Forgotten Voices of the Great War speak again at Petworth Festival

Tom Smail
Tom Smail

Forgotten Voices of the Great War will prove a deeply-poignant evening as this year’s Petworth Festival moves towards its conclusion.

Tom Smail is the composer of a song cycle which will be performed by a quartet of singers with cello and piano accompaniment and special introductions from Max Arthur – a song cycle inspired by Max’s book of the same name. It all stems from Tom’s complete fascination with the First World War, supposedly the war to end all wars.

He describes himself as like a rabbit in the headlights at the mere thought of it, grimly fascinated by the unimaginable horror and squalor and by the unspeakable pointlessness of such industrial-scale death. Military leaders were itching for a fight in their beautiful uniforms, and yet how quickly it turned into a ghastly mud- and bloodbath…

“Can you imagine what it must have been like standing in the mud on a freezing morning, with rats and with bits of your friends around you, waiting for the whistle, going over the top knowing that you probably had just seconds to live? It is just so unimaginably horrible, how anybody could have gone through that, that you end up with the nagging question of how you yourself would have coped in those circumstances. You just can’t know how you would have reacted.”

Tom admits he is haunted by the thought of the young men who left Britain – and many other countries – with notions in their heads of honour and glory, cavalry charges, colours and swords flying, only to be met by the horror of the front, disease, barbed wire, endless shelling and the dreadful onslaughts as they trudged into the teeth of massed machine guns from the opposing trenches.

Tom’s song cycle Forgotten Voices of the Great War is his response to these images and these all-too-real experiences, taking verbatim texts from Max Arthur’s book of the same name: “I came across this book by Max who is a historian and writes a particular series of books that sell extremely well. I knew him. We had met, and he had put this book together.”

In 1972 the Imperial War Museum began a momentous task. A team of academics, archivists and volunteers set about tracing First World War veterans and interviewing them in order to record the experiences of ordinary individuals in war. Since then, the sound archive has grown to become the largest and most important oral history collection in the world. Max took on the task of editing and collating the vast collection. As well as being granted access to the hundreds of tapes held by the IWM, he also interviewed many of the survivors himself and, in 2002,

“The thing that really struck me about the book was that it was real people, not just the ordinary man, but the generals as well, but they were all individuals, not talking about five-mile advances or whatever, but talking about the details of their lives, how cold it was, the fact that they had just had a letter from their girlfriends or whatever. It was the extraordinary described in ordinary words, and they were very powerful. I read the accounts and I whittled them down to 12, some English, some German, some the male on the front line, some the woman back home, and I used the words verbatim. They are extraordinary statements, and they are very musicable.”

Forgotten Voices of the Great War is on Friday, August 3, Leconfield Hall at 7.45pm.

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