Songs and Stories of the Great War (1914-1918) - Sage Two, Gateshead, 5pm, Sunday 11th November 2018
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Annual Remembrance Day observances will have an even greater significance this year as Sunday 11th November 2018 marks exactly 100 years since the signing of the Armistice which ended the First World War.
As the heat wave subsides and Summer draws to a close, organisations, schools, community groups and the media will undoubtedly begin to turn their attention to marking this important centenary as they did on the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in 2016. The spotlight will fall on traditional Remembrance Day events which may well draw bigger crowds than usual, but for Fenham Ensemble's very own Rob Barnes, marking this centenary with a special and unique event will be the culmination of his lifelong interest in the Great War and in one man in particular: Private Fielding Pickard, service number MS/1051 of the 7th Auxiliary Mechanical Transport Company of the Army Service Corps.
Rob is the originator and producer of ‘Songs & Stories of the Great War’, a rather different World War 1 event, which will be staged on 11th November in Hall 2 of the iconic Sage Gateshead concert venue on the actual day of the signing of the Armistice one hundred years ago.
As Rob explains: “Rather than just a Remembrance service, our event at Sage Gateshead will be a celebration of the story of a wartime ‘Everyman’ character – an unsung hero, the epitome of the spirit of the British Tommy – the good times, the tragic times, the laughter and the tears. Our inspiration comes from the experience of Private Fielding Pickard, one of the lucky ones who did return home.
“When my wife’s aunt died we were bequeathed a set of postcards which had been sent or brought back from the Western Front during World War 1 by her uncle, Fielding Pickard. He’d collected these postcards from the different places he’d visited whilst on his tour of duty, between Rouen and Flanders, for the whole duration of the war. It was amazing. We could trace his actual route.”
The postcards took on a new meaning for Rob and his wife Sue when they set off to Northern France last year with a small representative sample of the cards and took their own photos of the same locations as they are now, 100 years on. The end result is a remarkable album of ‘then and now’ pictures showing that in many places, such as Corbie near Amiens and Saint-Omer, things have not changed much in the intervening century.
“I’d always been fascinated by this particular war,” continues Rob, “ever since, as a boy of about 12 or 13, I used to look at cartoons, poems and stories from a hardback volume of ‘The Best of Punch Magazine 1900-1930’ which belonged to my parents.
“Rather than the realities of death and destruction, Punch magazine took a more gentle and whimsical view of the goings-on in Northern France. Let’s just say it was an alternative version of the facts, designed to entertain those ‘back home’, but in no way disrespectful to those involved on the battlefield. I loved the poetry, the humour, the cartoons and the stories of everyday life at the Front. I was fascinated that in the later editions, as the war went on, the tendency to make light of what was going on, presenting perhaps a rather ‘diluted’ reality, became more reflective and less ‘elevated’. Reading ‘Mr Punch in Wartime’ as a boy made a huge impression on me which has stayed with me to this day, so when I saw the postcards sent back by Private Fielding Pickard I had to find out more about him.”
Rob discovered that Private Pickard was a 44 year old family man from Broughton in Manchester who joined up on 6th August 1914, just two days after war was declared. He was over-age for enlistment but as a driver for Boddington’s Brewery, he had a special skill and was allocated to the Army Service Corps as a Motor Driver. He had a wife, Pauline, and a son, Louis, aged 11, back at home and it was to them both that he addressed his postcards from along the Western Front until he was discharged in January 1919. Louis sadly died of meningitis, aged 15, in 1918.
Rob explains that it was discovering Fielding Pickard who helped him put together a more coherent story about the war. He proudly shows a striking black and white photo of Private Pickard taken on enlistment in which, as Rob himself describes, he has all the appearance of a ‘rabbit in the headlights’.
“For me, he’s the link. The things I had read as I child were not just about the heroes fighting in the trenches. They were a narrative based on real lives both at home and on the battlefield – a window on to what ordinary people were thinking and feeling. I wanted to celebrate not only those at the front, but all those supporting them behind the lines – not just the ‘actors’ but the ‘stagehands’ too.”
By the end of the war there were over 300,000 personnel in the Army Service Corps (now known as the Royal Logistics Corps). Men could not fight without ammunition, equipment and food and they couldn’t move without vehicles and horses. “From bullets to blankets, petrol to plasma, tanks to tourniquets,” (Prof Richard Holmes in Foreword to ‘Army Service Corps – 1902-1918’ by Michael Young) “all these things were provided by the ASC, divided up into units known as Companies and they were a vital part in the Lines of Communication. The Mechanical Transport Company to which Fielding Pickard belonged was a strategically important factor in being able to maintain supplies as the armies advanced over difficult ground and in very dangerous circumstances.
But it was not just the ASC who were unsung heroes ‘behind the lines’. Between 1914 and 1918 large numbers of women were drafted into industries that had been depleted by military conscription - in government departments, in clerical positions, on the land, in factories and heavy work in ship building and furnace stoking. Around 700,000 women took up posts in the new munitions industry, which was particularly dangerous, and many volunteered on the home front as nurses and teachers. All of this as well as running the home and looking after their families alone in sometimes devastating circumstances. The war meant women had to take on a number of traditionally male roles and their ability to do this led to a change in attitudes. It is no coincidence that in 2018 we are also commemorating 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 which granted the vote to 8.4 million women, which was no doubt accelerated by the vital role they played in wartime.
“It’s actually quite fitting,” says Rob “that six of the composers and poets we will be featuring in our celebratory event on 11th November are women, especially as it was the war poems of little-known, yet prolific, female poet Cicely Fox-Smith which I read in Punch magazine all those years ago, which first piqued my interest in the Great War.”
The event in Sage Two will be a mix of story-telling, poetry, drama, humour and music including trench songs, folk songs and choral songs of remembrance; a collection of songs and stories of a life on the Western Front, in turn both uplifting, cheerful and unbearably sad.
In keeping with the family theme Rob will narrate the story with the help of his elder grand-daughter, Bella, who, poignantly, at age 11, is exactly the same age as Fielding Pickard’s son Louis was when Pickard went to war. Also taking part will be members of Fenham Ensemble chamber choir, directed by Simon Davies-Fidler; Northumbrian piper Kathy Palmer; pianist Ruth Carlisle and Hotspur Primary School Choir based in Heaton.
Rob hopes that people from around the region will see ‘Songs & Stories of the Great War’ as an easily accessible opportunity to commemorate the Armistice with their families on this important anniversary.
“I’m a member of Fenham Ensemble and we performed a similar concert in March this year at St James’ and St Basil’s Church in Fenham which was described as an uplifting and yet very emotional experience. This November’s event will additionally draw upon what I’ve subsequently discovered about Private Fielding Pickard, making the focus that of a celebration of the unsung heroes and heroines of the First World War, based as it is on the experience of one ordinary family man.
“In this one man’s story, we’re offered an insight into what people were saying, writing, singing about and feeling at that time, not just the soldiers, but the country as a whole. It is a celebration of all those who played their part in this ‘war to end all wars’; those who fought for King and Country, those who supported them at the Front, those who patched them up and kept them alive, those who kept their homes and the country going in their absence and those who have kept their memory and their actions alive over the last 100 years.
“Every family who has lived in Britain for five or six generations will have their own ‘Fielding Pickard’ – a family man who went to fight for King and Country without a second thought. This could be your family’s story.”
Songs and Stories of the Great War (1914-1918) - Sage Two, Gateshead, 5pm, Sunday 11th November 2018. Tickets available from the Sage Gateshead website
http://www.sagegateshead.com/event/songs-and-stories/ or from Sage Gateshead ticket office 0191 443 4661