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 Quedlinburg POW Camp Orchestra

26 November 2016

Dressed in long military overcoats,
we can see that they are soldiers.
But as they are armed
with musical instruments,
they are musicians too.

Yet they are not a military band.
With six violins and one contrabass
they are instead a kind of small orchestra.

Their concerts were not open to the public.
They played for a very select
as these musical soldiers were
Prisonniers de guerre,
Prisoners of War.

These 21 musicians carefully posed
outdoors for the photographer,
next to some crude barracks.
Attached to their uniform coats
are nonmilitary badges and armbands,
clues that distinguish them as enemy captives.

Fortunately we do not have to guess where they are,
as this photo postcard was posted
on 1"-9-15,  1st September 1915,
printed by Otto Wendt,
and stamped Geprüft! - Examined!
by the censors
of the prisoner of war camp,
of Quedlinburg, Germany.

The card was addressed to:
Monsieur - Madame
R. Couaillet
St. Nicolas d' Aliermont

Affection Sincère
?ensies constantes

Sincere affection
? constant


The third word of the greeting looks like
but according to online dictionaries
that is not a valid French word.

Even using a French version of a Scrabble word finder
did not produce a suitable match.
Any suggestion from my readers would be much appreciated.

Carriage Clock manufactured by Armand Couaillet Co.
of Saint-Nicolas d'Aliermont, France
Source: Wikipedia

A simple internet search for the name Couaillet and the address, Saint-Nicolas d'Aliermont, produced an interesting result. This small town near Dieppe on the English Channel is known for carriage clocks and watches produced by Armand Couaillet (1865-1954). Armand developed his company with his brothers Henri and Ernest. Together their firm of about 150 employees manufactured fine clocks that are highly prized today. However as the  addressee name is R. Couaillet, there is no way to know if there is a direct family connection.

* *

One man in the photo particularly caught my attention as he holds a woodwind instrument that is very rare to find in old photographs. It is an oboe, or hautbois in French. This double reed instrument with its high nasal voice was one of the first instruments of the military band. But by the 1900s, it was not so common, being supplanted by more durable clarinets and saxophones. French army bands however maintained the old tradition, and this oboist wears the regiment number 36 on his collar.

His dark hair and dashing goateee gives him a kind of debonair movie star look. It made him easy to spot in a second postcard photo of the orchestra.

This group of musicians are dressed
in a strange mixture of uniforms and hats,
with some French, some British,
and even some civilian fashions.
The jaunty French oboe player
now sports a soft cap.

The string section has added a British cello.
The conductor leans back
in a crudely made arm chair.
His mustache looks English,
but the light grey tone of his jacket
and his tall boots suggests a Russian soldier.

This international soldier's orchestra has 24 musicians.
The two men in woolly sweaters and caps
may be merchant seamen taken
from British or French commercial ships
that were either sunk or captured by the Imperial German Navy.  

This postcard was sent on 1er Juni 1917, 1st June 1917,
twenty one months after the 1915 photo.
Though it is not postmarked from Quedlinburg
the addressee and writer's name on the back is the same as the first card.

Like the other postcard, this was sent to:

Monsieur - Madame
R. Couaillet
St. Nicolas d' Aliermont

Embrassements affectueux



Though the greetings are very brief, it seems reasonable to assume that the writer was related to Monsieur and Madame R. Couaillet. Now almost a century after the end of  World War One, it is astonishing to me that written records from 1914-18 have survived. Even more thrilling is that the ICRC or International Committee of the Red Cross keeps an online database these records available to anyone around the world with an internet browser. During the war the Red Cross collected thousands of names of British, French, Belgium, Italian, and Sebian prisoners of war. Each name was written onto a simple paper card which was used to cross-index names with camp documents. With a name that has more vowels than consonants, it did not take long to find this prisoner of war on a German military index card.


Soldat Inf reg 36

* *

The code number of Emile Couaillet's card refers to page 13576 of a large German military account book of captured soldiers. His name was entered at the top on 27 JAN 1915 as a Franzosen - French soldier.


24. Couaillet, Emile  Soldat Inf. Reg. 36 Bétheny  Gefglg. Quedlinburg

The list identifies where each man was captured, and in which POW Camp they are held. In Emile's case, he was being held at Quedlinburg, and taken in Bétheny, a town in the region of the First Battle of the Marne. This battle from September 7-12, 1914 stopped the initial German advance on Paris and forced the war into the trenches, where so many men lost their lives over the next 4 years.


A third index card was complied by the French military and added enough information for a confirmation of his identity.

Couaillet Emile F BB 502

Musicien brancardier, 36me d'
Inf., 3me Corps Disparu depuis
le 12 septembre environs de Reims.
Rép. M. Couaillet, St. Nico-
las d'Aloermont. (Seine Inf.)

P. 13576 C.E. sold. 36e Puis Bétheny
Gef.lag Quedlinburg

Communiqué famille
12/2. 15

The writer Emile Couaillet was a Musicien, a Bandsman in the French Army's 36th Infantry regimental band. He was also a brancardier, a stretcher bearer, responsible for transporting any casualties off the battlefield. He was reported Disparu depuis, missing since the 12th September 1914 in the region of Reims, France. The village of Bétheny is only 4.4 km away by bicycle.  The French department in charge of notifying the families of servicemen who were killed, wounded, or missing in action, added Couaillet's location at the Quedlinburg POW camp and a date when they contacted the family 12-2-15, 12 February 1915.

* *

So was the hautboïste, the oboist with the affable smile,
the bandsman, Emile Couaillet?

 I'd like to think so,
but I believe he is another man.

In searching for Couaillet's name and the Quedlinburg camp, I came across a website called Le camp de prisonniers de guerre de Quedlinburg, devoted to the history of this POW camp. There are numerous web pages, (in French) describing the conditions of the camp and the life of the soldiers imprisoned there. One page even has a different photo of the camp orchestra, taken in about 1915 as they perform a concert for the other soldiers. The soldiers in the camp organized many activities to cope with boredom and low morale. They had a men's choir and a theater for entertainment. They put on boxing matches and various sports games. Despite their containment, the men could earn small wages for camp work that was paid in special camp currency. The German military guards did not seem to mind cameras and the POWs probably paid for photographs like these to send home. This was undoubtedly a propaganda move by the German government who used postcards to influence both the patriotic public opinion in the German homeland, and the enemy opposition to the war by inculcating resentment and dissent amongst the Allied troops.  

Page from the 1914-15 Red Cross Report
on POW camps in Germany
Quedlinburg is a small town in the Harz district of Saxony-Anhalt, more of less the center of Germany. At the beginning of the war, none of the belligerent nations had anticipated the numbers of enemy soldiers that would be captured. Quedlinburg was one of the first prisoner camps built in Germany. It was designed for 15,000 men. By late 1915, the Red Cross had made two trips to inspect camps and reported that Quedlinburg held 4,285 French; 5,521 Russian; 100 Beligian; and 65 English soldiers, for a total of 9,971 prisoners of war.

The total for both inspection tours was 236,880 officers and soldiers distributed over about 14 camps. But there were more camps uncounted in 1915. Many, many more.  The war would continue for three more years, during which Germany maintained POW camps for 2,500,000 captive soldiers. 

* *

The Quedlinburg POW Camp, or Kriegsgefangenenlager as it was called in German, allowed the prisoners to send and receive mail, but of course under strict rules and always subject to military censors. Usually one postcard per week and one letter ever two weeks. Evidently early in 1915, the prisoners could receive packages which included unusual musical instruments like a trombone or a cello. The website on the history of the Quedlinburg camp included several transcriptions of the camp's newspaper, le Tuyau, or The Pipe. On page 5 of the first edition of the paper, printed in July 1915, there was an announcement about the camp orchestra.

Notre Musique
Un orchestre…? Charme pour des captifs! Quelle imagination féconde eut osé rêver la possibilité d'une telle récréation en septembre dernier lorsque, (censure) exténués, malades, nous arrivâmes au Camp des prisonniers.

C'est aujourd'hui la réalité! Dès l'autorisation obtenue de nos gardiens, un comité se forma, son premier devoir fut de se procurer des fonds. Les sommes rapidement récoltées prouvèrent l'enthousiasme du public. Les exécutants, pour leur part s'infligèrent de gros sacrifices, ceux-ci ont permis la formation d'un orchestre satisfaisant. Pourtant les choses traînent et l'on dit….que le public s'impatiente! Il a tort. S'il a fait beaucoup pour nous, n'avons-nous pas fait autant pour lui permettre d'attendre la date du premier concert. Les auditions musicales du dimanche ne lui suffisent pas. Il veut plus, il est très exigeant; cela est bon signe, c'est qu'il s'intéresse à "notre musique", celle du camp, l'œuvre de tous. Il veut assister à la moindre de nos répétitions. Cela est hélas impossible. Nous ne pouvons lui donner satisfaction, autant pour la bonne exécution des auditions actuelles que pour celle des concerts futurs. A l'heure actuelle, nous manquons de partitions. Nous en attendons beaucoup de France. Nous en avons commandé en Allemagne, elles ne viennent pas. C'est long et nous en sommes les premiers privés. Nous ne restons pas pourtant dans l'inactivité. Grâce au zèle de notre distingué contre bassiste, Mr L. Kircher qui, de mémoire ou à l'aide de médiocres documents, a adapté pour "notre musique" presque tous les morceaux exécutés jusqu'à présent. Des dévouements plus obscurs, mais non moins appréciables complètent l'œuvre entreprise et aucun exécutant ne se refuse à copier et à transposer même après les longues heures de labeur individuel et de répétitions.

