This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The POW Orchestra at Münster

17 January 2014

They are soldiers, but their mix of different uniform jackets and caps show that they are clearly not from the same unit. They are musicians, but violins, cellos, and double basses alongside cornets, horns, and clarinets denotes something more than just military bandsmen. In the top corner someone has written in ink (Orchestre Symphonique) – Symphony Orchestra in French, but the hut behind them is not an opera house. In fact it is a barracks of a German camp for prisonniers de guerre – French prisoners of war from the war of 1914 - 1918.

The 34 musicians have military insignia and uniform styles that are mostly French, and though there may be some Belgian soldiers too, I don't recognize any British uniforms. There are three men seated in the center with kepis who have no instruments and I think they must  be the POW camp officers. Beside them seated on the right is a pale faced man without hat who holds a baton. He is certainly the orchestra's conductor. Though they are French, the brass instruments, including the trombones at the back, all have German style rotary valves instead of the typical French piston valves. One man standing center in the 4th row has a folio which usually designates the pianist.

The postcard was signed:

Pierre Rabin
Cie. P, Lager I
Münster  I/18ie

The numeral 6 is perhaps a barrack number. Cie.P stands for Compagnie – Company P. The I/18ie (though the number might be 78) is for 1st division or corps / 18th regiment. Lager I is a German word indicating Camp I in Münster, Westphalia, which is in north central Germany about 80 miles east of the Netherlands.

Münster was one of hundreds of locations for POW camps that the German military constructed shortly after the outbreak of war in August 1914. Eventually the German VII Army Corps would build four camps there for enlisted ranks or Mannschaftslager with Münster I outside the city in rural farmland; Münster II on a horse racecourse; Münster III in a former Army barracks; and Münster IV set apart for just Russian army prisoners.

Back in 2012 I wrote about another Prisoner of War Camp Orchestra which was also in Münster. This was the second of two different orchestra photos that came from the same estate, but the location was not notated on the photographs. This group of musicians included Italian and British soldiers.

I believe the cellist standing at the back left of the first orchestra photo (only his cello scroll and bow is visible) is the same cellist seated left in the second photo.

And the horn player with the champion mustachio seated left on the front row of the first photo is certainly the same horn player standing right in the second photo. I can speak from experience that playing the horn requires that a mustache be well groomed.

The note on the first photograph confirms the location of the other orchestra photographs as being at Münster Lager I. The French soldiers may have been among the first units captured and committed to the Münster POW camp, and so consequently were the first to establish their own orchestre symphonique for musique française. As the wind instruments are of German origin, they may have been contributed by the YMCA relief effort which I described in my earlier POW orchestra story.

The same dealer of the first photo had another postcard from the Münster camp which I also acquired. It shows a group of 12 soldiers seated around two crude tables inside some barrack room. They have numerous pens, papers, and card files that suggest some official business. I might have passed over it except that the back of the card was included in the description.

It was signed by the same soldier:

Pierre Rabin
Cie. P, Lager I
Münster  I/18

If you look closely, two of the men are also in the photo of the orchestra.

The older man on the right has the regimental numeral 1 on his collar which though faint matches the kepi and collar of the man seated center in the orchestra photo. The pale faced man on the left is very recognizable as the conductor of the orchestra. There is a patch on his jacket pocket with the number 18 which might match the regiment number written on the back of the two photos. He must have been a skilled musician to assume the position of conductor for this orchestra.

I can not say that either of these two men is Pierre Rabin, or that Monsieur Rabin is even pictured in the two groups of soldiers. But it makes the photos more interesting to have a double link of two recognized faces along with the name.

One the back wall are two notices in French of course, which are difficult to read.

The other sign affixed to the table cloth in front of the officer is more clear.

Gef...? Lager I

This translates from German as Bank Office, Gef...? Camp I Münster. Some of the POW camps printed their own camp currency and had tokens for paying for the limited services and goods available to the soldiers. There may have been some substitute accounting for the military pay that could not be paid by the French government. Families of servicemen may also have sent money or goods that needed to be kept secure from any risk of theft in the camp.

