The LSO in World War I: Armistice and Renaissance

Back in 2014 we began a project to uncover the story of the LSO and its players during World War I, marking the centenary of the start of the conflict. Four years later, to mark the centenary of the Armistice, we return to take a look at how the LSO was coping by the end of the War and what happened next.

In 1916, as we saw on this blog from 2016, the LSO was starting to run into trouble. By 1916 the number of performances in the Orchestra's series of own-promoted concerts had fallen to just 26 from 76 in 1912, largely owing to the lack of appetite for public entertainment during the conflict and latterly due to the new threat of terror from the air in the form of Zeppelin ballons, blackouts and unreliable public transport. Many of its members had signed up to fight, and on 25 October 1916 the Orchestra suffered the loss of its trumpeter Sydney Moxon, killed at Ypres Salient while helping an injured fellow soldier to safety. The Board met to discuss scaling back operations, but in the nick of time Sir Thomas Beecham gave the Orchestra a very generous gift of £100 to keep the season afloat, and a big festival of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius was mounted to raise funds for the Red Cross. 

But a year later in 1917 the situation was no better. The War was showing no signs of abating, and by now around 40 LSO players – as shown by the minutes of the AGM held on 27 July 1917 – had been called up for active service when conscription (compulsory service for all able-bodied men aged between 18 and 41) was introduced the year before.

LSO players on active service WW1 minute book

"Sympathetic reference was made in regard to those members of the Orchestra whom had joined His Majesty's Forces, viz: Messrs WH Reed, Philip Lewis, E Carwardine, H Ralph, T Peatfield, ER Wilby, R Carrodus, B Reillie, S Freedman, J Meacham, A Tibbetts, A Ives, C Woodhouse, CB Jones, F Hawkins, Roy Robertson, E Yonge, C Dorling, P Kilburn, R Garnet, CA Crabbe, A Maney, C Blackford, RV Tabb, JH Silvester, R Murchie, F Almgill, E J Augarde, H Thornton, A Penn, H Jackson, E Hall, S Moxon, ET Garvin. Deep regret was expressed at the untimely death of Sydney Moxon, killed in action in France, whilst conveying a wounded man to a place of safety."
~LSO Board Meeting minutes, 27 July 1917

Many LSO players joined the army to play in the regimental bands. Francis Ash, the LSO's tuba player, was a member of the Scots Guards band along with violinist Roy Robertson (who learned wind instruments in addition to his violin), and Edward Augard, clarinetist, played with the Honorable Artillery Company. Several others – especially the trumpeters – acted as their companys' bugle players, sounding the Reveille every morning, such as George Eskdale for the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, Sydney Moxon for the Prince of Wales' Own Civil Service Rifles, Ernest Hall for the King's Liverpool Regiment and horn player Harry Jackson for the Royal Garrison Artillery. Others acted as drivers and mechanics, such as violinist Charles Woodhouse and cellists Arthur Maney and Charles Blackford, who all served in the Motor Transport section of the Army Service Corps.

Having so many players away doing their patriotic duty was having a serious effect on the Orchestra's finances. Right at the start of the War the Board had determined that any player away serving in the armed forces would not be responsible for finding and paying for his own deputy while he was away (which was the common practice at the time), but with nearly half of the Orchestra falling into this category the financial burden would have been great. On 26 September 1917 the Orchestra held an Extraordinary General Meeting at which it was unanimously voted that the 1917/18 season should be abandoned and no further concerts given until the War was over.

no more concerts

"The meeting was convened with the purpose of discussing whether the annual series of symphony concerts should continue during the season of 1917/18. It was unanimously resolved that no symphony concerts should be given until the termination of the War." 
~Extraordinary General Meeting minutes, 26 September 1917

And there was more tragedy to come. In December 1917 during the Battle of Cambrai, two musicians were killed two days apart: trumpeter George Bennett (serving with the Artists' Rifles) on 3 December and violinist Harold Grimson (serving with the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons) on 1 December. Although neither were members of the LSO at the time, both had played with the Orchestra on its famous tour of the US in 1912, no doubt gaining many friends in the band. 

George Bennett Harold Grimson War grave

Trumpeter George Bennett (courtesy of his Great Grandson Sam Young) and the war grave of violinist Harold Grimson in the Beaurevoir British Cemetery.

Our archive contains just five London Symphony Orchestra performances in 1917, and absolutely nothing at all between March and December. On 15 December the Orchestra was engaged to perform a special concert at the Royal Albert Hall to commemorate the First Seven Divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the presence of King George V. According to the Royal Albert Hall archive, the concert was "of a deeply sombre nature, relatives and surviving members of the BEF came to the Hall for an incredibly moving experience which saw the Hall’s balconies draped in banners, made by the Royal College of Needlework, to remember the men who had died. It was reported in The Times that women from around the country begged to be allowed just to put a few stitches in the banners. So many people wanted to see the banners that they were kept up in the hall for the whole weekend so that people could visit."

