logo Enthusiasms No 83
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

Alfred Williams and the Great War: Armistice Day Reflections

Alfred Williams, song collector amongst many personæ, lived all his life in his native South Marston near Swindon.
His dates (1877 – 1930) mean that a rolling centenary is in progress, including Armistice Day.

It is more than 4,000 miles as the crow flies from the valley of the most upper Thames to the northern districts of India, but a deal further by fetid, swarming troopship, which is how Gunner 661546 Williams, of His Majesty's Royal Garrison Artillery, made the journey in the autumn of 1917 as a wartime short service soldier of forty.  By the time the Armistice was announced the following year he had been stationed in the Imperial garrison town of Cawnpore (Kanpur) for three months, having previously passed through the artillery depot at Roorkee and the summer hill station of Ranikhet.

Importantly, Williams was no resentful Defence of the Realm Act conscript, pining for the securities of home.  Distinctly the reverse.  Having attested his willingness to serve under the Derby Scheme of late 1915, he found himself by the end of the war in a colonial posting nursing his qualified disappointment at being denied the chance to pulverise enemy trenches on the Western Front.  A self-confessed warrior manqué from youth, he had outwardly accepted his proletarian lot as farm boy turned industrial worker, toiling by day in Swindon railway works while continuing to live in the village of his birth.  Inwardly, the restless intellect strove for more.

As a skilled steamhammer operator, Williams commanded a comfortable wage and relished the challenge of collective manual toil as a counterweight to the strenuous exercise of the mind: he famously conjured spells during the factory years in which to teach himself a high reading knowledge of Latin and Greek, complementing wide acquaintance with English Literature.  This trinity of lowly country origins, urban-industrial labour and hard won book learning at length coalesced into the preoccupation which came to inform all his strivings: aspiration to authorship.  Between 1909 and 1913, Williams produced four volumes of poetry and three lengthy prose works: Life in a Railway Factory (written 1911, published 1915, dealing with his occupation in industry), A Wiltshire Village (1912, set in South Marston) and Villages of the White Horse (1913, rural life on the doorstep).  In this triumphant initial series of publications, Williams was essentially burning through subject matter he had already accumulated from experience.  He had one more country book in hand, entitled Round About the Upper Thames (written 1914, published 1922), but what could he draw on after that?

At this point events began to take a hand, in ways Williams was able in the immediate term to fashion to his own purposes, which were by then overwhelmingly authorial.  Firstly, in the opening weeks of 1914, he was driven from his job by two decades of inhaling the noxious fumes of a GWR stamping shop, prey to acute dyspepsia which would take many months to repair.  If this loss of employment was a blow from which he would not ultimately recover, it at least opened up a temporary space for the ferreting out and partial documenting of rural song on his patch which he had begun to identify during research for Round About the Upper Thames the previous year, thus filling a lull in his literary scheme.

So, just as advance units of the BEF were embarking for France, Williams mapped out an area fifty miles wide by twenty-five deep with its centre on Lechlade (Glos), then at the junction of four counties, and cycled forth to winkle out the remains of country singing with the compulsiveness he brought to all his endeavours.  Between the autumn of 1914 and the high summer of 1916 – exact dates are not recorded – he transcribed an estimated eight hundred song texts (he notoriously was unable to notate tunes), of which seven hundred and fifty are extant, from the mouths of more than two hundred villagers.  Over half of these texts were serialised in the Wilts & Gloucestershire Standard (Cirencester) during the collecting period, headed by a lengthy two-part introduction (2 and 9 October 1915) which contains the core of Williams's take on the subject.  A less elaborate conclusion to the serial published at the beginning of September 1916, in which he considers fieldwork to be not quite complete, coincided with formal summoning for military service.  In these ways, Williams's song collecting was conveniently framed within a two-year period by developments not of his determining.

In ending one phase, this second vicissitude created the promise of a broadening of experience to feed further compulsive scribbling (his term).  Williams finally went for a soldier on 3 November 1916, enduring basic training in Essex, brutal working-up in southern Ireland in the first half of 1917, then heel-kicking in Edinburgh and Hampshire before taking ship via the Cape for a Subcontinent deployment.  It was by this route that he came to be celebrating the end of the war in Cawnpore, far removed both from the verdant landscape of his native locale and from the scenes of carnage in Continental Europe.

