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
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The Drums and Trumpets of War

12 November 2016

Today is Veteran's Day in the United States, a day when we recognize the incalculable service given by our present and past military veterans. It originally began as Armistice Day, a commemoration of the end of World War I when Germany and the Allied Nations signed an Armistice and all the guns on the Western Front went silent on "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month", 11:00 AM Paris time, November 11, 1918. In Britain and other Commonwealth countries it is called Remembrance Day, honoring the great sacrifice made by British soldiers and sailors during the Great War of 1914-1918.

These four French field musicians offer a salute with their trumpets and drums that any veteran would recognize. Their intense faces were perhaps intended to strike a determined soldierly attitude for the camera. However this prideful look, this esprit de corps, does not come from the end of the war.

It comes from the beginning — 1914.

Penciled onto the bottom of this otherwise unmarked photo postcard is the year 1914. It looks contemporary with the soldiers and not a date added later. The men stand in front of a sheet of rough canvas draped over a farmhouse fence, an improvised photographer's studio. Lying at their feet is a spent artillery shell casing. The numerals on their collar badges show that they are musicians with the 96e régiment d'infanterie. In August 1914 they marched to the Lorraine region, formerly part of France. By October they were sent to Flanders. And two years later they defended Verdun.

When the war began in 1914, soldiers marched to battle. Just as in ancient times, military marching is about regulating the step of soldiers, essentially marking the speed and time that it takes to move a troop of soldiers onto the battlefield. Keeping a steady drumbeat insured good order and maintained communication between units that were strung out along a long line of march. Drummers also gave the stick beats for soldiers going through precision rifle drills and ceremonial changes of the guard.  

The trumpets were for commands. The simple trumpet or bugle has just enough musical notes for an infantry trumpeter to play different short tunes that announced everything from the soldiers' morning assembly to lights out. In the cavalry, mounted trumpeters had even more calls that managed the movement of the horse troops.


As the armies of Europe mobilized in the summer of 1914, the sound of drums and trumpets filled the air. Field musicians like these were a necessary component of every army unit in the First World War and Germany was no different. This group of seven German buglers gives a hearty blast for the photographer.

In 1914 the uniforms of French field musicians were not much different from the regular French soldier's dress. But German army bandsmen added special striped shoulder epaulets that makes it easy to spot them in old sepia tone photos and probably in the field too. German regiment numbers were sewn onto the tunic shoulder straps, and the number 103 is visible on the trumpet master's uniform. I believe this indicates they are soldiers in the 4th Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 103 of the Royal Saxon Army.

What looks like a short sword scabbard hanging from the leader's belt is actually a holster for his fife, another instrument of field musicians. This next septet of German bandsmen has three fife players and four snare drummers. The fifers have their bugles clipped onto their belts.

Hiking any distance makes for dull work and soldiers know that marching to the beat of  jaunty music eases the drudgery. Field musicians could play simple march tunes on trumpets and bugles but the nature of valveless brass instruments limits the available notes and harmonies. The fife, a high-pitched relative to the piccolo and flute, has a complete chromatic scale capable of playing more varied melodies. It's whistle tone is easily heard outdoors and in rare moments of musical combat it doubles as a shriekingly sharp weapon.

For centuries before the 1900s, military bands around the world commonly incorporated a fife in the standard issue kit for field musicians. Trumpeters learned to adjust their lips and use woodwind fingerings on a second instrument. The field drummers usually included a pair of cymbals and a bass drum along with the snare and tenor drums, and sometimes added a bell lyre or glockenspiel for a melodic pitched instrument. 

I also acquired a companion card to this photo postcard where the same group plus one more musician pose in a more traditional German style with two men reclining on the ground. Extra points if you can spot the odd man. Their regiment number is not visible and there are no marks on the cards so they must remain anonymous, but wherever they are, the weather has been cold enough to snow.

The nations that marched to war in 1914 used different models of military organization, but generally a regiment contained several battalions which each had a dozen companies of about 200 soldiers. This structure created positions for thousands of soldiers employed as field musicians. Once again YouTube offers appropriate videos with this brief historic film made sometime during the war years of 1914-18 of a French Army parade review. A squad of trumpeters march pass at  0:30. 

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Today the old traditions of military field musicians have lost much of their practical purpose for signaling and accompanying the daily life of soldiers. Bands with buglers and drummers are still part of the military but their mission is more focused on their value for  entertainment, public relations, and ceremonial duties, rather than the utility of escorting troops into battle. In this next historic film from WW1 there are no musicians but a long line of French soldiers march along a country road. The footage has no records to know whether they are going to, or returning from the front, but they seem jolly enough for the novelty of seeing a camera.   

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Both silent films deserve to have proper music. The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is an active unit that performs at ceremonies and events all across the country. Though they are dressed in early colonial era uniforms, their fifes, drums, and bugles strike the same martial zeal that the French and German field musicians from 1914 knew.

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On 6 August, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany
delivered an address to the German People.
His voice was recorded.
This is a very short extract.

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"Es muß denn das Schwert nun entscheiden.
Mitten im Frieden überfällt uns der Feind.
Darum auf! zu den Waffen!
Jedes Schwanken, jedes Zögern
wäre Verrat am Vaterlande."

"It must be the sword that now decides.
In the midst of peace, the enemy attacks.
So, rise up! To arms!
Any vacillation, any hesitation
would be treason to the Fatherland."

(from Wikimedia, underlined words are my translation)

Only a few weeks earlier, on Sunday the 28th of June 1914, a group of inept young men managed to commit an act of terrorism by murdering Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg. It happened on the streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia, which was then part of the Austrian Empire. One of the terrorists shot the royal couple in their open touring car after earlier efforts with bombs failed that morning. As the assassin and his accomplices were Serbian, the crime provoked an immediate reaction in the city and in the Bosnia and Croatia provinces of Austria. Overnight violent anti-Serb riots broke out that verged on pogroms against ethnic Serbs. Many homes and businesses were looted and destroyed. 

Austria believed that a Serbian nationalist  secret society was behind the murders, and used this connection to threaten the Kingdom of Serbia with reprisals. Austria already had a difficult history with annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina and the other Balkan states were seen as a source of anarchists and nationalist groups committed to disrupting the empire's complex ethnic populations. Over the course of July 1914, the diplomatic crisis grew larger and involved more countries allied with either Austria or Serbia. On July 23 the Austrian foreign minister issued an ultimatum to the government of Serbia. Submit to demands or face the consequences of war.

Little Serbia appealed to Russia, its giant ally to the north. Austria depended on Germany to cover its back. Russia expected its ally France to distract Germany. Germany knew it must first defeat France before it could effectively engage the immense Russian army. Other nations pretended that this little tempest in central Europe was just a summer thunderstorm.

All efforts at realizing a diplomatic solution failed when on 28 July 1914 Austria declared war on Serbia. The Russian army mobilized. Germany responded with calling up its army. The French army moved into positions along its border with Germany. Within days the German army overwhelmed Luxembourg and entered Belgium. Britain was forced to protect the French ports and help defend Belgium. The monsters of war were released. The world would never be the same.

This week the United States of America elected a new leader. A man whose temperament, intellect, and judgement have never been tested by political office or military experience. Soon he will be given the keys to the most powerful office in the world. Setting aside his raw boorish behavior and outrageously deceitful ideas, there is no question that his megalomania and arrogant ambition place my country on a new course toward a frightening unknown future. I believe the majority of Americans who voted on Tuesday recognize this abrupt change of direction and so do a great number of people around the world. It feels like the polarity of the globe has been reversed. Negative is now positive. All compass needles point South. The forces of nature are no longer predictable.

I imagine it felt this way on the 6th of August 1914, when Kaiser Wilhelm spoke to his subjects, the people of Germany. Events were set in motion that could no longer be stopped. The Kaiser was arrogant, bull headed, and full of himself, but he was no fool. He knew the risk of war. He just didn't know the price that it would cost.

The world of 1914 was one of sharp divisions. Though at times it seemed a golden age, dark clouds proceeded the storm. Extremes of poverty and wealth lived side by side. Labor unions clashed with industrial capitalists. Women and men without property struggled for the right to vote. Racial hatred and ethnic bigotry divided countries and inflamed brutal passions everywhere. Frustrated nationalists resorted to terror and anarchy as a way to foment revolution.

The Kaiser was certainly not the only one at fault. He had help. There were countless rogues and buffoons in every country who are partly to blame for this terrible conflict. My blunt explanation of the start of the Great War is meant to draw attention to the parallels I see between the world today and the world of 1914. The words we use to describe our present day disputes and hostilities are the same that were used then. Words spoken with scorn, bluster, and contemptuousness. Words filled with hatred, discord, and malice. Words made heavy with bigotry, ignorance, and hypocrisy.

Mr. Trump is not the Kaiser, though like the Kaiser he comes from a life of privilege and knows nothing about the lives of ordinary people. He may share the Kaiser's habit of bombastic rhetoric and delusional reasoning but he is no emperor, no king. In January our country will go through a legitimate democratic exchange of  power. The strange historic resonance that I feel is that Mr. Trump will be entrusted with guiding our nation through a world every bit as dangerous and explosive as the world of Kaiser Wilhelm. In 1914 one man's mistake in judgement resulted in the sacrifice of millions of lives over the course of a catastrophic Great War. In 2016 my anxiety over America's new president is not that this untested leader will precipitate a clash of vast armies contending against each other on the muddy ground between trenches. Instead my fear for the world is that this man is capable of ordering computer guided bombs to ignite a conflagration that we can not imagine now anymore than the valiant soldiers of 1914 could when they responded to the sound of the Kaiser's drums and trumpets.

I am the proud son of a U.S. Army officer and a grandson of a U.S. Marine. Though I did not choose to serve my country, I believe I know something about the dedication and duty of military service. I try to honor the loyalty and commitment of our country's veterans on every Veterans Day, every Memorial Day, and every Remembrance Day with a pledge that as a citizen I must make every effort to dissuade my country from ever engaging in an unjust war. That as a member of a free society I must do all I can to prevent egotistical leaders from misusing soldiers as tools for national gain as they did in 1914. And finally as a human being I must vigorously advocate for protecting the civil rights of all oppressed people. Otherwise I risk losing mine.  

War is easy. Peace is hard.

This is my contribution to the November edition of Sepia Saturday
where remembrance is the prime directive.


La Nightingail said...

My daughter plays in a community band which played for a Veteran's Day ceremony on Friday (the 11th). I was sitting just behind the band - the drummer across from me in back of the band. After playing a marching cadence for a particular happening in the ceremony, he turned to me and said "In the war, the drummers used to be out in front leading the troops. I'm glad I'm sitting back here!" Yes, and we weren't in a war, either. We were, however, sitting out in the open under 80 degree sunshine 'dying' of heat stroke. Then again, we weren't dodging bullets!

Anna Matthews said...

Very interesting post, I learned a lot.

ScotSue said...

Another wonderful set of photographs. I find military bands can have a powerful effect on listeners and in a war situation, they must have been stirring and inspirational. I always think of the impact on Scottish soldiers of hearing the bagpipes.


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