Great War Composers and Poets Day 1: Gurney and Harvey

The first full day of our Great War Composers and Poets tour, and today we particularly commemorated the Gloucestershire pair F. W. Harvey and Ivor Gurney. Both were situated around the Belgian/French border during the Great War, and so that is where we headed after a highly satisfactory breakfast.

Our first stop was the French town of Laventie. The site of many battles during the war, the poet F. W. Harvey (1888-1957) was captured by the Germans here in 1916; the poet and composer Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) also saw action here, and wrote the poem “Laventie” about his time there. We went to the Fauquissart Military Cemetery to do our first playing of the tour. Like all the cemeteries we have visited so far, this was beautifully maintained. Although we didn’t see too many people, those we did see were very friendly: workmen just outside the cemetery turned their loud equipment off while we played (unbidden!), and the parents of the owner of the neighbouring farm came over with a bunch of flowers for us and chatted a while. A wonderful way to start the tour!

We then proceeded into the small town of Laventie itself: Gurney had described the friendly, airy place, with cafés and other attractions. We had a good look around, and drank a quick coffee; however we didn’t play in the town but instead proceeded out West to the hamlet of Riez Bailleul. Gurney had trained here (and wrote another poem about it), and although there was was no sign of anything there, we stopped and played by the side of the road anyway.

From there we crossed the border into Belgium, and after a spot of lunch at a village friterie we went up to Ploegsteert. This was a key battleground throughout the war, and is marked by a wide range of monuments and cemeteries. It was here that Harvey wrote his poem “In Flanders” - this was set to music by Gurney a little later in the war, after he found out that Harvey had been captured.

After playing at the impressive Memorial to the Missing, which commemorates over 11,000 allied soldiers whose bodies were never recovered, we strolled with cellos over a mile to the UEFA monument to the famous “Christmas Truce” game of football in 1914. A very different monument, with a number of footballing elements, it is flanked by two reconstructed trenches, where we played for a few minutes. Then into Ploegsteert Wood (via a couple of other impressive memorials where we also stopped to play), where we found an absolute gem of a cemetery right in the middle of the wood. This was a fantastic opportunity for us to play “In Flanders” again, which you can see in the video above/to the right.

We finished the day with a short trip to Ypres, where we had a good look at the Menin Gate - a very impressive monument to all of the missing Allied Forces in the Great War: over 50,000 names are individually inscribed in this massive arch.

So, back to Arras for an evening meal, and thinking about tomorrow - when we will be particularly commemorating Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Thomas.

Highlight of the day: Being given flowers by a stranger when we played at the Fauquissart Military Cemetery

Quote of the day: “...” - the mechanical diggers go silent at the same cemetery to allow us to play in peace. This was entirely the work men’s doing; we did not even ask them!