Marching as to War

On Tuesday evening, as part of the ongoing Festival of Remembrance at St Columb’s Cathedral, the Dean of Derry, the Very Rev Dr William Morton, in conjunction with the Hamilton Flute Band, staged a spectacular evening of music and history.

Wednesday, 19th November 2014, 6:00 am
The Hamilton Flute Band in concert on Tuesday at St Columb's Cathedral, under conductor Robert McGonigle, with narration by the Dean of Derry, Very Rev Dr Wm Morton. Photo: Jim Crawford

‘Marching as to War’ told the story of the Hamilton Flute Band during the First World War in music and in words. In the first part of this two-part feature, the Dean reflects on the importance of remembering the sacrifice made by the band members and it’s relevance to life today.


This ancient Church, in which worship has been offered to Almighty God since 1633, with its rich history, ecclesiastical and secular, is increasingly regarded, particularly since its recent conservation costing in the region of £4 million, as ‘home’ to an ever diversifying range of events: exhibitions, recitals (choral and instrumental), lectures, and even seminars – all, of course, in addition to the daily worship which is offered to Almighty God.

The Hamilton Flute Band in concert on Tuesday at St Columb's Cathedral, under conductor Robert McGonigle, with narration by the Dean of Derry, Very Rev Dr Wm Morton. Photo: Jim Crawford

This evening’s event, the story, in words and music, of the Hamilton Flute Band during the First World War, runs in parallel with the extensive exhibition on the Great War which was launched last Thursday and will run until the end of November. I am most grateful to Mr Ian Bartlett for his assistance, kindly offered through the pages of the book which he and Mr William Cairns produced for the Band’s 150th anniversary, ‘Marching through Time,’ with information on the Band and for his help with the relevant slides.

The slides show relevant aspects of the early life of the Band and will ‘run on a loop’ until the Act of Remembrance, when they will change to names of those who served, and fell, in the War. Mr Robert McGonigle, Secretary and former Chairman of the Band also rendered invaluable and tremendous support, in conjunction with his son, Ben, now Conductor of the Band, in advising on the musical items on this evening’s programme, and also in producing the programme.

The fact that this event in words and music is taking place here, in this ancient setting, is not insignificant, because, just as the Cathedral can justifiably claim a musical and choral tradition of prominence in the history of the city, so can the Hamilton Flute Band as one of the oldest bands in Ulster, having been formed in 1856, although there is one reference giving the date of its formation as 1851. Like a golden thread woven through the tapestry of the musical landscape of this wonderful City, the Band has stood, and valiantly continues to stand, for excellence in musical performance and interpretation over many succeeding generations. It is precisely for that, that we are all so grateful this evening.

The Band was originally known, incidentally, as the Primrose Flute Band and later the name was changed to the Queen Victoria Flute Band. The present name was adopted after 1865 in honour of Lord Claud John Hamilton, second son of James, first Duke of Abercorn. Lord Hamilton was elected as Member of Parliament for Londonderry in 1865 but was defeated in the 1868 election. He was an Aide-de-Camp to Queen Victoria and served as Honorary Colonel of the 5th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and in 1922 presented their King’s and Regimental Colour to St. Columb’s Cathedral where they still remain.

Hamilton Flute band and the Dean of Derry, Very Rev Dr Wm Morton.

His Grace, James, the 5th and present Duke of Abercorn, has given permission to the Band to use the Abercorn Coat of Arms on its stationery and concert tunics.

The subject this evening focuses on the history of the Hamilton Flute Band leading up to, during, and after, the First World War. In 1915 The Londonderry Sentinel carried a report with the headline: ‘The Hamilton Band and the War: A splendid record, sixty-three members in the ranks’. In that same report from The Londonderry Sentinel there followed a list of 63 names of members and former members of the band including some who had emigrated to Canada and Australia who were serving with the Colours. The report also mentioned four band members who had made the Supreme Sacrifice.

One hundred years later, it is, I suppose, difficult for us to comprehend that absolutely every member of the band joined up. We reflect, however, with the benefit of hindsight. We do well to remember that, as they joined up, trained, and headed off to England, and subsequently France, it was widely regarded that ‘this war’ would be over by Christmas, in a few months.

Before going to England for further training, the battalion trained at Finner Camp in Co. Donegal and later at Randalstown, County Antrim. The men from the Hamiltons formed the nucleus of the battalion’s band and members of other local bands joined them. The band played during route marches and at recruiting events in the towns and villages of County Londonderry. Their rendering of ‘The British Grenadiers’ was said to be especially stirring. The band still plays this and it was incorporated in a march ‘The 10th Inniskillings’ which became the official March Past of ‘The Derrys’.

Following completion of initial training in Ireland the battalion moved to England and subsequently to France where the men encountered the awful reality of trench warfare – an experience just beyond imagination. Only those who were there, who fought, and who survived, could quantify the sheer horror of the Great War.

The band took part in concerts behind the front line and these events uplifted the spirits of their comrades and provided a welcome distraction from the horrors they encountered when on duty in the trenches. Many leading universities have been researching the degree to which music can lift the spirits, especially in a war situation. What works for a regiment can be made to work on a national level, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the skill and persuasiveness of the manipulation. Even the horrors of modern warfare have proved easier to bear when their struggles are identified with and ennobled by great music. In 1942, on a nameless killing ground on the Russian Front, a diary was found in the pocket of a dead German soldier who had just returned from leave in Berlin. One of the last entries concerned a concert he had attended: ‘Last night I heard a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth and now I know what we are fighting for!’

The first major action that members of the 10th Battalion were involved in was the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916. Here men experienced the awful carnage which occurred on that day when some 58, 000 British soldiers were killed, wounded or declared missing. Bandsmen were usually allocated duties as stretcher-bearers, operating in the most dangerous of situations in attempting to bring in the wounded to field hospitals and to recover the dead and dying from the battlefield. ‘The Derrys’ casualties on that day were 428 killed, wounded or missing.

The Battalion saw further service at Messines in June 1917 and at Passchendaele in August to October of that year. In February 1918 the battalion was disbanded and the remaining men were transferred to 1st, 2nd, and 9th Inniskillings.

This is a convenient point at which to mention about the drums which the band used in the Great War. The bass drum and the four side drums were regularly used as tables on which the Holy Communion would have been celebrated by chaplains on the battlefield. After the war, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers presented the Hamilton Band with their regimental drums and their ‘home’ now is in the Chapter House of this Cathedral.

NEXT WEEK: The Hamiltons after the War and the Old Comrades Association.