An Australian War Requiem—review

Renowned mezzo-soprano Lauris Elms AM OBE attended the premiere of  ‘An Australian War Requiem’ on 10 August 2014, and has kindly provided the following review of the performance.

In this century we have grown accustomed to war, and celebrating violence seems to happen on a daily basis.
It was with great interest that we went to the Sydney Town Hall last Sunday to hear Christopher Bowen’s An Australian War Requiem.

The old Town Hall has seen many wonderful concerts in the 19th and 20th Century, and the performance we were about to hear ranked with the most memorable of those experiences.

When we walked into the building, we saw a large screen set up over the stage, showing scenes from the Great War.

Britten’s War Requiem is justly regarded as a masterpiece, and now we have an Australian War Requiem to stand unashamedly beside it.

Chrisopher Bowen’s An Australian War Requiem was one of the most moving and profound experiences I have had for many years. The splendid text was based on letters written between Australian mothers and their sons in far away France. The letters were printed in the program for us to read, and Pamela Traynor’s text was beautifully built on real events, as those young men lived – and died – through those terrible times.

The work is divided into three parts; Tableau 1. The Horrors of War. Tableau 2. Sons and Mothers, and Tableau 3. Reflections on Loss.

The concert began with the screen showing a woman, as the narrator read a mother’s letter to her son, we saw the young man, and then heard his letter to her. Each of the Three Tableaux was preceded by five scenes from the war being fought in France.

The music began with the bass (Atatürk), and the large choir singing the Requiem Aeternam very softly. As the children’s choir was joined by the soprano and large choir, the work gradually grew to show the tragedy which was to unfold.

As the splendid baritone soloist sang the words of a dying soldier from the battlefield, and the music built to the climax, I was moved to tears. The final moments, as a piper played the bagpipes, was inspiration.

The concept of the presentation was wonderful, as we were transported into the horror of those days by the music of Bowen and his magnificent orchestration, by Traynor’s masterly libretto, and the images presented on the screen, helping the viewer to identify the journey we were traveling.

The Sydney University Graduate Choir sounded supremely confident, with a rich tone in this large hall. The other choirs, Waitara Voices and Fort Street High School, were very well prepared and gave of their best.

The splendid soloists were Celeste Lazarenko and Ayse Göknur Shanal sopranos, Christopher Richardson baritone and the exceptional Adrian Tamburini, bass-baritone. They were joined, stepping into this new and difficult work at late notice, by the magnificent tenor Henry Choo. (Why do we not hear more of this wonderful operatic tenor?) All the soloists were obviously moved to be part of this beautiful and important new work, and to find the music easily accessible at first listening was for me, a great pleasure.

Christopher Bowen has written some fine work over the years. In An Australian Requiem he has established himself as a great composer for all time. Musically this was a thrilling and unforgettable experience.

Lauris Elms

 

 

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Christopher Bowen’s ‘An Australian War Requiem’ Premiered

On Sunday, 10 August in the Sydney Town Hall, the choir gave its second subscription concert of 2014, the premiere performance of Christopher Bowen’s and Pamela Traynor’s An Australian War Requiem, commissioned by the choir to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and the Anzac landing.

This blog post confines itself to a report on the performance. The story of the magnificent organizational efforts of choir members, Evelyne DeClercq and Marilyn Gosling, to achieve official recognition and funding of the project, and the outstandingly professional PR effort of Rosalie O’Neale to achieve advance publicity for the performance can be told elsewhere. President David Herrero was also intensively involved in the detailed logistical planning of the concert. Suffice to say, the measure of Evelyne’s, Marilyn’s and David’s success, as well as those who worked so hard behind—and in front of—the scenes on the day, is that the concert did actually take place with hardly a hitch. Attended by a host of Australian and international VIPs, led by the Governor- General, General the Hon. Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (retd) and Lady Cosgrove present, and, as with our Verdi Requiem of April 2013, the superb space of the Sydney Town Hall was almost completely full. It was a marvelous feeling for us choristers to sit on the risers before the concert began and watch the large audience swarm in; this put to rest one of the major worries we had had in advance.

After rehearsing the work with Amy Putt at the piano for a couple of months from February, the Choir had developed a respect and admiration for An Australian War Requiem. Christopher’s ability and enthusiasm to sing SAT and B had given us an idea of how the soloists’ parts fitted in with the choral part, and this was very useful when we, the guest choir, children’s choir, orchestra and soloists came together at Fort Street High School the day before the performance. At that point, it dawned on many of us that this is a very special work indeed. I had an extra reference point for judging the quality of the music in those members of the Joubert Singers of Hunters Hill, to which I also belong, who had joined the guest choir (which totaled some 70). To a man and woman, they found it a moving and exciting musical experience.

This assessment was confirmed at the full rehearsal on the morning of the performance in the Town Hall and at the concert that afternoon. We had the opportunity once again to recognize the blessing we have in our talented orchestral musicians, who included such tried and trusty players as Stan Kornel, who was once again Concertmaster, Inge Courtney Haentjes (violin), John  Benz (cello), Paul Laszlo (double bass), Duncan Thorpe (oboe), Bronwen Needham (flute), Deborah de Graaff (clarinet), Graham Nichols( French horn) Michael Wyborn (trombone) and Steve Machamer (timpani).  On this occasion, Amy Putt also played in the performance she had done so much to prepare for, by taking the part for celeste.

We enjoyed the youthful dedication and talent of the kids of Waitara Voices (from Waitara Public School), trained by Jenny Bell, and reinforced by about a dozen young singers from Fort Street High School (trained bya member of our Soprano section, Lyndall Haylen). In rehearsal, they struggled with a tricky entry towards the end of Tableau Three, but by the performance had ironed this out successfully. They made an important contribution to the event.

Five outstanding young soloists sang in the concert. Celeste Lazarenko (soprano) represented the mothers of the Diggers away at the war; Ayse Göknur Shanal (soprano), of Turkish ethnicity, sang the Stabat Mater, which Christopher and Pamela had woven into the text as an important element, and sang the moving words of a battlefield nurse towards the end of the work.

There should be a beautiful corner of musical heaven for those artists, who step in to performances at short notice to replace others forced to drop out, thereby enabling the show to go on and so obviating the horror of late cancellation. For example, Paul Morris (tenor) came in late in the piece to our performance of Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten in August 2009, thereby facilitating a memorable concert  On this occasion, Andrew Goodwin (tenor) was unable at the last moment to participate in rehearsals and, thankfully, Henry Choo, who had sung with us in last year’s Johannes Passion, stepped in and made a remarkably good fist of his important role as the Soldier, despite only seeing the score for the first time a week before the concert.

Christopher Richardson (baritone), who, with Ayse, had performed in our December ‘Salzburg Connection’ concert, had the moving words of Kemal Atatürk, father of modern Turkey, to sing. He did so with an elegance appropriate to the persona of the famous statesman. Adrian Tamburini (bass) had some of the most moving parts of the text to deliver, and his strong, deep voice made a heartbreaking delivery of ‘I’m done, boys, I’m done…’ in the final Tableau.

All in all, this was a very strong group of soloists, who did an excellent job for the new work.

Mention should also be made of Adam Malone(trumpet), who played the Last Post from the rear of the hall towards the end of the work, flawlessly without fluffs, and of Zac Webster, a student of The Scots College, who played with assurance a very exposed solo Lament for bagpipes, from the vestibule, accompanied by timpani, to bring An Australian War Requiem to an emotional close.

The enlarged choir, conscious of the new artistic ground they were covering, and well but not obsessively drilled in his requirements by Christopher, gave an enthusiastic and impressive performance.  This is a particular credit to the guest singers, who had less time and opportunity than the rest of us to familiarize themselves with the music but nevertheless integrated themselves effectively into the common cause.

The performance was more than an excellent musical production. Christoph Kaufmann excelled himself with a beautiful and larger than usual program, which included a message from Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who wrote:

The premiere of An Australian War Requiem by the Sydney University Graduate Choir, guest choristers and orchestra is a fitting tribute to the sacrifices our forbears made for our prosperity and freedom.

There were also messages from the Ambassador of Kingdom of Belgium and the Consuls-General of Germany, New Zealand and Turkey.  We were grateful for the guidance and support of the Federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which gave permission for the use of the highly prized and carefully protected official logo of the Anzac Centenary in the program.

In the half hour prior to the beginning of the concert, a series of images provided by the Australian War Museum, were projected onto a large screen above the stage. And in the two breaks between the tableaux, further images were projected onto the screen, while brief instrumental interludes were performed in the orchestra.

The response from the audience was immediately and overwhelmingly positive. There was a prolonged ovation in the hall. We have subsequently received many enthusiastic written comments —in my own case, three audience members I had invited provided a crescendo of praise, describing the performance, successively, as ‘outstanding’, a ‘triumph’, and a ‘a wonderful experience’.

A review of the concert was provided by Luke Iredale in the online publication, Classikon (reproduced on the website for An Australian War Requiem).  Thanks to him for his contribution, which included perceptive and pleasant comments like the following:

Christopher Bowen’s An Australian War Requiem is the end result of a truly staggering effort…..Bowen’s music, was at turns haunting, stark and dramatic, with a flair for clever orchestration and rich choral writing…..The Sydney University Graduate Choir displayed excellent control, diction and uniformity of sound, notably in the exciting 7/8 rush of the ‘Shells Burst’ chorus…..Other highlights included the exceptionally well-trained voices of the Waitara children’s choir…The audience at Sydney’s beautiful Town Hall {was left} feeling as though they’d been part of something truly unique.  On this solemn anniversary what better way to remember and honour the memories of Australia’s fallen soldiers than through the beauty and clarity of the human voice?

So, it is clear that Christopher Bowen’s and Pamela Traynor’s brilliant creative work vindicated in spades the Choir’s decision to commission An Australian War Requiem. Our task now is to try to promote a second performance.

John Bowan

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‘Revealing layers of profound and human emotion’—interview with Christopher Bowen, composer and conductor

On the eve of the premiere of ‘An Australian War Requiem’, composer and conductor Christopher Bowen kindly shares his thoughts on the significance of this work to him.

What was the initial spark for you to undertake this project?
It occurred after the premiere of my Liberdade Requiem in 2000 which was dedicated to the East Timorese who had given their lives in their struggle for independence.

I was astonished to realise that there was the complete absence of a major work dedicated to those who had sacrificed so much for our own nation—so my thoughts turned to writing a work commemorating the centenaries of the World War 1 in 2014 and the Gallipoli campaign in 2015.

Christopher Bowen OAM

Christopher Bowen OAM

What has been the most poignant aspect for you of working on the Requiem?
To be honest, the process has given me a rare and privileged opportunity to get inside the minds and feelings of the soldiers whose words appear in the Requiem and to realise that what appears to be mundane on the surface can reveal many layers of profound and human emotions on closer inspection.

What are you hoping An Australian War Requiem achieves?
I am hoping that people will walk away from the performance with the desire to find an answer as to why our world has to be continually forged and shaped by the brutality and selfish desire of the powerful and ambitious, and to realise that bigotry , prejudice and self-righteousness lead us continually along the path to destruction and misery.

What are you looking forward to most about the premiere on 10 August?
The actual experience of performing the work and sharing it with the performers and audience.

From where did you draw inspiration for the sound (the musical texture) of the Requiem?
The musical textures of the Requiem are varied.

The music sung by Atatürk is definitely tinged with music from the Islamic world which I have always found incredibly beautiful. There are many other elements in the work as well with the deliberate intention to explore the tensions created by opposites. For example: harmonic consonance and dissonance; lyricism and angularity of melody and not forgetting the interplay of regular and irregular rhythmic patterns.

Certain intervals play an important part in the music’s language and I love using hexachords.

Do you have a personal connection to the Great War?
I have never really felt the urge or desire to explore that part of my ancestry so I really don’t know. But I do remember talking to some wonderful old men who had fought in the war—understandably they really didn’t go into the details, but they were adamant that war was not a ‘thing to recommend’.

After the premiere, what then? Are you hoping the AWR will be performed widely by the SUGC and other choirs over the next 4 years?
It would be wonderful to have the work performed again both here and overseas in an effort to bring an ‘Australian’ perspective to the various commemorations.

This is the culmination of a number of years’ hard work for you. What have you learnt from the experience?
I have learnt that humanity is diminished by such pig-headed devotion to our supposed cultural, religious and political differences. Until we understand the futility and pointlessness of absolute power then unfortunately we will continue to experience such events as the ‘war to end all wars’ and creative artists such as myself, will have to find new ways of telling the same story, over and over again.

What is on the horizon for you, post-premiere?
I want to write a piece of music-theatre based on an extraordinary true story which occurred in Sydney in the 19th century. Obviously I don’t want to divulge anything about this project at the moment but it really is ‘special’. Many Australians don’t realise what an incredible history we can share with one another and the world—a history which stretches beyond 60,000 years.

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Five minutes with…Christopher Richardson, bass

Christopher Richardson, bass soloist in ‘An Australian War Requiem’, shares his thoughts with us on what it means to him to be part of this event.

What did you find tempting about the invitation to sing in An Australian War Requiem?
Well, I consider it an honour to be asked to perform in the premiere of a work by a composer whom I respect. So upon being asked to perform in the world-premiere of such a significant work by Christopher Bowen – a work written to remember and honour those who gave their lives so that I could enjoy the freedom in Australia which we all do today – I felt greatly honoured and jumped at the opportunity.

Members of the 40th Battalion, taking steps to address the problem of ‘trench feet’, after the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917 – Australian War Memorial E00942

Members of the 40th Battalion, taking steps to address the problem of ‘trench feet’, after the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917 – Australian War Memorial E00942

Do you have a personal connection to the Great War?
I do have a relative who fought in the Great War—Robert Richardson, who was the brother of my great-grandfather William Richardson. At the time of the outbreak of the Great War, Robert was working as a blacksmith in Tasmania. He enlisted in 1916 and formed one of Tasmania’s 40th Battalion which was posted to the Western front. He was involved in trench warfare in Flanders in 1917, then in 1918 did an ‘anti-aircraft’ course and fought the same year in the Somme in France. Robert very fortunately managed to survive his time in the Great War and returned to Australia in 1919. At the time of his discharge, he was a Lieutenant Sergeant.

What is the most poignant (and enduring) image evoked for you by the words?
There are many images evoked by the text of this work—which are all powerfully moving and at times disturbingly vivid. However, for me the most personally impacting image evoked by the text is in the second part—‘Mothers and Sons’—where we hear the words exchanged in letters between a soldier on the front-line and his mother at home in Australia.

“Mother, it is now midnight and all around me I hear the sound of guns. I’m writing you this letter, I hope you get it safely. Don’t worry all is well… I wonder dear Mother if you’re well, not lonely or sad. I wonder, dear Mother, how long it will be till we see each other again. I don’t like this separation – it makes me so sad. Oh Mother, my dearest mother, I am so home and mother sick. All my love for you… all my love I send to you.”

“Oh my son how I long for you and to have you here at home with me and hear your happy laughter and your wild music again. You must come back to me… how I long to have you home again”

I think the reason I find this text so moving is that as I read it, I find myself empathising with the soldier—imagining what it would be like to be penning a letter in such hellish conditions to my own dear mother—on one hand wanting to be honest with how I was feeling, yet, on the other hand, comforting her and telling her that everything was ok so as not to cause anguish. Then, I see my own mother in the mother’s response—I hear her voice in those words from that mother—trying to encapsulate the extent of her love in words on a mere piece of paper.

What are you looking forward to most about the premiere on August 10?

At this stage, I’m most looking forward to the first rehearsal—to hear all of the elements I see on the page come together audibly! Regarding the premiere on August 10, I’m looking forward to hearing the work at its polished best—and being part of presenting it. I also look forward to taking the time in my own heart to remember, empathise, imagine and give thanks.

What is on the horizon for you now?
After being part of this exciting premiere I am looking forward to performing the role of Ptolemy, King of Egypt in the Canberra Choral Society’s Australian premiere performance of one of Handel’s lesser-known oratorios Alexander Balus in September. I am also greatly looking forward to performing the role of King Thoas in Pinchgut Opera’s presentation of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride at Angel Place in December.

__________________________________________

Description of image
“The mud and slush throughout the Ypres Sector kept the feet of the troops in a continual state of dampness and caused the complaint of ‘trench feet’ to become fairly general. Members of the 40th Battalion, 10th Australian Infantry Brigade are seen here taking advantage of a rest at Dragoon Farm, near Ypres, after the Battle of Passchendaele Ridge, to bathe and oil their feet in order to obviate the malady. Identified, standing, left to right: 2311 Corporal (Cpl) Cyril Sydney Cosson (smoking cigarette, 1); 137 Lance Corporal (LCpl) G Bailey (2); 619 Private (Pte) F Clayton (3); 2136 Sergeant (Sgt) R W Richardson (4); 797 LCpl M E Cox (5); 2281 Sgt W Walker (facing camera with left hand doing up button of jacket, 6); 13595 Pte F Bell, Army Medical Corps (roll of bandage under left arm, 7). Sitting: 204 Pte A W Hunn (8); unidentified (9); 2562 Sgt H F Davis (10); 2297 Pte H L Booth (11); 2589 Pte A H Holmstrom (in front of Booth, 12); 84 Cpl O H Hansson (13); 5656 LCpl L M Badcock (partially obscured, 14); 2638 Pte T P Ready (15); and working on Badcock’s feet is 16650 Pte L H Smith, Army Medical Corps (16). See E00942K for position of those named in this caption.”

