The LSO in World War I

In August 1914 the face of the nation was changed as a generation of young men went off to fight in World War I.

No family was unaffected and no profession was exempt from losing vast swathes of men to military service, and the London Symphony Orchestra was no exception. In 1914 the LSO had just reached its 10th birthday. Financially strong and freely acknowledged to already be among the finest in the world, the Board minutes of the AGM of July 1914 show that the Orchestra was rightly proud of its achievements in the first decade.

Sydney Moxon in France, 1916At first the outbreak of war looked bleak for London’s cultural scene. The first difficulties were the cancellation of numerous conductors and artists who suddenly found it impossible to travel; and personnel troubles in the shape of early enlistments in the forces by two of its trumpeters, Sydney Moxon and Ernest Hall, and a letter from the wife of violinist William Boxall, explaining that he had been in Hungary at the outbreak of war and would be remaining there until the end of the conflict. Nevertheless the LSO boldly declared that it would continue playing concerts, and the Board minutes commended the “patriotic action” of Sydney and Ernest, passing a resolution that “Members who have joined the army for the duration of the War shall be exempt from paying deputies’ fees and their positions kept open.” They would later regret this decision when violinist Robert Carrodus was spotted playing at the Savoy Theatre every night in October 1916 whilst claiming exception from deputies’ fees because he was in military uniform!

In 1916 things were getting increasingly difficult for the LSO. A new threat in the shape of Zeppelins dropping bombs from the air meant audiences were increasingly cautious about venturing out during the evenings, and gloomy news from the Front of vast numbers of casualties had perhaps dampened the appetite for entertainment. An Extraordinary General Meeting was convened on 25 February 1916 to discuss the motion “Owing to the losses sustained by the company … this meeting is of the opinion that the own-promoted series of Symphony Concerts should be curtailed and the Company’s expenses reduced accordingly”. On that occasion the Board was able to put off the decision to suspend operations as the Chairman revealed that the same morning he had spoken with Sir Thomas Beecham, who had agreed to accept financial responsibility for the remaining concerts that season. He had also presented the Orchestra with £100 – a considerable sum – as a late Christmas gift. In addition, conscription was introduced at the start of 1916, meaning that every man aged 18–45 was obliged to join up. Minutes of the AGM in July 1917 show that 33 members were away on active service, around a third of the total membership. Replacements were difficult to come by, so female players started making more appearances in what had been until then mostly a male-orientated profession.

Pall-Mall-Gazette against German composersThe War was also having an effect on the artistic content of concerts. The overwhelming presence of German music in the Orchestra’s annual “Three Bs” festival, featuring the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, did not go unnoticed. In September 1916 the Pall Mall Gazette launched an attack on the LSO for promoting nothing less than a “German Festival”, which led to the replacing of Brahms’ Second Symphony with the thoroughly British Granville Bantock’s Hebridean Symphony. One observer was moved to quip that the Orchestra had only managed to further the cause of German music! Other composers who made appearances in patriotic programming were Austin, Bax, Delius, Elgar, Grainger, Harty, Holbrooke, McEwen, O’Neill, Pitt, Scott, Ethel Smyth, Stanford, Wallace and Vaughan Williams – some of whom had more staying power than others.

And it was not just in the press that anti-enemy feeling reared its head. One of the Orchestra’s founding members, horn player Adolf Borsdorf, was born in Germany but had been living in Britain for more than 30 years at the time of the outbreak of war, and had married a British wife. It was sadly not enough for the Orchestra’s members. Three days after war was declared, a joint letter from the membership was sent to the Board complaining that they were uncomfortable having a German in their ranks. Initially the Board dealt with the complaint by first demoting Borsdorf and later suspending him from playing duties, using his earlier problems with the gum disease Pyorrhoea as their reason. But in the summer and autumn of 1915 the members and the Board stepped up the campaign to get rid of Borsdorf, repeatedly requesting his resignation and sending him letters reminding him of the rules surrounding the forfeiture of shares. At the end of October that year he was categorically told that he would not be allowed to play again until the end of the war, and in the November he finally sent his resignation letter. Bordorf never played professionally again, and his horn-playing sons were later to change their surname during the World War II period, presumably to avoid a similar fate.

By September 1917 the Orchestra’s finances had become so difficult that an Extraordinary General Meeting was held at which the ominous words were spoken: “It was unanimously resolved that no further symphony concerts be given until the termination of the war.” Through the series of Sunday League Concerts at the Palladium, a commercial engagement, the LSO would continue to play in some small way during the remainder of the War, but it was not until 1920 that the Orchestra was able to regain a stable footing and continue their own-promoted series of concerts where they left off.

Minute book detailing members on active service

Miraculously only one LSO Member was killed in the atrocities: trumpeter Sydney Moxon, who died in 1916 near Ypres whilst bravely helping a wounded colleague to safety. Three other musicians who had played with the pre-war LSO also lost their lives – violinist Harold Grimson and horn player George Bennett, both during the Battle of Cambrai in December 1917, and flautist Eli Hudson, who had been both a soldier and a volunteer providing entertainment to injured troops in the trenches, in a military hospital soon after the end of the war. Others suffered injuries and illnesses, some career-changing, like French hornist Harry Jackson, who had been kicked in the face by a horse, and violinist Samuel Grimson (brother of Harold) whose physical and mental injuries meant he would never play again. Violinist Sidney Freedman spent time in a Prisoner of War camp in Bonn.

Other LSO Members provided essential services for the war, such as cellist Arthur Maney and violinist Charles Woodhouse who both served in the Motor Transport section of the Army Service Corps; and some used their civilian job to their advantage and joined the military bands, such as clarinettist Edward Augarde who performed with the band of the Honourable Artillery Company, and violinist David Roy Robertson who learned woodwind instruments in addition to his string playing skills and joined the band of the Scots Guards (they of red tunics and Busby hats). Most of the men returned to their jobs in the Orchestra after the War, as promised by the Board’s resolution in 1914 – some having distinguished careers, such as trumpeter Ernest Hall who was awarded an OBE in 1962 - but how they had suffered mentally as a result we will never know.

Read more about the Members of the London Symphony Orchestra who fought in World War I and about the story of an orchestra at war on the LSO blog series still unfolding using the links on the right, and on the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War digital memorial: