Great War Composers and Poets Day 3: Butterworth and Sassoon

Today took us right to the heart of the Somme, that infamous battleground for several months in 1916. Although we focussed on George Butterworth and Siegfried Sassoon, there were several other composers and poets who fought here too.

Our first port of call was Mametz Wood: the location of some major battles in May-June 1916. Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was a key part of this: he captured a trench, almost single-handedly, from the Germans, and was awarded the Military Cross for his endeavours. His poem “Aftermath” describes some of the horrors faced at Mametz, and the difficulty of remembrance. Also serving in the same battle was the poet Robert Graves: his poem “A Dead Boche” is a somewhat gruesome description of coming across a deceased German in Mametz Wood.

The battle here had significant numbers of Welsh casualties, and there is a monument in the form of a Welsh dragon next to the wood. We played by the monument (with our first audience of the day - albeit only one person!), and went into the wood itself to play there too.

From there we went a couple of miles west to Contalmaison, another key war site and where the composer George Butterworth (1885-1916) was first sent into action. We discovered, however, that the site is particularly commemorated for the involvement of a Scottish battalion that included several professional footballers, and we played by a large cairn that was placed there as a memorial.

The Butterworth connection grew stronger with our next calling point at Pozières. It was here that, in an effort (ultimately successful) to capture a series of trenches called Munster Alley from the Germans, Butterworth was shot and killed by a sniper. A popular officer, his men renamed the attack trench they had dug “Butterworth Trench” in his honour. Aged just 31, it was a tragic loss as he was regarded as one of the brightest composers of his generation. In the video here, we are playing his setting of the A. E. Housman poem “The Lads in their Hundreds”, referencing all of the young men who lost their lives at war: “the lads that will die in their glory and never be old”. We played this by the site of the Butterworth Trench, and then again by a memorial in the village of Pozières; a very poignant moment.

After this we went to “Crucifix Corner” - a short distance away, which is where Ivor Gurney had written the music to “In Flanders” - to see more about this, and part of a performance of it by us, see the blog from day 1.

After a pleasant lunch in the town of Albert, our final playing stop of the day was at the hugely impressive Thiepval memorial. An absolutely massive monument, this commemorates  over 72,000 British and South African soldiers who died at the Somme but have no known grave. Included in these are two composers - not only George Butterworth, but also Francis Purcell Warren, whose music we will celebrate tomorrow. We were allowed to play in the monument itself, and so gave an appropriately reflective recital (including music by all the composers we are commemorating) to the appreciation of plenty of visitors.

At the end of a long, hot day (temperatures hitting 35 Celsius at Thiepval), we have now returned to Arras and are looking forward to enjoying some more French cuisine tonight before heading west to commemorate Francis Purcell Warren, Arthur Bliss, and Wilfred Owen tomorrow.

Highlight of the day: Playing in the Thiepval memorial and seeing people genuinely moved by the music

Quote of the day: “It just serves to make a poignant setting even more so” - a Welsh visitor to the Mametz Wood memorial on hearing our music.