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"Can't you hear the tramp of the soldiers marching"

July 9th, 2015 By Matt Steindl

Having done some research to find information about Willie B Manson, I came across more and more composers who also served in World War One.

As mentioned last time, we started a new digitisation project last year, making First World War scores available online. Radio New Zealand performed several of those scores for Farewell Zealandia, and you can listen to their recordings now.

Here are the personal stories of two more of our songwriters who went to war.

Ernest Franz Luks

Ernest Luks was born in Auckland in 1882, and began a career in the civil service at the tender age of 16. He was appointed a drafting cadet with the Lands and Survey Departments at age 20, and a few years later became a fully-fledged draughtsman. Ernest was also a talented musician and with the help of his quick wit he was soon regarded as “one of Auckland’s cleverest performers”, specialising in comedy songs and character sketches.

By the time the century reached its teens Ernest decided that the civil service was not for him, and he packed it in to go on a tour of England and Europe. When he returned to New Zealand he ended up in Wellington where he found work with the railway service. Music and performance was still his passion though, and he quickly forged a reputation in the capital, regularly performing at vaudeville concerts and entertainments. In no time at all he was considered a leading local talent, winning prizes in regional song contests for his comedic performances.

When the war broke out Ernest began performing for the troops at the Trentham, Featherston and Awapuni camps. As with most places he went, Ernest quickly became a popular figure, organising concerts and amusements for the troops, often with the main attraction his own comedy skits and songs. He was assisted in this by another local singer, Miss Wendy Lonsdale, who also possessed a flair for comedy, and before long they were performing as duo, singing their own routines with Ernest on piano. Ernest enlisted in 1916, and was scheduled for departure a few months later. Shortly before his embarkation he and Wendy were married with a celebration that was widely reported upon, including this description in the Herald.

Corporal Luks arrived in England at the beginning of January 1917, and was on the battlefield in France by June. In the meantime he had written and published a tune of his own, Trentham: a marching song", which he dedicated to his division. The song caught on and became very popular amongst the Kiwi troops both in Europe and back home.

Piano and voice score for Trentham, starting 'Can't you hear the tramp of the soldiers marching...'.
Score for Luks' "Trentham". Record page.

Listen to Luks' "Trentham"

He wasn’t to spend long on the battlefield however: after just two months Ernest was admitted to the field hospital with an undefined sickness, before being sent back to Walton-on Thames. Eventually by October he was declared no longer fit for active service and was invalidated home a month later.

Immediately after returning home Ernest teamed up with his new bride and revived their comedy act. Together they adopted the name Wendy Dale and Alphonse and toured the vaudeville circuit throughout 1919 and 1920; with Ernest as a lately returned digger Alphonse, and Wendy as Wendy Dale, named the “cutest dresser in vaudeville”.

Newspaper clipping photo of Wendy Dale and Alphonse in performance costume.
WENDY DALE AND ALPHONSE. 'The Soubrette and the Digger' now Appearing at Fuller's Opera House, Observer, Volume XL, Issue 1, 6 September 1919.

Ernest also published two other songs during this period, “Derry Roses”, and “I’m going to New Zealand”.

Cover of 'I'm going to New Zealand', showing a sunset and a silhouetted whare.
Cover of Luks' "I'm going to New Zealand". Record page.

Based in Auckland, Ernest continued to write music and perform with Wendy throughout the 1920s, even taking in a tour of Australia. His taste for thrills also saw him sitting his pilot’s licence (in what was very much the early days of aviation in New Zealand), and on one occasion he was charged and “heavily fined” for “driving his machine on a public road in a negligent and reckless manner”. The machine in question was an Indian motorcycle, which upon inspection, had no muffler, licence plate, or brakes.

According to his obituary in the Herald, Ernest Luks “never really recovered from the effects of war service”, and he died in 1936 of heart disease, possibly a consequence of rheumatic fever.

Arthur Vivian Carbines

Born in Auckland in 1880, Arthur Carbines took to music at an early age. He began playing the organ at age ten, and before long he was pumping the bellows at his local church. After five years of this he transferred his keyboard skills to the piano, upon which he gained local renown as a particularly talented performer.

Formal portrait of Arthur Carbines.
Arthur Carbines (photo courtesy of the Carbines Family).

At the age of 24 Arthur went on his O.E back “home” to England where he spent the next three years. During his time there he continued to develop his musicianship, including publishing his composition for solo piano: "Rangitoto: morceau à la gavotte".

Listen to Carbines' "Rangitoto"

Upon his return to New Zealand in 1907, Arthur threw himself into Auckland musical life both publically and with his church. Around town he was well-known as an exceptionally talented conductor, comedian and multi-instrumentalist who was “equally at home on any instrument from a toothcomb to a pipe organ”. He was also prominent member of the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle, for whom he wrote numerous hymns, including the diamond jubilee hymn of the Tabernacle Sunday School.

In 1912, Arthur relocated to New Plymouth to take up a position as manager of the local branch of shipping & insurance agents J.C. Spedding & Co. His arrival in town was reasonably big news at the time, and the local newspaper was dispatched to interview him. The sharp wit that Carbines was known for is evident in this interview: when he was asked (in typical New Zealand fashion) what he thought of the locals he quipped that “thought they were intelligent, as it wasn't even necessary to mark the numbers on the post office clock”.

Arthur Carbines was amongst the first to enlist when war broke out in 1914, and was a member of the ANZAC deployment to Gallipoli the following year. He was no stranger to gallantry, having been in the news a few years earlier for attempting to rescue a drowning man at Shelly Beach in Ponsonby.

It would have come as no surprise therefore that when his commander, Lieutenant Colonel William George Malone, lay wounded on battlefield during the assault on Chunuk Bair, Carbines volunteered (where others refused) to crawl out of his trench in an attempt to retrieve him. His search was unsuccessful, and as he was crawling back to his trench, a fellow officer mistook him for the enemy and fatally shot him in the head with his revolver. The tragic event was described in detail by a friend of Carbines, Private Harry Milburn.

The unfortunate circumstance surrounding the death of Arthur Carbines led to his story standing out where thousands of others have been forgotten. He was commended in a war despatch by General Ian Hamilton for his “gallant and distinguished service in the field”, his father received a personal letter of condolence from the king, and the hymns he composed for the Baptist Tabernacle were posthumously published in 1916. He is buried in Çanakkale, on the Gallipoli peninsula.

Finding the song-writers

The information for these brief biographies was drawn chiefly from military records held at Archives NZ (many of which digitised and available online), Papers Past, and the various public records available through Ancestry (subscription required). Because this information is not particularly comprehensive, it is more than likely that the odd mistake or omission has found its way in. We heartily welcome any corrections, additions or other comments in the comments section below!

Special thanks to David Dell and Chris Bourke for their assistance and advice.

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9 July 2015 3:45pm

Thanks Matt. Really appreciate reading these stories.