In addition to painters and artists, the ranks of the Belgian army also include a considerable number of amateurs and even some professionals from the musical and theatre worlds, either called up or volunteers. While musicians are, from the start, called on to provide rhythm for the marching troops, it is very difficult for them, outside of the framework of regimental music, to exercise their art while deviating from the very strict regulations established by the military authorities. But in the end, these authorities understand that, even in wartime, the troops need entertainment: they therefore allow the organisation of small performances during calm periods at the front. Initially, chamber music concerts are held in the hospitals in order to cheer the wounded, and then in the camps for all of the soldiers. In December 1917, the Quatuor à Cordes de l’Armée belge en Campagne and the Orchestre symphonique de l’Armée de Campagne are created, consisting officially of 119 soldiers chosen from amongst the best musicians. These musical ensembles are very quickly a great success and undertake tours abroad, in France and the United Kingdom, for the benefit of wartime charities. In terms of the theatre, dramas, comedies and vaudeville are improvised almost everywhere, with often modest means, until such time as the military authorities set up the Théâtre de l’Armée de Campagne in 1917 and build a wooden structure called the Théâtre de la Reine, in Hoogstade, in 1918. The performances include great classics from the French and Belgian theatre… as well as pieces in Dutch, with the Vlaamsch Fronttoneel created in April 1918.
Is it not said that music soothes the soul…
Music is omnipresent in military life From the start to the end of the Great War, "from the moving events of the first days of August 1914, when they (the military bands) marched at the head of the battalions of reservists with flowers in their rifles, escorted by enormous crowds for which they played popular and patriotic songs… until the glorious day of the return", according to the imposing homage compendium Nos héros morts pour la patrie published en 1920. Indeed, at the time of the mobilisation, each regiment of the Belgian army had its own military band, with the best-known being that of the regiment of the Guides that, to this very day, enjoys a great reputation both in Belgium and abroad. But musicians are there not only to give the rhythm for marching troops. Whether professionals or former students from some academy, they are first and foremost soldiers and therefore subject to the same obligations and dangers as the other non-musician soldiers: no special regime as was the case for painters in the Artistic Section (created in 1916). When the front line stabilises in the area of the Yser, toward the end of 1914, musicians are once again able to give themselves over to their passion. Initially on their own, to pass the time; later in groups, with the support of the military authorities who increase their efforts in order to re-establish the regimental ensembles, reduced or dispersed by combat, in order for them to be able to give concerts in the army camps or hospitals.
From the moving events of the first days of August 1914, when the military bands marched at the head of the battalions of reservists with flowers in their rifles, escorted by enormous crowds for which they played popular and patriotic songs… until the glorious day of the return.
Excerpt from Nos héros morts pour la patrie, 1920
As such, at the Castle of Wulveringhem, a few kilometres south of Furnes, chamber music performances are organised by Commander Emile Davreux, Aide-de-Camp of the King and himself a pianist, and then by Colonel Victor Buffin de Chosal, also a composer. Other well-known musicians also participate in these performances, including pianists Maurice Corneil de Thoran (director of the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels after the war) and Léon Jongen, violist Germain Prévost as well as a violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (who was not a soldier, however). In 1915, Colonel Buffin undertakes to reorganise the Musique des Guides ; he provides the musicians with new instruments and receives them at Wulveringhen before they leave for Calais and Guines, in France. Once their repertoire has been re-created, thanks to the Republican Guard, the Musique des Guides goes on a major tour of the United Kingdom in August 1916, that includes the Albert Hall in London, for the benefit of wartime charities... However, not all musicians are so fortunate as to be part of an organised ensemble, with the ability to travel. Most of them stay in their camps and the play initially during the funeral services and religious services celebrated in the open air, sometimes in ruined churches or in abandoned garages; and then, when the time for some celebration arrives, performances are organised during games and sporting events, if not improvised in the canteens and rest tents, with the instruments at hand: accordions, flutes or violins.