(Sgt Richardson is standing to the left of the soldier who has his back part turned to the camera and is pointing away; he is looking directly at the camera.)

Link to image E00942 Australian War Memorial
Marked copy identifying the soldiers E00942K Australian War Memorial

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The Western Front—a long way from home

It would take volumes to write a comprehensive history of the war on the Western Front, something that is clearly beyond the scope of this blog. However, family members of the Sydney University Graduate choir served across all main offensives, right through to 1918. Their stories provide us with a glimpse of what it may have been like as we try to imagine life on the frontlines of the Great War.

We steamed into Marseilles last Tuesday [date erased] and after disembarking marched to the railway station where we were soon aboard a train and off, having a splendid journey through France…We were delighted with the scenery, the beauty of which it would be difficult to surpass, with its beautiful green fields, orchards and many vineyards…The women are the principle workers in the fields, all the eligible men being away at the way. In some cases old men and boys may be seen working in the fields, but even they are in the minority.

The cordiality between the French and ourselves was very much in evidence. The women living near the line all have a cheery smile and a wave for us, but it was like a shadow on our sunshine when we noticed only too often how the women would start crying. But they soon dashed the tears away again. (Pte GE Weir, letter to his family on his arrival in France in May 1916, as published in the Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Advertiser 22 July 1916)

From April 1916 they arrived from the training camp in Egypt, those veterans from Gallipoli and the reinforcements from Australia. It was now Australia’s turn to take their place on the Western Front, that long, blood-soaked line which stretched from the coast in Belgium to the Swiss Border.

For the next two and half years, they fought, pushing beyond endurance to gain a few miles, lose them, then push and push to gain them again.

It is almost impossible to find words to convey the horror, the destruction and the loss that the battles on this front of the war imposed. What must they have thought, especially the young, untried reinforcements who had enlisted on the strength of brave (and positively spun) tales from the Gallipoli campaign?

1916 – ‘An Abysm of Desolation’

‘To my dear friend’. By Broadhurst, William Henry, 1855-1927 [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. From the collection of the State Library of NSW

‘To my dear friend’. By Broadhurst, William Henry, 1855-1927 [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. From the collection of the State Library of NSW

In France, the Australians were joining their British counterparts, who had been confronting trench warfare since late 1914: soldiers like Leslie Dixon, from the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers who had arrived in France in November 1915, going into the trenches in December. After four months the 16th were taken out for a respite, before moving up the line to a position near Thiepval at the end of June 1916.

When the British artillery fell silent at 7:30am the next morning, Leslie’s Company was the first company to go over the top in what is now known as the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916. To north and south, along a 20,000 yard front 120,000 British soldiers attacked the German trenches. Losses were horrendous, on both sides.

Over the next two weeks the battalion attacked, was driven back, counter-attacked. By August the survivors were moved to the rear for rest and training. By November the German trenches at Thiepval were occupied, with the dead of 1 July still awaiting identification and burial.

Australians first taste of major action was in the carnage at Fromelles, between 16 and 20 July 1916, and this was closely followed by action at Pozières. (Film clips [here] show members of the 11th Battalion in preparation.)

The casualty rate was enormous –about 12,000 from both the First and Second Divisions AIF in just two weeks of fighting.

