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 }

Music in Time of War

20 October 2018

We can see the musicians.
Inspect their uniforms. Count their instruments.
But we can't hear them.
What music were they playing?
A jolly march? A dramatic overture? A popular song?
Sadly their sound has long ago evaporated.
All that is left is silence.

It's a question I often ask
even knowing that it's impossible to answer.
But with this image I wish I knew.
What music did a German army band
play in the center of a shattered French village?

The date is May 2, 1915. A German soldier named Richard Hainsche (?) writes a note to a family back in Germany. Unfortunately his cursive handwriting style defeats my efforts to read the full name or place. His postcard was printed in Leipzig and has the image of a German regimental band captioned Marktmusik in St. Marie à Py ~ Market music in St. Marie à Py. Standing in a circle on a rough dirt street is a band of about 21 musicians. Their leader directs them from the center. A few other soldiers loiter behind the bandsmen. In the background is the empty shell of a two story building. The windows and doors are gone. There is no roof. A corner is demolished. This is what remains of the market square in the village of Sainte-Marie à Py, a commune in the Marne department of northeastern France.

Sainte-Marie à Py was, and still is, a small farming community situated on the Py river, a small creek-like tributary to the Suippe River which feeds into the Seine. Following a footpath just 36 kms west is the great cathedral city of Reims, France and part of a vast patchwork quilt of agricultural fields. To the east 74 kms away is the medieval city of Verdun on the banks of the Meuse river.

The village's name was first recorded at the beginning of the 13th century. Seven centuries later in September 1914, Sainte-Marie à Py was in the pathway of the Imperial German Army as it stormed across Belgium and Luxembourg, intent on reaching Paris. The force that took St. Marie was the 3rd Division No. 32 of the Saxon army as indicated by the division's official franking on the postcard. Next to it is a lighter imprint of a munitions unit that the soldier may have been part of.

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In the months that followed a line was not drawn as much as dug out of the chalk and clay of northeastern France to mark what is called the Western Front. The village of St. Marie à Py was occupied by the German army which used it as a base of operations, but not a headquarters. The village population was around 420 people, less than it's height of 742 in 1831. The bombardment by both German and French artillery destroyed much of the village yet for some reason photos of the destruction were used to make postcards for the German troops. In this next postcard the building with an arched entrance and broken corner is the same one seen in the band's postcard, but with the camera positioned on the opposite view of the market.

This postcard was printed in Berlin and posted on the 8th of April 1916 to an address in Hesel, northeast Germany.

This next postcard is captioned St. Marie-à-Py, France and was taken from a higher viewpoint of the village. It has a short obscured penciled message on the back but no postmark. In the foreground, soldiers pick over some rubble or maybe ordnance material to load into a horse drawn wagon. In the mid-distance is the hollow structure of a church.

The Eglise de Ste Marie à Py, a catholic church which presumably dates from the 13th century, was destroyed early on in the war. It was rebuilt and rededicated in 1927.

Eglise de Sainte Marie à Py, Catholic Church
Source: Wikimedia

The next image is from the Wikimedia page for St Marie à Py, France and shows the same market square building with a casual line of  German soldiers in front.

Sainte-Marie-à-Py, France, circa 1914-1918
Source: Wikimedia
Another postcard image from Wikimedia is unusual because unlike the grim grey/amber tone of the other photos, this one was colorized. It depicts a yard filled with various wagons. The green hillsides and light shirts of the soldiers suggest it is spring or summer. The broken walls and roofless buildings show that it is also wartime. In 1911 the population of Sainte Marie à Py was 414 citizens. In 1921 it was 194, less than half.

Sainte-Marie-à-Py, France, circa 1914-1918
Source: Wikimedia
For the first few years of the war, St Marie à Py did not hold any significant strategic position along the Western Front, so it is curious that German military photographers took so many photos of such a small place. Perhaps it was because it was just a safer vantage for the photographers. Presumably for German propaganda purposes these postcards were intended to show more of the heroic troops rather than any devastation of war. But to a modern eye, one hundred years later, these postcards have an arrogant insensitivity of an occupying military force. It illustrates in part how the great animosity developed between the German and French peoples. A hatred that began with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and continued though World War 2.

I wanted to find a way to show the landscape around Sainte Marie à Py. An individual Google Maps street view doesn't show the broad rolling plains very well. Then I found this beautiful video entitled "Notre Dame des champs à Sainte Marie à Py" which uses a drone camera to show the land around the village from a bird's eye view. It also uses a number of postcard images of the German occupation to tell a short history of the place. The description is in French but here is the English translation.
In gratitude to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a statue was erected in 1902 for saving part of the population from an epidemic of typhoid. The "statue of the Virgin" carries the baby Jesus who raises his arms to bless us, and is called "Our Lady of the Fields", so that it protects our valley. At the inauguration, this statue was protected by a roof supported by 4 columns. It was destroyed during the 1914-1918 war and restored in 1924.

