inchoir-logo
01342 713068

Modern choirs for people who love to sing

Bringing music to the front line

100 years ago today, on the 7th July 1917, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) - the first all-women unit in the British Army - was officially instituted. It was later renamed Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC). This marked the start of an acceptance of women within the Armed Forces, although it took until 1991 for the RAF to have their first female pilot, and until 1997 for 70% of army jobs to become available to women - only Tank and Infantry regiments remained men-only. During the last 100 years, women have eventually been allowed to apply for more and more positions within the forces. By 2014, intake of female personnel into the Armed Forces continued to rise with females accounting for 12.7% of officers and 9.4% of other ranks.

Women were hugely important during the war effort in both WWI and WWII; working in munitions factories, serving in the Land Army, even serving as spies abroad. During WWI though, the front line was men-only and Lena Ashwell was the woman who brought music to them. Born in 1872, Ashwell grew up in Canada before studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she became a dedicated member of the pre-war suffrage campaign. By the time war broke out, she was determined that soliders should not be deprived of culture. Actors and musicians should, she believed, be expected to don their gumboots and head for the mud. The war office did not share her views. As far as the generals were concerned, the soliders made their own entertainment - playing cards, writing letters, interspersed with a little football. They were wrong, of course. Boredom was rife among troops and led to bawdy concert parties; a far cry from the civilised entertainment Ashwell envisaged.

She continued to push for entertainment to be sent to the troops and in the Women's Auxiliary Committee of the YWCA she found a royal patron, Princess Helena Victoria, and a cautious enthusiam for sending concert parties to France. The YWCA's main concern was about probity and modesty and Ashwell had to personally vouch for each performer. "There is a notion" wrote Ashwell "to them we are a class of terribly wicked people who drink champagne all day long, and lie on sofas, receiving bouquets from rows of admirers who patiently wait in queues to present these tokens of rather unsavoury regard. I think some expected us to land in France in tights, with peroxide hair, and altogether be a difficult thing for a religious organisation to camouflage."

Nevertheless, in January 1915 the first concert tour got underway with 39 concerts in a fortnight. Performers had a tough life behind the front line, wading through knee deep mud, lugging props and instruments, only to find their stage was in a candlelit hut, tent or barn and their stage was a pile of suitcases. But their audience would be eagerly awaiting any kind of performance. There was considerable excitement that some of the leading lights of the London stage were willing to submit themselves to such conditions. 

Three concerts a day were usually attempted since Ashwell's view was that culture should be available to everyone. Violin solos, string quartets, operatic arias. Contemporary comedies and romances were played with canteen furniture, and the scenery was often the backdrop of the night sky. After concerts, performers spent time with the wounded, sometimes sitting quietly singing to just one man. As the performers proved their worth, there was increasing demand for "firing line parties", willing to go much further toward the front line than perform at base camps. It was not for the faint hearted.

Thanks to this amazing woman, more than 600 artists - including nearly 350 women - travelled for four years in France, Malta and Egypt. They gave impromptu performances at railway stations, on ships, and in the desert. Tens of thousands came to their concerts; in one week in Ismailia on the Suez Canal, more than 13,000 men came for the music.

So today, let us remember all of those brave women (and men) who fought and are still fighting in the Armed Forces, but also those who travel far and wide into the same conflict zones to entertain and lift the morale of our troops, all thanks to Lena Ashwell.