Over the past four years, through the Flowers of War project, I have become used to bringing the lost composers of World War I back to life, albeit briefly, while their music is being played again. Leveraging their deaths to create something beautiful in the service of peace has been its own profound reward, and the emotional context, enriched by the tragic circumstances of their deaths, has been paid forward to the audiences in our concerts.
The enduring problem that faces anyone who spends time dealing with the Great War, is that all that death seems to have bought nothing that endured. The victors failed to negotiate a lasting peace. The Versailles conference destroyed the fledgling League of Nations, with our own prime minister Billy Hughes playing a major role as he blocked the Racial Equality Clause, because of concerns it would undermine the White Australia Policy. Then a generation later all those seeds of bitterness that had been sown, bore a terrible fruit in the form of World War II, an even more horrific conflict where civilians were revealed to be the true targets of modern warfare.
I have spent the last three years building a great requiem for those World War I dead – a Diggers' Requiem, co-commissioned by the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans' Affairs that will premiere in Amiens on April 23, 2018, using the combined forces of the Orchestre de Picardie and Germany's Jena Philharmonic along with Australian soloists, paid for by the Australia Council. