Our song-writing soldiers

This is just the first of Matt's three-part series on soldiers who were also composers. Come back soon for the next entry!

Last year, on the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, a researcher from Naples and a community orchestra in Oregon both made enquiries for information about a little known composer by the name of Willie B Manson.

Curious to learn more about this man, I found an article by Peter Downes: Willie B Manson and A Shropshire Lad . The significance of the tragic circumstances of Willie Manson’s early death became immediately apparent: he was killed while serving in the war. Learning about Willie and his connection to New Zealand prompted me to find out more about other New Zealand composers and songwriters who served during the First World War.

A group portrait of the pipe band of an Auckland Regiment wearing the kilts presented by the Caledonian Societies of NZ. The canine mascot (unnamed) sits on a soldier's lap and behind the upright base drum, front centre.An Auckland Regimental pipe band with canine mascot, 1914. Ref: 1/2-013177-G.

The impact of the war in New Zealand was such that men and women from all walks of life were drawn into the conflict, and our musicians, composers and songwriters were no exception. Prior to the widespread availability of sound recordings, performing and even writing music were much more a part of everyday life than they are today, so it was perhaps unsurprising to learn that many of our soldiers penned songs.

Indeed, David Dell, the curator of the Sheet Music Archive of New Zealand, informed me that the Archive holds over 500 songs linked with WWI or the ANZACs, and many of these were composed by soldiers.

Last year we began an ongoing project to digitise the First World War scores held at the Turnbull, of which nearly 200 are now available to view online. Meanwhile, many of these WWI songs were performed and recorded by Radio New Zealand in April this year as part of the exhibition Farewell Zealandia, an exhibition of selected New Zealand music from the World War One period curated by David Dell and currently showing at Te Manawa in Palmerston North.

So now, with the music of Aotearoa during the First World War more accessible than it has been in many years, here are some of the stories behind the music of a few of our most significant song-writing soldiers.

Willie B Manson

William Braithwaite Manson was born into a musical family in Dunedin in 1896. His father William was a local music retailer and one-time manager of Braithwaite’s Arcade, while his mother Mabel (nee Braithwaite) was a well-known soprano and sister of Warwick Braithwaite.

Young William didn’t spend too much time in New Zealand, as the family returned to England in 1900 where Mabel continued her musical training, and William Sr. found work in the fledgling gramophone industry.

A few years after arriving in London, Willie Jr. became a chorister at the Chapel Royal at St. James’ Palace London and in 1912 joined the Royal Academy of Music where he studied composition under Harry Farjeon. Willie become somewhat of a star pupil in his time at the Academy, winning a number of awards, including the prestigious Charles Lucas Silver Medal for Composition.

Score for piano and voice for 'When I last came to Ludlow'.Page from Housman and Manson's 'When I came last to Ludlow', from Three poems from A Shropshire lad."

Then in January of 1916 nineteen-year-old Willie felt the call of duty and enlisted in the London Scottish Regiment. Four months later his regiment was drafted to France, and at the end of June sent to front lines near Gommecourt. July 1st 1916 was Willie’s 20th birthday, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and the day that Willie was killed.

Willie’s death was greatly mourned in London music circles, and several memorial concerts were held in his memory. Following the death of William Sr. in 1953, the Manson family bequeathed many of Willie’s personal effects, along with a substantial amount of money, to the Royal Academy of Music. This bequest was used to establish the Manson Room for contemporary composition (now an electronic music studio).

Private William Manson was posthumously awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal. Six of his songs were also published after his death: Songs of Love and Youth and Three poems from A Shropshire lad. Unfortunately none of his other compositions have remained.

See Peter Downes' Willie B Manson and A Shropshire Lad for a more thorough account of Manson's short life.

James Jesse Stroud

James Jesse Stroud was born at sea in 1879, en route to New Zealand. He spent his youth in Invercargill and Dunedin, before moving to England at the age of 20. Shortly after arriving, J.J enlisted in the British army as a Staff Sargent. His musical education in New Zealand saw him given the role of band-master in the Viceroy’s Band in India, where he met and married his wife Sarah.

The young couple returned to Invercargill in 1906, where James continued his musical career conducting and composing music, and earning a crust by teaching. In proper Southern bloke tradition, J.J was also a keen garden-shed inventor, submitting patent applications for a number of different inventions including a clothes peg, a cupboard-lock and a self-regulating girdle.

In July 1916 he went to war as a member of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion, serving as Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant. Whilst fighting in France he was sent to hospital suspected of having been gassed, but was later diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock. He was eventually discharged at the end of 1917, unable to continue fighting.

Listen to Stroud's "Daddy, Soldier Daddy"

Player not working? Listen to the recording at Radio NZ (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Once safely back in New Zealand, J.J. continued to work for the army in Gore. He also picked up his music teaching career and continuing to compose music. By the 1930s, his writing began to take centre-stage as he began to publish his own compositions, often collaborating with local poets and lyricists (including Janet Frame’s mother Lottie, according to Michael King’s Wrestling with the Angel). One such song, a collaboration with Mr T.V.M Bevan entitled Australian Blues, won first prize in an Australian song-writing award.

By the time World War II begun James was living in Christchurch and was a prolific songwriter, particularly of fervently patriotic numbers including There will always be a British Empire!, Stand up for America, The Allies mighty three, and The New Zealand Lads are Marching to name but a few. Near the end of the war, James also launched the short-lived N.Z Writers and Composers Magazine .