Constant bombardment by artillery ensured that what was once beautiful, fertile farming land became a moonscape terrain of desolation. CEW Bean having described the shattered and charred trees, the blasted fragments of buildings, the upheaval of the land ‘as with a giant plough’, went on to say:

But even this did not prepare one for the desolation of the place itself. Imagine a gigantic ash heap, a place where dust and rubbish have been cast for years outside some dry, derelict, God-forsaken up-country township. Imagine some broken-down creek bed in the driest of our dry central Australian district, abandoned for generations to the goats, in which the hens and the goats and all traces of any living or moving thing. You must not even leave a spider. Put here in evidence of some old tumbled roof, a few roof beams and tiles sticking edgeways from the ground, and the low faded ochre stumps of the windmill peeping over the top of the hill, and there you have Pozières. I know of nothing approaching that desolation… (CEW Bean, Letters from France, Chapter 16, p111)

George Weir was ‘in the thick of it’ at Pozières. He later wrote to his family:

I suppose you have heard that I have been admitted to hospital, but there is really very little the matter with me. I stopped a bit of shell with my jaw…don’t worry about me…

…The poor old 3rd Battalion has got a bad hiding. I knew such a lot of real good fellows who have gone under. It all happened within a few days, and most of the casualties were inflicted by the artillery of the enemy. To tell you the truth, I was glad to get out of it for a while. (Pte GE Weir, letter to his family, as published in the Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Advertiser 22 September 1916)

It was not just the 3rd Battalion who suffered badly. George Chesney was wounded on 4 August 1916 as the 27th Battalion pushed towards Pozières Windmill. He was sent to England, just missing a visit from His Majesty the King, George V on 10 August.

Walter Eastment had arrived in France on August 1916, and was soon in the front lines around Pozières, including around Mouquet Farm, before being withdrawn to the Ypres sector (in Belgium).

Lisle Lane, now promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, also saw action during Somme Offensive, but was once again wounded as the 4th Battalion relieved the 51st Battalion at Mouquet Farm. Lisle’s injuries were very serious, enough to warrant him being evacuated to England, where he remained for some time.

Over the remainder of 1916 the weather deteriorated sharply, leading into the worst winter on record – a new enemy for the soldiers to confront. The ploughed up earth described by Bean quickly turned to mud, trenches filled with water, soldiers were unable to escape from the wet, the cold, the misery. Illness abounded, on top of everything else.

Young George Weir –who had initially written with such excitement to his family about the adventures he was having—returned to his battalion in September 1916. The 3rd Battalion continued to move in and out of the front line, and on 6 November 1916, during fighting in the vicinity of Flers —in freezing rain and gale force winds—George was killed in action. Such a long, long way from home, from the sea, from the heat of an Australian November, from the coral trees and jacaranda that would have been flowering around the farm.

1917 – Mud, mud, mud and blood

Frozen trenches, frozen armies, stalemate and misery. That’s how 1917 began.

In February, the Germans began withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line. In pursuit, Australians occupied Bapaume on 17 March—the objective originally set for the Somme offensive of 1916.

Following an extended convalescence in England, Lisle Lane, Gallipoli veteran and survivor of the Somme, returned to France in January 1917. He was killed in action on 2 March 1917 in the Le Barque area, near Warlencourt.

Walter Brewster had enlisted in March 1916, leaving Australia in October 1916. He was taken on strength with the 53rd Battalion, and moved to the region north east of Albert on the Somme in early February 1917. Engaged in pushing the front line further east, he was wounded in action on 29 March—just one year after he’d enlisted—in the vicinity of Baupaume/Peronne.

Conveyed to a Casualty Clearing Station, then to the 1st Australian General Hospital in Rouen, Walter was sent to England where he spent nearly 2 months in the 1st London General Hospital, Camberwell, before being repatriated to Australia.

The contributions made by the medical teams such as those that aided Walter—and, in particular, the women who selflessly went into danger to serve in advance field hospitals and clearing stations—is inestimable. One such was Sister Dorothy Cawood who had enlisted in November 1914 in the AIF and had embarked for Egypt in November that year. She served at the2nd Australian General Hospital at Mena and on hospital ships during the Gallipoli campaign, and then was transferred to France. On 22 July, 1917, while nursing at the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station at Armentières in Flanders, Sister Cawood, together with two other Sisters and a Staff Nurse, evacuated patients from burning buildings while the station was being bombed.  All four were awarded the Military Medal. Sister Cawood was also awarded the Royal Red Cross medal.

Also vitally important, the signallers—part of the Engineering brigades. Sapper Milne Barry Gow from Strathfield spent two years in France during some of the worst of the fighting, and helped to provide critical communications infrastructure.