In 1918 yet another conductor attempted to revive the fortunes of the LSO. Sir Adrian Boult had been declared medically unfit for active service but had spent the War as a translator for the War Office and organising concerts to help keep musicians in employment. He had a wealthy upbringing and some of these concerts were subsidised by his father Cedric, a Liverpool shipping magnate and oil trader. In early 1918 he organised a series of concerts with the LSO at the Queen's Hall with the purpose of performing recent works by British composers, including Butterworth, Holst, Elgar, Ireland and Parry. Most notably the concert on 18 February 1918 included the premiere of the revised version of his friend Vaughan Williams' 'London Symphony' (Symphony No 2), which according to Boult's biography was "rather spoilt by a Zeppelin raid", thus justifying the LSO Board's decision to curtail its concert-giving because of dwindling audiences frightened of the air attacks. Between these handful of concerts and a spcial event on 16 March 1918 – a meeting to celebrate the victory of the Suffragettes in securing the vote for women for the first time at which the LSO played works by Bizet, Glazunov, Sullivan and Saint-Saëns – the LSO was kept afloat, just.

16 March 1918 programmeProgramme for the meeting of the Suffragettes to celebrate gaining the vote for women, 16 March 1918.
Royal Albert Hall Archive.

The Armistice in November 1918 saw the country begin the process of recovery. In early 1919 the men of the LSO who had been away on military duties were demobilised and sent home to resume their lives and jobs. The safe return of violist Ernest Yonge from his duties serving with the Royal Flying Corps as a balloonist was noted in the minutes of the Board meeting in March 1919, but others were not so lucky. Some returned with life-changing injuries. Many of the military records of LSO musicians that we were able to trace showed their battles to gain disability pensions, such as flautist Henry Nisbet who had sciatica, horn payer Alex Penn whose continual bouts of influenza had ruined his lungs, horn player Harry Jackson who had been kicked in the face by a horse, mangling his lip, and trumpeter George Eskdale who had received a leg wound. Flautist Eli Hudson, another musician who had been on the LSO's 1912 US tour and who had spent the early part of the War entertaining the troops at the front in France and Belgium, died of his injuries in the January of 1919 having survived the fighting but with his health seriously affected by gas attacks.

By the middle of 1919 the LSO was showing some tentative signs of a renaissance, even against the difficult backdrop of strikes, shortages and recession in a post-war world. The Spanish flu epidemic was to kill hundred of thousands, and large public gatherings were now shunned for health reasons. The new craze for cinema was challenging "old fashioned" pursuists of music hall and concert-going. Many musical institutions, such as festivals which had been the life-blood of the LSO pre-war were simply unable to continue and quietly folded. But in the June the Board met to discuss the idea of restarting a series of concerts starting in the autumn. The idea had partially come from yet another conductor intent on supporting the Orchestra, Albert Coates, who had determined to "throw in his lot" with the Orchestra and conduct them for free if they would make him Principal Conductor. He was a good bet: a pupil of Arthur Nikisch, with whom the Orchestra had toured the US in 1912, he brought many of the qualities the LSO admired and much great repertoire, particularly Russian. His first concert as Principal Conductor, on 27 October 1919, featured the (less than successful) premiere of Elgar's Cello Concerto, and in 1920 Coates and the Orchestra gave the premiere of Holst's complete 'Planets' Suite. The well-connected Coates also brought with him wealthy music-lovers who were interested in sponsoring the Orchestra through these difficult years.

cello concerto programme

Programme for the first concert of the  LSO 1919/20 season.
LSO Archive

Miraculously, the Orchestra reached its 21st birthday in 1925 – just six years after it had all but disappeared – in what could be considered excellent health. Through some shrewd business manoeuvres and help from supporters it entered somewhat of a golden era in which it played with the finest conductors – Furtwängler, Weingartner, Klemperer, Walter and Barbirolli all visited – and soloists – it even introduced the young Yehudi Menuhin to Britain – and gave premieres of important works. The big names pulled in capacity crowds and the finances were stable. 

It is of course not the end of the LSO's story, both triumphant and turbulent, as Richard Morrison's book, written for the Centenary in 1904, illustrates! But against all the odds the LSO survived the Great War. We join with the rest of the world 100 years on to remember those who fought to secure our freedom and those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

All the hills and vales along
Earth is bursting into song,
And the singers are the chaps
Who are going to die perhaps.
O sing, marching men,
Till the valleys ring again.
Give your gladness to earth’s keeping,
So be glad, when you are sleeping.

~'All the Hills and Vales Along' by Charles Hamilton Sorley, killed at the Battle of Loos, October 1915


 We marked the centenary of the end of World War I with the premiere of a new work by James MacMillan, All the Hills and Vales Along, settings of war poetry by Charles Hamilton Sorley. Listen to the performance on BBC Radio 3 until 3 December 2018.

> Find out more about the LSO in World War I