Another prestigious initiative, still by the same Colonel Buffin, was the December 1917 creation of the Quatuor à Cordes de l’Armée belge en Campagne, using the famous Quatuor Pro Arte founded in Brussels in 1912 as its model. From this original ensemble, only Germain Prévost is available since second violinist Laurent Halleux is assigned to another sector, while first violinist Alphonse Onnou and cellist Fernand Auguste Lemaire have not been mobilised. The composition of this new chamber music ensemble will change more than once, notably as each of its members decides to create his own string quartet. But Germain Prévost and violinist Henri Gadeyne remain faithful, regularly performing Beethoven, Debussy, Haydn, Ravel and even Schumann, at the Ocean Hospital where Queen Elisabeth of Belgium is one of the most frequent spectators. In parallel with the Quatuor, at the Beveren-Ijzer Hospital some 20 km from La Panne, the Orchestre symphonique de l’Armée de Campagne is created with 119 musician soldiers, under the direction of Maurice Corneil de Thoran. On the programme : Fantaisie sur deux noëls populaires wallons and La Ronde wallonne by Liège resident Joseph Jongen (brother of pianist Léon), La Marche héroïque by Camille Saint-Saëns, Conte d’avril by Charles-Marie Widor... performed at Beveren-Ijzer and in Hoogstade, Vinkem, La Panne and even London, just before the launch, on 8 August 1918, of the 100 Day Offensive during which all of the musicians are assigned as ambulance drivers and stretcher bearers.
When the time for some celebration arrives, performances are organised during games and sporting events, if not improvised in the canteens and rest tents, with the instruments at hand: accordions, flutes or violins.
… and that laughter is specific to man?
On several occasions, the Symphonic orchestra also accompanies the Théâtre de l’Armée de Campagne during performances, for example, of Médecin malgré lui by Molière or the Cloître by Emile Verhaeren from Antwerp. Indeed "our soldiers, so courageous, tenacious and patient in adversity, very often showed their love of performing", according to Nos héros morts pour la patrie ; however, it was not until December 1917 that the military authorities, aware that time seems to be dragging on increasingly for the Belgian troops, makes official and encourages troupes of actors. Like other artists-soldiers, these people learn their roles between two periods on guard duty or two chores, and "even though they may not find time to sleep, success (often very noisy) rewards them for their efforts, which is only just." Without a great deal of means, the Théâtre de l’Armée de Campagne, founded and directed by Lieutenant Emile Van Iseghem, puts on grand reviews, with the benevolence of the military censorship, as well as the great classics of the French theatre, such as L’Arlésienne by Alphonse Daudet or Le Mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais. Certain plays, including Le médecin malgré lui, are preceded by a literary morning on the works of Molière or the Tales of La Fontaine provided by Lieutenant Jean De Mot (known as the curator of the Musée du Cinquantenaire). Other plays include the voices of a choir of soldiers or of the army's official singer, Ernest Thiers known as Genval.
Alongside the Théâtre de l’Armée, made up only of soldiers, there are occasional performances by troops of professional actors and entertainers such as the Théâtre belge du Front, also called the Troupe Libeau from the nickname given to its directing couple: Gustave and Valentine Libion. This company has the privilege of inaugurating, on 18 April 1919, the Théâtre de la Reine in Hoogstade, in the presence of Her Majesty Elisabeth of Belgium. In this wooden building, offered by the Queen to the troops and able to seat up to 2000 persons, the Troupe Libeau performs the very serious Conte d’avril with the Orchestre symphonique de l’Armée ; but its programme focuses much more on comedy, with the successes of the Belgian theatre (particularly from Brussels) such as Ce bon Monsieur Zoetebeek, Zonneslag Cie ou l’Epicier du coin, La demoiselle de magasin and naturally the essential Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans by Fernand Wicheler and Frantz Fonson. All of these performances are given in French and in the Brussels dialect, which does not fail to annoy a good number of Flemish soldiers. As such, under the impetus of a certain Jan Oscar De Gruyter, doctor in Germanic philology and dramatist, the Vlaamsch Fronttoneel is created in April 1918 and, on 21 April 1918, the first performance is given, Warenar by the Dutch writer Pieter Hooft, at the Théâtre de la Reine (known on this occasion as the Schouwburg van de Koningin). Four other performances, encouraged by the Belgische Standaard, then follow with much success amongst the Flemish soldiers, including Het Belang van Ernst (The importance of being Earnest) by the British writer Oscar Wilde and translated by De Gruyter.
On 18 April 1918, the Théâtre de la Reine is inaugurated in Hoogstade, in the presence of Her Majesty Elisabeth of Belgium. This wooden building, offered by the Queen to the troops, could seat up to 2000 people.