The Sound of the Trenches

Musical entertainment in wartime

Music helped to avoid boredom in the trenches, at the rear or even in prisoner of war camps. Near the front, specially commissioned entertainment groups travelled across military lines, but there were also spontaneous musical activities, such as singing get-togethers and improvised concerts held in the open air or in tents or shelters. Considering the difficult conditions, the ability of soldiers to produce such creative events is remarkable.

As it was feared that soldiers who had been mobilised would soon become bored, the Dutch government decided to make a new army songbook. The ‘Central Commission for Development and Relaxation of the Mobilised Forces’ was asked to select suitable songs - both new and old. The 1915 volume contains songs that predominantly evoke solidarity and love for the nation. Soldiers were obliged to participate in singing lessons.

There were many professional musicians active during the war, performers as well as composers. We know that the German composer Paul Hindemith, while stationed at the front in Belgium performed Debussy’s String Quartet and that French composer Maurice Ravel played the piano for the entertainment of soldiers recovering in military hospitals. Both survived the war, but others were not so lucky. We will never know how many musical talents and careers ended prematurely on the battlefields of World War One.

André Devaere (1890-1914) was a young and talented pianist and composer, born in Kortrijk, Belgium. He studied at the Royal Conservatoire in Brussels with a pupil of Franz Liszt, Arthur De Greef, who was also a friend of Edvard Grieg. André Devaere won several prizes and was invited to play many concerts. His dream was to compete with other talented young musicians in e.g. the 'Prix de Rome' and the Rubinstein competition in Vienna in 1915. He also composed pieces for piano, organ and composed several songs based on text by French poets. World War 1 made his plans impossible. Fate caught up with him. André Devaere was conscripted into the Belgian army. Already on 10 November 1914 he got mortally wounded in the lungs near St. Joris-aan-de-Ijzer, south of Nieuwpoort, Belgium. He succumbed to his injuries in the early morning of 14 november. He was barely 24 years old.

During most of his war time service the German professional soldier August Däne (1880-1920) was stationed near Brussels. His position als Kapellmeister allowed him to stay behind the frontlines, where he played for wounded German soldiers.