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 }

Winter on the Western Front

11 December 2015

Beneath his princely mustache
hides the amiable smile of a man
who values humor more than propriety.
Wit over lecture. Gaiety above sobriety.
He is a special kind of musician.

He's a drummer.

His comrades are a more somber lot.
They do not like the cold,
for they've been here before.

In a harsh winter,
their woodwind instruments crack,
the brass instruments freeze.
No amount of oil or grease
will speed up the fingers or vibrate the lips
when the thermometer plunges below zero.

The drummer's cohort handles
the bass drum and cymbals,
and is likewise a merry fellow.
Beating a drum always keeps you hot
no matter the season.
The bandmaster too waves his arms and stays warm,
but his dour expression marks a man concerned
with his duty to call the tunes.

The 21 bandsmen stand in a clearing within a pine woods.
They are the Musik-Korps band of the d.2 Ers. Batl. R.I.R. 104
as noted on a chalk board placed between the two percussionists.
The ground around them is covered in a fresh snow
that coats the bandsmen's heavy boots.

It is the beginning of winter somewhere on the Western Front.

This postcard was sent on 4.12.15 – 4 December 1915
in the European style of dates.

The writer's name is Otto,
and he might be one of the soldiers in the photo,
but the handwriting style is beyond my ability to translate.


The band belongs to the Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 104 of the Saxon Army of the German Reich. The initials on the board may read R.F.R which would likely stand for Reserve-F├╝silier-Regimenter but that kind of unit does not show up in the lists of Imperial German Army Regiments with number 104, so I believe this is the correct unit name. This section of the German army served mainly in France and Belgium during the war.

The bandsman wear helmets made of boiled leather called Pickelhaube. Each military regiment had a distinctive Helmewappen or helmet crest that was not unlike a medieval coat of arms. The eight pointed starburst pattern on the bandsmen's Pickelhaube indicates that they are soldiers in the Royal army of Saxony, a principality within the greater German Reich. The helmet has no practical value for protection against rain or sun or sword blows, and certainly not bullets. The spikes, originally designed to hold plumes, are purely decorative. Very soon after the war began, the Pickelhaube's shiny medallions and spikes proved too easily detected by the enemy, so the German military quartermasters devised a helmet cover in drab canvas. It even fitted over the spike like a sock and had the soldier's unit number stenciled on the front. 

Model 1895 Sachsen (Saxony) Pickelhaube marked to Infantry Regt 177
with an unmarked Model 1915

This regiment's band was just one of hundreds attached to Kaiser Wilhelm's army. The musicians main duty was to perform marches for the troops. But they also played dance music to entertain the officers; opera overtures to inspire German townsfolk behind the lines; and popular folk songs to placate fearful Belgian civilians. It was rare for them to be on the front lines, but they could not avoid seeing the horrific consequence of the battles and bombardments.

At the bottom of the photographer's chalk board,
below the unit's official name, is written 
Weltkrieg 1914/15
World War 1914/15

These men had seen over a year of war,
and now were in their second winter serving in the field.
They could not know what we know,
that they must endure 3 more years of this appalling conflict
before they can return to their homes.
That future life,
if they were lucky enough to survive unharmed,
would never be the same,
as the years for this Weltkrieg
merged into a second terrible World War.
In December 1915, peace remained as elusive as ever,
and to smile was all anyone could hope for.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
your source for vintage doughnuts (or strudel)


Wendy said...

Lots of serious mustaches in the band. It is always a strange moment to ponder an old photo of a happy group in blissful ignorance of the future awaiting them.

I must tell you the effect you and your posts have had on me: I was at a company Christmas party last week. There was a small live band with 2 singers. Even though the music was delightful, I found myself thinking, "I wonder what kind of saxophone that is. What kind of trombone?"

Kristin said...

This is the second mention of the Western Front. It always gives me a chill. So many young men out there killing each other in the cold and the gas. And all of that.

Postcardy said...

Interesting post. The spikes look dangerous, even though the helmets didn't offer protection.

La Nightingail said...

Always fun to see what you're going to do with a Sepia Saturday challenge! I really enjoy the way you separate small portions of a band, then show us the whole Maryann afterward.

Lorraine Phelan said...

Bare hands, ears uncovered. Brrr.

Little Nell said...

Let’s hope someone can translate that postcard; my schoolgirl Greman could pick out a few everyday words, but it needs someone who is able to decipher the old style script. I hope they didn’t have to pose too long in the snow; two of the men on the right appear to be wearing spectacles that have frosted over!

Jo Featherston said...

Amazing how those two men in front could be lying casually and cheerfully in the snow in what must have been freezing conditions@ I assume that bandsmen were also soldiers, ie.that making music was not their sole occupation?

Tattered and Lost said...

Now I know where Hollywood came up with some of those classic looks for German soldiers.


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