliss played Caliban, and his much loved younger brother, Kennard, was Ferdinand. A week later, as Bliss recalled in his autobiography, As I remember, (M501.c.95.92), he had joined up and was assigned to a “dockers battalion” before being switched abruptly to the Inns of Court Officers Training Corps.

Both Arthur and Kennard studied at Cambridge. Arthur was fortunate enough to meet both Vaughan Williams and Busoni “during his bearded period” in his time here, before going on to the Royal College of Music, where he was studying when war broke out. Kennard followed his brother to Rugby School, before winning a scholarship to read Classics at King’s. Both brothers loved life at Cambridge. Arthur was a member of a composers’ group calling themselves “the Gods”; while Kennard, appropriately enough was a member of the Apostles at King’s. He graduated in December 1914, and joined the Artists Rifles shortly afterwards, before being moved to the Royal Field Artillery.

It was to be a grim war for the Bliss’ family. Kennard was killed in 1916, Bliss himself would be wounded and later gassed. The memory of the war was to stay with him for the rest of his life, and would influence his music. Here, principally in his own words, is his experience.


Friday July 30th.

Left Ludgershall amid band playing at 5.15. Mike nearly left behind, men very excited. Sailed from Folkestone.

Saturday July 31st.

Very thrilling voyage – beautiful weather – destroyers on either side, torpedos sighted…marched to the rest camp about a mile outside up a terrific hill – found tents occupied by lice – slept on ground.

August 9th-18th

At Armentieres – in charge of 4 Coy under Ardagh … first day marched in column of fours up shelled road…party shelled by whizzbangs – no casualties – farm set on fire…Stent killed, toothache begins and gets very painful. Armentieres shelled.

Meet Dick Rawlinson, G.R.B. Roberts, Barlow, great fun at the cafe with Marguerita – play piano to drunk Canadians from Plug Street.

Ghastly thunderstorm worst I’ve ever had – thunderbolt falls, don’t like Armentieres. Billets always being shelled – Man hit in latrines, my billet struck by shell, roof broken.

August 29th.

Church parade in stubble field…General row with Luke who wrapt up cheese in his socks.

August 31st.

Ride down with Gwinney to water horses. I rode Beauty!

Sept 4th

Am getting tremendous authority on sanitation, especially every variety of latrines. Found in digging French cornet.

September 24th-26th

Prepare to advance – rumours of great success. Sleep, boots on – full equipment. Men sharpen their bayonets. Goodman collects some whisky.

Tuesday September 28th

Wandered round our reserve trenches – we stand to apparently in a cemetery! G.W. falls down in the mud.

September 30th

…Write to Elgar and Parry, had rat hunt all night couldn’t sleep for the damned things, they attacked at 9 with intense bombardment of clay and then charged. Adler and I completely demoralized.

Oct 2nd

…Adler shot in thigh & stomach while wiring.

[November. Kennard arrives on the Western Front]

November 11th

Threw bombs in morning – saw footer – band plays Tosca in village square…


January 27th

Kaiser’s birthday, everybody alert, but nothing happens. 7 pm, all gas gongs begin ringing – great excitement – everybody puts helmet on though wind is blowing in every direction – no gas – Bobby Burns mistakes smell of tube helmet for gas.

Letter to his father on his return from leave. April 16th, 1916.

13th Royal Fusiliers, British Expeditionary Force, France.

Dear Father,

Just a short line to say that I have arrived safely back at the Front again, after quite a comfortable voyage too. Amberton and I managed to get a cabin on board, and as he had with him a cold chicken and a bottle of claret, we didn’t have to fight for food…

Kennard Bliss 1892-1916

Week of June 3rd.

During this week I run across Kennard – He suddenly turned up and accosted me doing bayonet work – came to tea with us & heard gramophone. Went to dinner with him next night at Bienvillers – splendid meal. Saw his gun positions – and porty old major. K. seems to run the battery.

July 6th

March that evening to 3rd reserve trenches ALBERT, like Hampstead Heath. My company goes right up to front line with bombs. Guides lose their way.

July 7th

Wounded in action.

As we climbed out of the trench…they were waiting. I saw men falling on either flank and then I felt as though I had been struck a heavy blow on the leg by an iron bar. I fell in the mud and crawled to some hole for shelter. Later in the day…stretcher bearers, those brave and welcome adjuncts to any attacking force, found me and took me down to the First Aid post….then I was in an army ambulance jolting down the road to the reserve posts. Below me in a bunk lay a mortally wounded friend whom I had last seen in Cambridge days.

[28th September. Kennard is killed during the Somme offensive. His signaller writes to his father…

The enemy were shelling heavily…a heavy shrapnel burst close overhead and he fell without a sound. A piece had pierced his head, and I started to dress his wound, but his death must have been instantaneous.

I carried him back to the trench; and, being rather shaken, I laid him in a sheltered place out of the way of the advancing infantry, where later a party recovered his body.

M.I. Valentine, Kennard’s signaller on the day of his death, was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery

Bliss composes the Pastoral for clarinet, dedicated to Kennard, a talented clarinettist. It was published posthumously in 1980.


Bliss is posted home following his injury, and becomes an instructor to an officers’ cadet battalion in Prior Park, Bath. Rather appropriately he spends much of his spare time listening to Gotterdammerung]


Sunday, October 6th

Mass held in Lock 7 Canal.

13th October

Badly shelled – No 14 scuppered – relieved by 2nd Coldstream.

Two letters from Bliss to his father.

No. 8 General Hospital, Rouen. October 26.

Since last writing I have been in two night attacks and, during the second, had the ill fortune to swallow a gulp of gas…I am on ordinary diet and there is nothing to be anxious about. My only worry now is my kit, which apparently has been lost. I have nothing but a steel helmet and a pair of pyjamas!

The man in the next bed is an American who caught the gas worse than I did, and is being sent to England. He knows no one there, and I told him to write to you [Bliss’ father was American] when he gets to a London hospital. He comes from New York and has an overwhelming desire for “pie” (apple variety).

No. 72 General Hospital (M4) B.E.F. October 27

I am now ensconced here and shall probably remain for a week or so: it may depend on when I get my clothes – the addition of a toothbrush brings my list of possessions to three!…

In early 1919 Bliss returned home, he was just 27 years old. His experience of war would influence his music from the mechanistic Things to come score to the elegiac Morning heroes.

The brothers Bliss feature in one of the exhibition cases in the Anderson room for the next month.











About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.