This next postcard was produced as a propaganda postal by the German army and shows a concert in an assembly area in one of the Münster POW camps. The caption is in French and Dutch.

Münster-Westphalie 1915 — Concert par la section harmonie, le dimanche après déjeuner
Münster-Westfalien 1915 — Concert door de harmonie afdeling, 's zondag na het ontbijt

It translates as Concert by the band section, the Sunday after lunch (or breakfast if you are Dutch.) Harmonie is the French name for a wind band and no string instruments are visible here, though there are about the same number of musicians as in the Orchestre Symphonique. They are gathered in a circle with a conductor standing in the center. Around them are hundreds of other soldiers listening. In the background are lines of washing set out to dry.

Is Pierre Rabin playing an instrument? Maybe even leading the band? We may never know, but it is a pleasant thought to remember one French soldier's name attached to the camaraderie of orchestra musicians rather than belonging to a long list of casualties on a battlefield monument.

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In August of this year the world will observe the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War also known as World War I. At that time, no one thought the war would drag on for over 4 years, or that so many lives would be destroyed by this horrific conflict. The millions of soldiers who were captured in this First World War may have counted themselves lucky to be spared from the battlefield but they had other hardships to endure. The POW camps were overcrowded and poorly managed, and men were subjected to forced labor, malnutrition, and disease. But if they had one universal complaint it was boredom. Music provided a kind of emotional relief, both for the men playing in the orchestras and the soldiers listening, and it must have contributed to giving them a feeling of hope, optimism, and even liberation. This was an era before radio and recordings so musical performances had a purpose and power that was very different from our modern era. Over the next few years I will be offering stories from military musicians of 1914-1918 that will be my way of commemorating this history.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more faces from the Great War.


Deb Gould said...

Wow, what a great post this is! All those connections...and seeing the same men in different photos! Well-researched, informative!

Postcardy said...

Very interesting post. It looks like the prisoners were treated reasonably well.

Karen S. said...

What great photos, their instruments are fascinating, and surely a great source of enjoyment for all of them. I have to admit most of the mustaches are nice too! Quite stylish!

Susanna Rosalie said...

How interesting!

The sign in the one postcard reads:


meaning prison camp

Also, this I just assume, the letters behind the town name of Münster are abbreviations for 'in Westfalen'.

Bob Scotney said...

A great post again. Mike. When countries go to war bands are always involved. However I suspect that the POW bands would be playing music other that stirring military tunes.


Magnificent post!!
I can only conclude that music was the only sane thing going for them in such a predicament.

Those French signs, one says to preserve something, "conserver..."
The other one, something about phone calls.

Wendy said...

It's "funny" how the photos make life in the POW camp seem not so bad after all. But as you said, the extreme boredom would surely drive prisoners to be willing participants in the propaganda. Mike, I appreciate how you bring history and music together.

Little Nell said...

I admire your ability to match these faces and spot the same cellist etc. I am also full of admiration for the musician-prisoners who have not let their standards of dress or persoal grooming slip - magnificent moustaches!

anyjazz said...

Fine rescues of these historical bits from the era of the Great War. Excellent work matching up the faces. I fine post.

Anonymous said...

A top class post as usual. That was fascinating. Thank you for emphasizing the importance of music when people had to make it themselves. Musicians were heroes and often treated as such.

tony said...

How Strange .i Never Really Considered POW's in Relation to WW1 .i supposing its encouraging to know death was not the only option.& in the horror of war..that something so civilised as Music was allowed to develop.....

Kristin said...

I look forward to your other posts about musicians during war. Very nice matching pictures too.

Peter said...

A great post, Mike, and of the usual quality level!
Looking at the picture where you compare the two cellists, I believe that also the other two men (cellists, mustache and curly hair) might be one and the same person.


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