Lena Ashwell (1872 - 1957)

Open Air Concert Behind the Firing Line

Photograph from the Daily Mirror

Lena Ashwell was a British Actress, theatre manager and producer, who was active in organising entertainment for the troops at the front during WW1.

 

She was seen by many as a patriot and was the driving force behind 'The Three Arts Emergency Relief Fund' which began as a means of providing relief for entertainers who found themselves struggling for work due to the outbreak of war, and also enabled the development of the concert parties which travelled to hospitals and camps along the Western Front to entertain soldiers and raise morale. 

Lena was a fierce recruiter for the war effort with an unshakable belief in what 'our boys' were fighting for. In the Globe Newspaper printed on April 7th 1915, she is quoted as saying.

"I never felt so proud of being an Englishwoman and I have never longed so ardently to be an Englishman. Oh if I could make the laggards at home see, in their mind's eye, something of what I have seen! How quickly they would fly to the colours - the courage, the confidence, the cheerfulness; above all, the tremendous endurance in suffering. Never a moan do you hear in those great hospitals. I think Tommy would put his last effort into a smile. It is wonderful, wonderful!" - Lena Ashwell

The concert parties worked incredibly hard with one completing 39 concerts in 15 days in a series of hospitals and camps. Lena's personal letters written from the tours give us a real insight into her confidence and attitude to music as a salve, a healing force and vital part of the war effort and also of the conditions that the group were working in. She wrote in a letter from Boulange:

"...our party come in and sang very softly to the men as they were having their wounds dressed, and how great a difference it made to these poor suffering heroes. It could not have been easy for the singers to keep cheerful amid such a gruesome audience." - Lena Ashwell

This belief in the power of music for the war effort led, according to the Morning Post, on July 13th 1915, to Lena speaking at a 'patriotic meeting' where 'several well-known men interested in the recruiting and volunteer movement' had 'promised to be present'.

And furthermore it led to her asking the following question of the military in 1915...

"But why has the Army no bands out here? Some of the Terratorial formations brought their bands with them, but I do not think there are more than three or four all told, with our Army in the field.

 

Nearly all the Scottish regiments have their pipers and drums; the Canadian Highlanders have their pipers and so have some of the Indian regiments, noticeably the 40th Pathans. I oftern meet the Scottish regiments on the road, trudging gaily along to the skirl of the pipes, and pity the English and Irish regiments that have to march to the tunes they whistle and sing themselves." - Lena Ashwell

We know, due to our research into Frederick White, that the Army used their bandsmen as stretcher bearers and so this may be one reason that Army bands were otherwise occupied. It may also be an indicator that Fred White's clarinet had been left in London and therefore, misplaced whilst he was on active combat duty. 

As well as Lena's own words, amongst the reams of papers held by IWM London relating to Lena Ashwell's concert parties, are letters of thanks written to her, by and on behalf of the troops they entertained. As well as letters from other performers about their experiences at the Front. On February 19th 1915, Frederick Hudson wrote:

"We gave two concerts last night, at five and seven. I do wish you had been here to have seen the very evident, intense enjoyment of the men." - Frederick Hudson

Music was undoubtedly an important part of the war effort and played a vital part in soothing shattered pysches and boosting broken morale amongst soldiers, but in researching the papers of Lena Ashwell, one can't help but notice how she romanticises her experiences and the part she plays within the war effort.

 

Perhaps, like the romantic poets Brooke, Hodgson, Macrae and Hamilton Sorely, Leona Whitworth-Logue wrote about in 'Recent War Lyrics' (Grafton Press,1928), Ashwell didn't "...feel the need of a detailed close-up picture of horrible battlefields with all the appalling filth and cruelty." Perhaps like "these sensitive poets" Lena "feared for their (her) sanity and would not allow their minds to dwell on war-as-it-is."  Or perhaps we see her here, through her public persona, constrained by conventions of the time, by the press' desire for patriotism, conformity and under the veil of censorship. Amongst the newspaper clippings was this article where Lena relays some of her wartime memories and thoughts as to 'the power of music'. It ends with the words:

"I have come back filled with admiration for their endurance, and with a great desire to ensure that until the war ends they shall have the comfort, and inspiration, and happiness that beautiful music can bring to them."

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