Private William Wright had arrived in France in December 1916 as part of reinforcements for the 1st Battalion. He was wounded during the Battle of Bullecourt in May 1917, and then, more seriously, following action at Passchendaele Ridge, in October 1917. He remained in England until the end of December 1918, when he was repatriated to Australia. The effects of the gas, and of the bullet hole through his leg, stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Stretcher bearers of the 57th Battalion, passing through the cemetery near the mound in Polygon Wood in the Ypres Sector. 28 September 1917. Photo: Unknown Australian Official Photographer. Image: Australian War Memorial E01912

Stretcher bearers of the 57th Battalion, passing through the cemetery near the mound in Polygon Wood in the Ypres Sector. 28 September 1917. Photo: Unknown Australian Official Photographer. Image: Australian War Memorial E01912

Passchendaele—both an individual battle, and an overarching term for the Third Battle of Ypres—involved many Australians over the latter part of 1917. Like the Somme, the name has become synonymous with terrible conditions and inconceivable losses.

One of the phases of this operation was the battle of the Menin Road. Australians formed part of the attacking force here on 20 September 1917. One of their brothers-in-arms, Alexander McGregor from the 1st/7th Battalion of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was also there, and killed in action on that day.

A week later, the Australian Divisions attacked at Polygon Wood. ‘Wood’ was something of a misnomer –there were no trees left standing, all had been obliterated through constant shell-fire. The ground underfoot was a dreadful quagmire as a result of the constant heavy rain.

Alex Weir, originally from Clunes in NSW, and dreaming of his ‘sound future’ in Brisbane, had arrived in France on 14 April as part of the reinforcements to the 31st Battalion. Due to the catastrophic losses suffered by the battalion in the previous year, particularly at Fromelles, the 31st Battalion had seen little major action since then. The next major attack in which 31st Battalion played a significant role was at Polygon Wood. Alex was one of the 5770 Australian casualties here. Killed in action—‘blown to bits’, as his mother bitterly wrote to the War Office a few years later.

Harold Bartrop had enlisted in December 1915, and arrived in France in August 1916 as part of the 13th Field Company of Engineers attached to the 4th Division. He was awarded the Military Medal near Zonnebeeke (on the further side of Polygon Wood) on 26th September 1917 for:

…conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the operations. This man formed one of a taping party and made several trips carrying Engineer stores over very bad ground and under heavy shell and machine gun fire with apparently an utter disregard for all dangers and thus setting a splendid example and enabling the track to be quickly laid. On completion of his work he assisted to carry out wounded from the front line when there was a scarcity of stretcher bearers, and finally when a stretcher was not available he carried out a wounded  man on his back for a considerable distance to the advanced dressing station, although he was sniped intermittently on the way. (Military Medal citation)

The year ended as it began, in rain and mud and freezing conditions. The British, Australians and Canadians had advanced perhaps 3 miles, at a cost of 310,000 casualties.

1918 –…to the bitter end

The New Year brought new, young recruits.

William Rhoden joined the army at the age of 18 without his father’s agreement, serving with the Royal Army Service Corps as a driver for the majority of his (ultimately) seven years’ service. But the principle benefit, as he saw it, is that he could learn to ride, and spend time with horses.

James Macefield, also just 18, joined the Royal Navy in January 1918. He served as an Ordinary Seaman on the HMS Victory (Portsmouth Barracks) and HMS Princess Royal, being promoted to Able Seaman before discharged in 1919.

Early in 1917 Bede Avery had been transferred to the 14th Field Artillery Battery (53rd Battery), serving at Bullecourt, and the push towards the Hindenburg Line. Bede Avery was killed in action on 24 April during the battle to retake Villers-Bretonneux. Reports in the Red Cross file indicate that Bede was on duty on the wagon lines, and died whilst looking after one of the horses. He was ‘the best liked man in the Battery’.

Mont St Quentin monument. Photo: S Shipard

Mont St Quentin monument. Photo: S Shipard

William Bartrop, high school teacher from Bathurst and newly married, had enlisted in February 1917 and arrived in France in late 1917 as part of the First Field Artillery Brigade. He served in the Second Somme Offensive during August-September 1918– the counter attack to Germany’s Spring Offensive. Casualties on both sides had been enormous at this time, and had included Hans Schmidt from Mühlhausen, Thuringia, aged just 20. Hans’ older brother, August, had been killed the year before on the Eastern Front, a double blow for the family.

In early October 1918 William Bartrop was attached to the AIF Educational Scheme, which was part of Australia’s plan for occupying troops whilst they waited to return home, and also to equip them with skills to make the transition to a peace-time life.