Lorsque nos lecteurs, qui ne peuvent dans la salle de répétition, liront ces détails, ils comprendront qu'il est inadmissible d'exiger de nous plus d'une heure de musique par semaine. Il est matériellement impossible que nous fassions plus. Comme nous ils se résigneront et attendront.

Le temps heureux des concerts ne peut plus tarder. Un instrument vient d'arriver de France, c'est le premier et son propriétaire, le hautboiste renommé Mr Marson, prix du conservatoire, s'est fait entendre dès le lendemain au cours de la répétition générale du Grand Concert populaire annoncé pour la fête Nationale de 14 juillet. Ce concert hors série précédera de peu, nous l'espérons le Grand concert d'inauguration.

Celui-ci est encore différé par suite du départ annoncé des brancardiers. Des commandes de musique et d'instruments ont été suspendues, causant ainsi un nouveau retard d'une semaine au moins. Nous attendons incessamment de nouveaux instruments. L'arrivée du trombone à coulisses est imminente. Le fournisseur nous apprend qu'il est au polissage! L'impatience est maintenant fébrile. A bientôt donc pour le premier concert; une grande assistance nous encouragera!


     A Google Translation     

Our music

An orchestra…? Charm for captives! What fertile imagination would have dared to dream of the possibility of such recreation in September when, (censored) exhausted, sick, we arrived at the Prisoner Camp.

Today is the reality! As soon as we obtained permission from our guards, a committee was formed, its first duty was to raise funds. The money quickly gathered proved the enthusiasm of the public. The performers, for their part, inflicted great sacrifices, these allowed the formation of a satisfactory orchestra. Yet things drag and it is said ... .the public is impatient! He is wrong. If he did much for us, did not we do as much to allow him to wait for the date of the first concert. Sunday's musical auditions do not suffice. He wants more, he is very demanding; This is a good sign, it is that he is interested in "our music", that of the camp, the work of all. He wants to attend the least of our rehearsals. This is unfortunately impossible. We can not give him satisfaction, as much for the proper execution of the current hearings as for that of the future concerts. At present, we lack scores. We expect a lot from France. We ordered from Germany, they do not come. It is long and we are the first private. We do not, however, remain in inactivity. Thanks to the zeal of our distinguished bassist, Mr L. Kircher, who, from memory or with the help of mediocre documents, adapted for our "music" almost all the pieces executed until now. More obscure but no less appreciable devotions complement the work undertaken and no performer refuses to copy and transpose even after long hours of individual labor and repetition.

When our readers can not read the details in the rehearsal room, they will understand that it is inadmissible to require more than one hour of music per week. It is materially impossible for us to do more. As they will resign themselves and wait.

The happy time of the concerts can not be long. An instrument has just arrived from France, it is the first and its owner, the renowned oboe Mr Marson, prize of the conservatory, was heard the very next day during the rehearsal of the Grand Concert Populaire announced for the celebration National of 14 July. This special concert will precede, hopefully, the Grand Concert inauguration.

This is still delayed by the announced departure of the stretcher-bearers. Music and instrument controls were suspended, causing a further delay of at least one week. We are constantly awaiting new instruments. The arrival of the trombone slide is imminent. The supplier tells us that he is polishing! Impatience is now feverish. See you soon for the first concert; Great assistance will encourage us!



The name of the oboist, Mr. Marson, was found on the next page of the Quedlinburg prisoner log where Emile Couaillet was listed. His full name was Ernest Marson and like Emile, he was a Musicien-brancardier in the 36e Infantry Regiment band. 

His hometown was further west in Normandy where his family contact was M. Ch. Marson, 51 rue de Vancelles, Caen, France.

The bottom note: À retourner à la Trésorerie - To be returned to the Treasury, is unclear as to its purpose. It may be in regards to a pension application.

* *

The Quedlinburg newspaper's report also gives us a clue, L. Kircher to search for the name of the contrabass player, , who provided much of the first music for the orchestra. His nane, Lucien Kircher, was also listed on the same page of the January 1915 Quedlinburg Camp log as Ernest Marson. He also was a soldier in the 36e Infantry regiment.. He is the man standing behind the oboist Marson in the 1917 photo.  

On page 6 of the July 1915 edition of The Quedlinburg newspaper there was a review of the orchestra's first concert. The director was named Chatenet and he received some criticism.

Si ces premières auditions ne pouvaient prétendre à la perfection elles nous permettent du moins d'espérer pour de fort bonnes séances musicales lorsque les conditions matérielles seront plus favorables l'orchestre plus complet, un plus grand nombre de partitions intéressantes arrivé. Les instrumentistes sont pour la plupart de bons musiciens et d'acharnés travailleurs.

Le geste un peu hésitant au début ( Mr Chatenet n'avait jamais conduit avant d'être à Quedlinburg) s'assure peu à peu, il est élégant et prend de l'ampleur. Peut-être la main gauche est-elle encore un peu hésitante, elle aurait besoin de plus de fermeté pour retenir parfois les musiciens qui ont tendance à trop jouer uniquement en forte. Au reste le goût très sur et la grande autorité de Monsieur Chatenet sont le meilleur garant que l'on fera d'ici peu de la fort bonne musique à Quedlinburg

If these first auditions could not pretend to perfection, they at least allow us to hope for very good musical performances when the material conditions are more favorable to the more complete orchestra, a greater number of interesting scores have arrived. The instrumentalists are for the most part good musicians and hard-working workers.

The gesture a little hesitant at first (Mr Chatenet had never conducted before being in Quedlinburg) secures little by little, it is elegant and grows. Maybe the left hand is still a little hesitant, it would need more firmness to retain sometimes the musicians who tend to play too strongly. Besides, the great taste and the great authority of Monsieur Chatenet are the best guarantor that will be made soon of the very good music in Quedlinburg


So can we identify Emile Couaillet?

Perhaps he is the horn player who appears in both photos.

Or one of the two violinists.

Or the young violinist
who was also
a member of the 36e Infantry regiment.

Or the snare drummer
who may have been one of the field musicians
the 36e Infantry regiment.

In the end it doesn't matter. A century later, Emile Couailette did his duty to posterity by sending two postcards that give us a glimpse of musical life in a WW1 prisoner of war camp. The POW camps were improvised prisons of course, so the food, sanitation, medical care, and general conditions caused a great deal of privation for the soldiers. But in September 1914 when he and his compatriots of the 36e Inf. reg. were captured, it was still very early in a very long war, so in a sense they were saved from the horrors to come. They needed a different kind of endurance to survive.

They surely felt anguish and fear for their families back home. And as soldiers, the news of the war certainly gave them great distress over the fate of their old army comrades still valiantly carrying on the fight. Though the camps were run with German military regulations, the men followed their own army's discipline and were allowed to create a prison life that offered the soldiers a semblance of a proper army base if not a civilian town. In this context, music was more than mere entertainment. It allowed the men to use their artistic skills to express self-worth and human dignity even while imprisoned. It added value to the other prisoners' lives too.

During the four years that the camp operated, many men succumbed to disease and ill health. Quedlinburg, like most of the POW camps, had its own cemetery. In January 1917 the Red Cross report noted 144 deaths but this is very likely lower than the actual number of deaths. 

Towards the end of the war in June 1918 the soldiers erected a monument which they designed and paid for. There was a dedication ceremony which included all the camp's nationalities including the German military camp guards. The Quedlinburg prisonniers de guerre camp orchestra and choir performed for the service. The memorial was made to honor the fallen, that is their fellow prisoners who had died not in combat but in prison.

The monumnet still stands in Quedlinburg and on its columns are 444 names of English, Italian, French, Belgian and Russian prisoners who died there during the war years. In fact the archives later brought the total to 703 deaths.

Engraved on the Quedlinburg monumemt are the words:
"À ceux qui ne reverront plus leurs patrie"
"To those who will no longer see their homeland"

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone loves the sound of peace


Little Nell said...

They certainly needed their music to keep up morale, and it’s good that they could receive instruments. I found the monument and its inscription very moving. I hope soemone comes up with the answer to the mystery word.

La Nightingail said...

As usual, a most interesting post as you study each photograph in depth, learning about each player. As Little Nell said, thank goodness they had their music. When enjoying the pleasure of playing or singing, all else fades - if only for a little while.

Susanna Rosalie said...

Pensées constantes - constant thoughts

carol adkins said...

Thank you so much for the blog - pictures and history have been invaluable as I have been searching for information about Emile Louis Pierre Chatenet for a few years now. I knew he had been in a prisoner of war camp in the First World War and it had affected him greatly - he went on to marry and have 3 children and was a milliner and theatre costumier in England. He was my Grandfathers business partner. He unfortunately had a very sad ending to his life in 1932. This is the only picture I have of him, he was by all accounts a kind Gentle but troubled man by the past.


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