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Soon, All Too Soon: British Musicians Bring Life and Melody to Exhumed Body of Forgotten WWI German Soldier Ernst Brockmann

by Patricia Hammond


When British musicians Patricia Hammond and Matt Redman found and performed German sheet music written by a soldier killed in Verdun, they had no idea the song would also lead to the discovery of the composer's body, which had been buried in an unmarked grave in France's Meuse-Argonne region. 


Aug 29, 2017

Above: A short video describing how Patricia Hammond and Matt Redman found a melody in the grave of an unknown WW1 Soldier

CD CoverCD Cover for Songs of the Great WarDespite the fact that nobody seems to buy or own CDs anymore, I had to make a First World War recording. A hundred years rolls round only the once, and I specialize in singing Edwardian songs. So I collaborated with multi-instrumentalist, arranger and music historian Matt Redman, and made a seventeen-track recording in London, England. We chose many of the most well-known songs, but included all the original verses and only used the instruments of the time: Pack Up Your Troubles, Roses of Picardy, If You Were the Only Girl in the World, Over There…and Irving Berlin’s pacifist Stay Down Here Where You Belong from 1914. And also some that were well known in their day but more or less forgotten now: Somewhere In France, The Rose of No Man’s Land…and Canadian and French songs, and crucially, two songs from the German side.

It was a tremendous challenge to find any; there is no celebration of war in Germany, and the only music we had from German friends and colleagues were 1960s and 70s protest songs. Finally, I resorted to buying any reasonably-priced 1915 – 1919 German songbooks over the internet, hoping for the best.

I was rewarded on my third try with a whole chapter entitled “Weltkrieglieder” (World War Songs) in a book from 1917, ordered from an antiquariat in North Rhine Westphalia.

Through its yellowed pages I kept seeing a familiar symbol: a square black cross to denote the fallen. Some of the songs or texts were dedicated to comrades, and indeed the entire volume was in memory of the brother of the editor, who had died in October of 1915.

And a cross with a date marked the composer of the most beautiful song in the book.  

When I played the melody, I found that my chest swelled with the thrill of the gorgeousness of it, and my eyes with tears for its sadness. The words, by a man named Joseph Rust, were heart-rending, and the music, written by this composer, Ernst Brockmann, simple as a folk tune, yearning and melancholy. He had written the song in Verdun on the 20th of April, 1916, and died there on the 7th of June.

I showed it to Matt, who played it on his 1911 Gibson L4. Plucked, they sounded even more poignant. “I think I’ll arrange this using the instruments people would have had at the Front,” he said, making a note on his phone. “It looks like it was composed there, so...accordion, clarinet and guitar. Yeah.”

With each play-through, the song, Bald, allzubalde (Soon, all too soon) grew in strength, and we performed it at the Wigmore Hall, the Wellcome Collection, Manchester Central Library, the National Portrait Gallery, and National Trust Properties.

In front of Brockmans gravePatricia Hammond and Matt Redman in the Verdun battlefields. Photo courtesy of http://patriciahammond.com/2016/06/the-verdun-battlefields/

But we couldn’t rest until we knew where Ernst Brockmann was buried. Was he buried? Was he honoured? Could we perform the song at his grave? We sent a copy of our CD to the German War Graves Commission, the “VDK” (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge).

Musicians are used to sending CDs out and having no replies. But in a month’s time, we had a reply from Arne Schrader, Referatsleiter – head of division. He had been deeply moved, and had mobilised his researchers and field-workers. They’d found that Ernst Brockmann had been in the 39th Fusiliers. A grave in Verdun for “ein unbekannter Deutscher Soldat” (an unknown German soldier) was of the 39th Fusiliers and another record showed the initials “E.B.” The dates matched. Arne wrote to say that he had found some money to exhume the body for identification. We waited. After another month, I had an email from Arne which contained photo attachments.

They were chilling. The cemetery, in the Meuse-Argonne area, was on a slope, and the photograph showed four men with three shovels between them. Just as the song’s third verse has it “Weit wo das Tal hinab/ Graben drei Spaten” (Down in the valley, three spades are digging). When they brought him out they found that the composer of the music for Soon, All Too Soon, had been buried, not with a dog-tag, but a clock.

I had never seen the bones of a composer before.

Matt and I were granted our wish. We were invited to join some German scouts, some ex-service volunteers from Brockmann’s region – as it happens, near where I’d bought the book from in North Rhine Westphalia – to commemorate him and put his name on his cross. We sang Ernst Brockmann’s song over his grave, for the first time in a hundred years. 

Black German war gravesPhoto courtesy of The Great War Explained http://www.thegreatwarexplained.com/the-great-war-diary/1916/january-1916/

Author's bio

inretrospect patriciamatt mkeller 6Patricia Hammond is a singer and writer, born in Canada and living in England. She has performed in opera and oratorio in major European concert halls, and in recital in an increasingly eclectic range of venues. Her intimate knowledge of historic performance styles is sought after by museums and festivals around the world, and she recently was called upon by BBC Four TV to demonstrate an Edison "Tone Test," and the making of a wax cylinder. Patricia's CDs have been heard on BBC Radios 2, 3 and 4. She has written articles for the Telegraph Weekend magazine, the Lancet Psychiatry, and eclectic lifestyle magazine "The Chap". Patricia's "Songs of the Great War" CD, a collaboration with Edwardian performance scholar, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Matt Redman, has been commended by American Record Guide, Fanfare, the BBC and Dame Emma Kirkby. Please learn about her work on WWI at her site by clicking here. You can also follow her on Twitter. (Bio photo by Matthew Keller Design and Photography)




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