Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

The composer and folk song collector Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was born in Gloucestershire but grew up at Leith Hill Place, Coldharbour, the home of his grandmother. Before the war his sister Margaret had founded the Leith Hill Musical Competitions and he was involved in both judging and conducting.

Over 40 when the war began, Vaughan Williams enlisted with the special constabulary and then with the Royal Army Medical Corps as a wagon orderly. In 1915 his unit was billeted in Dorking for three months.

Vaughan Williams was ungainly in khaki, had flat feet, and was unsuited to the regimentation of army life. On one occasion he played the popular song ‘Make your Mind up Maggie MacKenzie’ on the organ as the men took their seats for church parade at St Martin’s. On another he agreed to play for a volunteer choir from his unit. Choir and organist were marched to St Martin’s under command of an officer. Once there Vaughan Williams forgot that he was in the army and assumed command over officers, sergeants and men alike.

Later Vaughan Williams formed a band with instruments bought from the profits of the canteen. But he did not take part in concert parties, which would have seen him excused of other duties, saying that they were doing well enough without him.

Vaughan Williams went on to serve as a stretcher bearer in France and Salonika. In December 1917 he was commissioned as a second Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. Exposure to gunfire began the hearing loss that lead to deafness in old age. In 1918 he was appointed Director of Music, First Army.

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