Ambulances and allotments: RVW and wartime

RVW during WW1

Vaughan Williams was unlucky, as were millions of others who had to endure not one, but two World Wars (my grandparents, for example – my father’s father served in France in WWI and never, ever, discussed it). Even though RVW was 42 in 1914, it didn’t occur to him that he wouldn’t do what he could for the cause and so enlisted in the RAMC. This meant, of course, that composing was out of the question for the duration. 

His role in the Royal Army Medical Core was as an ambulance driver – it was no picnic. He and his colleagues would be called upon to rescue soldiers who had been wounded or sadly killed in the fighting. This took place under all circumstances, whether in the face of heavy bombardment or otherwise, whether in pitch black or otherwise, irrespective of weather conditions, the sheer physical effort must have been extreme, let alone the mental strength needed. 

RVW sums up what must have been the feelings of many, many of those serving on the front line in a letter to Holst of 21 October 1916: “I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps – especially of course George Butterworth – he has left most of his MS to me – & now I hear that Ellis is killed – out of those 7 who joined up together in August 1914 only 3 are left…” [Francis Bevis Ellis was the concert promoter in whose series of concerts promoting modern music RVW’s “London Symphony” was first performed.]

A typical RAMC ambulance from WWI

Eventually, in 1917, RVW became a commissioned officer (lieutenant) in the Royal Artillery and saw action during which it is thought that the noise of constant heavy gunfire was what led to his deafness in later years. Bringing the guns and horses back once the armistice had been declared was a gruelling task as RVW explains to Holst in a letter of 12th December 1918 “We usually march about 10 Kilos or more a day & rest every 4th day – it’s a tiresome job watering & feeding horses in the dark before we start…Then usually 2 or 3 wagons stick fast in the mud at the 1st start off & worry & delay ensues, & finally when one gets to one’s destination one has to set up one’s horse lines & find water & fill up nose bags etc. & if this has to be done in the dark it beggars description.”

Shortly after the Armistice was called on 11th November 1918, RVW writes to Holst that “It’s funny with the news so wonderful that I ought to be able to write pages – but somehow it’s produced a complete slump in my mind, & I’ve never felt so fed up with my job.” One cannot begin to imagine the physical and mental exhaustion all serving personnel must have been dealing with, especially in the knowledge that they were unlikely to return home for many months. Indeed it wasn’t until January the following year that he was finally demobilised and able to return to England.

Until then he was given the post of Director of Music for the British First Army of the B. E. F in France. HQ was in Valenciennes and RVW made it his business to seek out soldiers interested in music and organise them into choral societies and orchestras. He was clearly successful as he gathered together at least nine choral societies, an orchestra and a band. RVW even found himself at one point attempting to rebuild an organ which he had come across in an outbuilding in the town. Not unnaturally, however, he wondered whether his creative muse would have survived.

Ambulances at Valenciennes

But he need not have worried. He indeed was able to compose after the War and composing gave him a much-needed vehicle for working through the horrors he had witnessed in France and thus to regain some sense of repose. It is surely hardly surprising, though, that his musical language underwent considerable change. He began revising his London Symphony and Hugh the Drover and started on what would become the Pastoral Symphony, through which he excised the demons of war.

RVW’s experiences in WWII were, naturally, quite different. When war broke out in 1939 he was approaching his 67th birthday and so in no danger of being called up for active service. But that didn’t mean he carried on regardless – far from it. His focus was on what he could do to support the home front – helping with savings campaigns, collecting iron railings to turn into other things, creating allotments for others to use on some of his estate, growing his own produce and keeping chickens, creating an air-raid shelter. He also took in the daughter of Harry Steggles who had been with him during WWI.

On the musical front he supported the establishment of Myra Hess’s lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery and kept his own Leith Hill Festival going as best he could. He began composing film scores which included a string of works for the Crown Film Unit. In 1940 he became chair of the Committee for the Release of Interned Alien Musicians – a role into which he put great energy, securing the release of many including Hans Keller and composer Robert Müller-Hartmann who became a close friend. He also went to great lengths to try to avert the imprisonment of Tippett whose pacifist stance was so strong that he refused to do farm work in lieu of military service. RVW felt that Tippett’s work at Morley College was just as valid an alternative, but the authorities would have none of it. His wish to support young composers was strong and 1943 saw his appointment as President of the Committee for the Promotion of New Music (which became the SPNM).

VE day 1945 in London’s Piccadilly Circus

Unlike WWI, composing was possible and it was in 1940 that his work on film music began with that for 49thParallel (I’ll say no more here but recommend you read MJ’s post from last week). Household Music was also composed that year – ostensibly a string quartet but actually it was possible for almost any combination of instruments to perform. Life went on, and 1942 saw celebrations for his 70th birthday culminating on 7th November that year with a concert at which he conducted his Sea Symphony and Dona Nobis Pacem at the Albert Hall. The following year, the first performance of his Fifth Symphony took place at a Prom on 24th June at which he conducted. And as the end of the War approached, the BBC asked RVW to compose a work to celebrate victory – this was to be his Thanksgiving for Victory which was broadcast on the Sunday morning following the end of hostilities. Ursula Vaughan Williams recalls the occasion in her biography of RVW: “On Sunday morning Ralph’s Thanksgiving for Victory was broadcast; sunlight filled the garden: lilac, tulips, and young leaves were bright with dew. Adeline, Morris, Ralph and I heard the broadcast together and we were all aware that it was easier to mourn than to rejoice.”


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2 Responses to Ambulances and allotments: RVW and wartime

  1. Fascinating and moving – thanks!


  2. Pingback: Thank you Mr. Potiphar | MusiCB3 Blog

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