Cover of 'The New Zealand lads are marching', showing Winston Churchill, lines of marching New Zealand soldiers, and a towering Māori figure.Cover of Jessie Pearse and Jim Stroud's "The New Zealand lads are marching", ca 1940. Record page.

David Alexander Kenny

Born in 1881 in Lyttelton, David Kenny began his military career early, spending four years as a cadet with St Patrick’s College in Wellington. After graduation he stayed connected with the military by serving as a volunteer territorial. In 1911 he was officially appointed 2nd lieutenant with the 5th regiment of the Wellington mounted rifles, and 1st lieutenant shortly thereafter.

Portrait of David Kenny in uniform.Capt. David Alexander Kenny in The Samoa (N.Z.) Expeditionary Force 1914–1915, via NZETC.

Meanwhile, David built a reputation around the capital city as a notable musician. As well as teaching music, he was a prominent member of the Wellington Savage Club, leading advocate and promoter of amateur theatrical productions, and the organist with the Wellington Professional Orchestra. His musical talents also saw him accompany a number of local singers and performers.

Shortly after at the outbreak of WWI, NZ forces captured German (now Western) Samoa. Lieutenant David Kenny was amongst the first deployment of troops, and he remained there for several months overseeing the transfer of prisoners to Fiji.

That same year Kenny published his setting of Sir George Alexander Troup’s New Zealand: the land 'neath the Southern Cross.

Cover of score for 'New Zealand: the land 'neath the Southern Cross', showing an idyllic New Zealand landscape.Cover of G.A. Troup and D.A. Kenny's "New Zealand: the land 'neath the Southern Cross", ca 1915. Record page.

In April 1916 David was called up again, this time bound for the New Zealand camp in Egypt en route to France. By the first week of July, David was on the battlefield on the Western Front.

Early 1917 saw the formation of the New Zealand Divisional Pierrots (or as they were known to the troops, the Digger Pierrots). Thanks to his musical talents and extensive experience in amateur theatre prior to the war, Lieutenant Kenny was seconded from battle to take charge of the company. Such was the success of the Digger Pierrots that not only did they entertain the troops in France for the remainder of the war, they continued to tour Europe and America for two years following the war, and remained active until 1928.

Group portrait of the Kiwi entertainment orchestra with David Alexander Kenny in a pierrot costume.The Digger Pierotts in 1917, with David Kenny front centre. Ref: 1/2-012912-G.

No doubt the leadership and talents of Lieutenant David Kenny (who was promoted to Captain at the end of 1917) was integral to the success of the Digger Pierrots. Sadly, Kenny was only to share in a small part of it. On April 3rd 1918 he was sent to the New Zealand War Contingent Hospital at Walton-on-Thames with an acute case of appendicitis. He died three days later, and was buried at nearby Brookwood Cemetery. Such was Kenny’s standing that he received special mention in Douglas Haig’s war dispatch on April 7th.

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.

By Matt Steindl

Matt is the Turnbull's Music Research Librarian.

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Chrissy Garlick June 23rd at 9:48PM

What an immensely informative and interesting article .

kim mackay June 24th at 12:19PM

Wonderful article. Very interesting reading.

Michael Brown June 24th at 4:25PM

Thanks Matt for these intriguing biographical cameos.

I knew that James Stroud had patented some kind of early photocopier but hadn't heard of the clothes-peg or "self-regulating girdle" before!

Regarding Willie Manson, it's sadly ironic that he wrote those settings for Houseman's 'Shropshire Lad'. This collection of poems, first published in 1896, apparently became very popular during World War I, partly due to its melancholy reflections on the tragic deaths of young men.

Looking forward to the next installments.

Ainslie Pyne (nee Brown) grand daughter of JJ Stroud. June 28th at 1:12AM

You may be also interested in the earlier history of JJ Stroud. He left NZ while in his early teens, spent some time in Britain (no information of where he lived or if he studied music there) then enlisted in the British India Army. he was appointed Leader of the Viceroy's Band (and Orchestra) in India as well as serving with the Army as a soldier.
He met and married a young lass from Stockport, Manchester who was working in India as a Lady's Companion. They married in Bombay early 1908 (from memory) in Bombay, When his contract with the BI Army was completed the couple sailed off to NZ to begin their life in NZ. James enlisted to join the NZ Army for WW1 - was seriously wounded and shipped off to England. When he was well enough to travel he was shipped back to NZ where he was retained by the NZ Army to write patriotic music for the troops. My mother told us stories of the chamber orchestra James set up in Gore, One of the orchestra members was the local Police Sgt. and the orchestra used to practice in one of the station rooms - anyone prisoners held overnight in the cells were 'serenaded' by the orchestra rehearsals. JJ Stroud came to live with our family in Tasmania after my grandmother's death and he died in the Hobart Hospital, he is buried in the Hobart cemetery. regards, Ainslie Pyne .. eldest of three granddaughters.

Chris July 5th at 7:46PM

Thanks for this Matt, a very interesting read. I look forward to reading more in the series.

Ada Abbott December 19th at 8:53PM

I was fascinated with the article about Jesse Stroud I think he was my late husbands Uncle. He Clifford Abbott was a Composer in N.Z. And James Galway the famous flautist premiered his first Flute Concerto in the Sydney opera House. He died in 1994. His granddaughter writes music and will be going to the Sydney Conservatorian,His Mother was a Stroud