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The casualties of the Great War are unimaginably staggering numbers. Estimates for the deaths of military personnel are between 9 and 11 million. Civilian deaths, including those caused by famine and disease, are around 8 million. Adding the number of wounded to the statistics gives a rough number of 40 million people crushed by the war.

There is another image of the war in this French village that I want to include with my story but I find it too disturbing to publish in a large size. It is a small etching entitled Die Irrsinnige von Sainte-Marie-à-Py ~ The Madwoman of Sainte-Marie-à-Py by the German artist Otto Dix (1891-1969). It depicts a distraught mother knelling in the remains of a barn with her dead infant lying before her on the ground. Clicking the next image will take you to the work's web page at the Museum of Modern Art archive.

In 1924 Otto Dix produced a collection of etchings of his war experience. Born in Thuringia, Germany he trained as a painter in the Dresden Kunstgewerbeschule, but in 1914 he enthusiastically volunteered for the German army, serving first in a field artillery unit and then as a machine-gunner on the Western front in the Battle of the Somme. In November 1917, he transferred to the Eastern front until Russia withdrew from the war, whereupon he was sent back to the western front in February 1918 and fought in the German Spring Offensive.

After the war Dix returned to Dresden but remained profoundly affected by the war. At one time he  described having a recurring nightmare of crawling through destroyed houses. In 1924 he produced a portfolio of fifty etchings called Der Krieg ~ The War which includes this frightening sketch. It reminds me of the etchings in a collection called  The Disasters of War by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746–1828). This work depicts the horror of the conflicts in Spain from 1800 to 1820 during the Napoleonic era. One of Goya's etchings, "Contra el bien general" hangs above my desk as I write.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828)
Contra el bien general ~ Against the common good
Source; Wikimedia

Otto Dix used art as a way of interpreting the shocking events he witnessed as a soldier. His ghastly figure of a woman in anguish doesn't need much of a title to be understood, but Dix chose to attach the name of the little village Sainte Marie à Py. Why? Was this something he himself saw there? Or was it a story passed on to him from another soldier? In any case it adds a dreadful element of terror to the wartime story of this French village.

One hundred years later there are no answers, but that brings me back to my first question. What music does a military band play in a time of war when death and destruction is all around? A sprightly polka or heroic march seem absurdly unsuitable. A solemn elegy or mournful dirge seem pitifully inadequate. But the telescope of history shows us statistics and events that people of the time did not know. The soldiers and civilians caught up in this terrible war had only one objective, and that was to survive. Music was a distraction, both for the audience and the musicians. Its purpose was to alleviate boredom, to divert the senses, to relieve a fearful anxiety of worry over what will happen next.

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Just a few kilometers to the southeast of Sainte Marie-à-Py is a cemetery divided into two sections. The Cimetiere Allemand de Souain is the resting place for 13,783 German soldiers killed during the Great War of 1914-1918. Only 2,464 men are marked with individual burials. The remainder lie in a common tomb and 10,216 are unknown.

Google Maps gives us a 360° panoramic image that was taken at one side of the cemetery. Notice that to the right of the large cross in the first row is a marker unlike the others. It marks the grave of a Jewish soldier.

As we turn around towards the center altar monument, we can see another cemetery with white cross markers in pairs front and back. This is the French section, Nécropole nationale de la Crouée (Souain-Perthes-lès-Hurlus). It covers an area about 15 times larger than the German cemetery. There are 30,734 French soldiers from the Great War buried here, but only 9,050 are identified with markers.

It is a quiet place.
A place about time but without time.

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Click and hold within the map view for the rotating view.
If you single click on another arrow
you will be whisked away to another perspective in the cemetery.
To return to this first viewpoint, find the big cross and click on it.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where architecture and art texture meet.


La Nightingail said...

A very thoughtful post. The scenes of the village's destruction reminded me of an original series Star Trek episode wherein inhabitants of another planet had decided on a plan that would maintain their civilization's constructions during wartime. Instead, their wars were computerized. If a city, town, or village was 'hit', all the inhabitants of that community would report to extermination stations. The people would thus be gone, but the buildings of their cities, towns, and villages would remain intact. Captain Kirk and Spock fixed that. They destroyed the war computers so the people would have to actually face the horrors of war which would maybe, finally, make them seek peace?

Barbara Rogers said...

I've recently been reading historic fiction around WW I, and then to see all those graves, all those destroyed buildings and makes me really sad. I do wonder what kind of music the German Army band would play in the village square. And then to have postcards made from the photos of the boggles my mind. This post was hard to read...but well documented how men endured war.


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