An Army Orchestra of World War One
24 February 2011
Posted by Mike Brubaker
Military bands have always been a popular subject for photography, but not so with military orchestras. Marching soldiers always require a rousing parade tune played by a band. But sometimes there are other more sociable events where the blare of brass is just too much. For that the military needs string instruments.
This photo postcard shows a group of European soldiers with an odd mix of strings and winds, along with a chorus, perhaps. The conductor sits in the center wearing a heavy coat. Unlike most of my collection, this one comes with names. Lots of names! And a date too. Februario 1917.
Just about every soldier signed his name. But though this card was never mailed, someone added a place above the date: Liebenau. There are two towns with the same name in Germany and one in Austria, but because of another clue, I believe it is Liebenau in upper Austria. Why does the date use the Italian spelling for Feburary? Because this was 1917 and much of northern Italy was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were hundreds of languages spoken in this vast country and I think many of them are represented on this card.
There is also another reason for choosing Austria. There was a military cadet school for training officers in Liebenau, and Austrian officers would certainly appreciate quality music. There are not many details visible on the uniforms, but the collar stars look similar to those of the Austrian army. But these men are not in full parade dress. They look very cold. You can almost see the fog of their breath. Perhaps that is why they are huddled together. Are they rehearsing Strauss waltzes and polkas?
In early February 1917, President Woodrow Wilson severed diplomatic ties to Germany and later that month when the contents of the Zimmermann Telegram were revealed to the public, the US finally had reason to declare war against Germany. By the end of 1917, the music and songs these men tried to commemorate would have become a very faint echo.