What, during this unanticipated but eagerly embraced martial interlude, had become of the suspended programme of song gathering Williams had so vigorously pursued during the previous two years?  Whereas his training postings within the UK satisfied one of two preconditions of documenting everyday life, including music-making, as he had refined it (a shared tongue, mutatis mutandis) but not the other (leisure to track down), Indian conditions reversed the position: he was prevented from engaging with any subject matter specifically linguistic in character – the world beyond His Majesty's English – despite having the time on his hands to render the pencil as pertinent an implement as the fieldpiece.  (The perhaps more engaging question of a specifically musical divide – is Occidental music notation transferrable to the melodic idioms of the East – does not in his case arise.)

Thus by the time Williams returned home at the end of 1919, after an absence of just over three years, song collecting was starting to become a fading memory.  Moreover, the domestic position he came back to was unpropitious.  Added to the income question, which had merely been postponed by joining up, was an urgent need to arrange alternative accommodation.  For these pressing material reasons, if no other, he did not revisit the song project until Duckworth, publisher of his existing prose works, offered in the New Year of 1923 to bring out the volume of song texts deferred by the war.  Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, published that May, was essentially a hasty self-editing of the materials which had been printed in the Standard in 1915-16, and which, as time slipped away, had taken on a finite character.  Through the rest of the decade, on the strength of this book, Williams intermittently gave talks and published articles on the subject, but there is no indication he ever returned to collecting song texts in the field.

What this conspectus of Williams's activity from 1914 until his death in 1930 most evidently tells us is that the decisive effect of the Great War on his intervention in country song was his own military service, which created two quite distinct, and in the event asymmetrical, phases: the intensive fieldwork of 1914-16, and post-war rehashings in print.  What, more exactly, was the impact of the war on each of these periods?

There are, in the essay framing the Standard serial, only four passing references to the war, composed while it was in progress, three of which are deleted from the redacted form which stands as the introduction to the song book.  One bears on delayed publication: 'In time – not till after the war, probably – the songs, with the notes, will be published in book form.'  Another is purely anecdotal: 'I have several times been taken for a tramp, and also for a German spy.'  Of what use this marginal music was deemed to be to enemy intelligence remains unrevealed, but it makes for an entertaining morsel.  The third invokes the war to keep this little known subject in perspective.  The fourth mention contains the most explicit, though unexplained, connection to fieldwork: 'The eastern part of the field remains to be done [at October 1915].  If the war had not broken out it would have been completed by now.'  (Emphasis added.)  By 'eastern part' Williams intends the district around Uffington (then Berks, now Oxon), which he never in the event covered.

In practice, it is difficult to see how the war could have significantly impeded collecting on the ground, assuming movements to have been unrestricted and given that his quarry was not vigorous youth absent with the colours.  Many of the middle-aged musical villagers interviewed by Williams in their cottages were directly touched by events, such as Eli Dawes of Southrop (Glos) or Mrs Goodfield of Crudwell (Wilts), who each lost two sons on active service; but this did not affect his capacity to note the words of their songs.  He could surely ferret in the villages unimpeded by the guns barking in Picardy.

Of the post-war statements, the concise preface newly composed for Folk Songs of the Upper Thames and an article submitted for the first issue of Word-Lore magazine in 1926 are the most pertinent.  Williams adduces in both a combination of unspecified 'circumstances' of the wartime aftermath and the decease of his singers to vindicate his non-resumption of the subject.  It was perfectly true that the singing giants documented in 1914-16 – Henry 'Wassail' Harvey of Cricklade (1826-1915), Elijah Iles of Inglesham (1822-1917), David Sawyer of Stratton St Margaret (1832-1918), Charles Tanner of Bampton (1845-1922) – had gone, but a significant number of his lesser singers outlived Williams himself to form the musical Mohicans of a later time.

The impression conveyed in Williams's fragmentary remarks is of the war being invoked as an expedient to rationalise the vagaries of his engagement and an eventual fading of interest once the all-important title had been added to his tally of books.

More ambitious author than apostle of 'folk' music, Williams had set out on his military adventure not with the cadences of country song ringing in his ears but with an unfinished book in his metaphorical knapsack.  (The standard issue knapsack he would fill with manuscript made from newly encountered subjects.)  Whatever he intimates in the heat of pursuit, the real business left 'unfinished' was not fieldwork but the full publication finally achieved in 1923, by which time his unresting mind was being lured away by the complexities of Sanskrit.  Any disposition to revisit residual village music-makers of the most upper Thames had evaporated amid the searing plains and humid hill stations of northern India.

Andrew Bathe - 11 November 2018


Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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