Australian troops continued to see action until October (at Montbrehain), after which they were withdrawn from the front. On 11 November the Armistice was signed at Compiegne, bringing a cessation to hostilities.

 

George Weir – Rosalie (alto)
Leslie Dixon – David (bass)
George Chesney – Deb (alto)
Walter Eastment – Catherine (alto)
Lisle Lane – Andrew (tenor)
Walter Brewster – Annette (soprano)
Dorothy Cawood  – Marilyn (soprano)
William Wright – Deb (alto)
Alexander McGregor – Janine (soprano)
James Alexander (Alex) Weir – Rosalie (alto)
Harold Bartrop – Roger (bass)
William Rhoden and James Macefield – Jo (soprano)
Bede Avery – Cath (alto)
William Bartrop – Roger (bass)
Hans and August Schmidt – Horst (bass)
Further reading: About the battles

1916
Pozières (including The Windmill, Mouquet Farm)
Pozières – what happened here
Mouquet Farm – what happened here

1917

Passchendaele – third battle of Ypres
Menin Road
Polygon Wood
Passchendaele

1918

Villers-Bretonneux

 

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Five minutes with…Adrian Tamburini, bass

One of the bass soloists singing with us at the premiere of ‘An Australian War Requiem’ on 10 August 2014, Adrian Tamburini answers questions about the significance of the event for him.

What did you find tempting about the invitation to sing in An Australian War Requiem?

I’m a strong believer and supporter of new Australian music. In my career I’ve been lucky enough to sing works by Australian composers such as Stuart Greenbaum, Johanna Selleck and Brett Dean. So when I was told that there was a part in this work I jumped at the chance and accepted.

Australian soldier George Griffin, D Company, 53rd Battalion, A.I.F. reading State Library of New South Wales [Public domain or CC-BY-SA-3.0-au]

Australian soldier George Griffin, D Company, 53rd Battalion, A.I.F. reading
State Library of New South Wales [Public domain or CC-BY-SA-3.0-au]

Do you have a personal connection to the Great War (ie, did any of your family serve?)

I do not have a connection to WW1. But nonetheless, I am grateful to the men who fought for Australia, and the women who supported them at home, to give all following generations in Australia the privilege of living in freedom, peace and prosperity.

What is the most poignant (and enduring) image evoked for you by the text?

My main solo is based on the text of a letter written by a soldier who witnessed first-hand the devastation war has on the bodies of the soldiers. Never, in my life could I imagine the atrocities forced upon these men’s bodies by war and weaponry.

What are you looking forward to most about the premiere on August 10?

It is always a great honour to be a part of a world premiere performance and to be able to share it with the composer, the librettist and a team of fine and enthusiastic performers.

What is on the horizon for you now?

I’m lucky to be a handful of full-time working opera singers working in Australia. I will continue to work with Opera Australia throughout 2015 on some very exciting projects.

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Five minutes with…Celeste Lazarenko, soprano

In the lead up to the premiere of ‘An Australian War Requiem’ in August, we asked each of our soloists for their thoughts on being part of such an important work. Celeste Lazarenko kindly answered, as follows:

What is the most poignant (and enduring) image evoked for you by the words?

A moment of contemplation - Celeste Lazarenko at the Sydney Town Hall, Verdi Requiem, 2013

A moment of contemplation – Celeste Lazarenko at the Sydney Town Hall, Verdi Requiem, 2013. (Photographer: Tibor Morvay)

My ‘character’ in this piece is that of the Mother to the missing—a really terribly symbolic and moving character. She mourns and longs for the loss of her sons. She is not only, in many ways, a ‘living’ character, in that so many letters exist between sons and mothers especially in WWI because these boys who perished were just so young, but she can also represent the Holy Mother, who mourns the tragic fate of her beloved son, even the Motherland mourning her departed. I can imagine the communication between mother and son would have been terribly important when facing death in war for young men. I know that importance is recognised strongly in this piece.

What are you looking forward to most about the premiere on August 10?

Seeing this piece fleshed out. Being a premiere it is sure to be new to everyone and it will be exciting to hear it come together.

What is on the horizon for you now?

I am in the beginning stages of picking apart the work I shall be involved in for Sydney Chamber Opera, Io Passion. Looks like it’s going to be a fantastic piece, if not terribly difficult to learn!

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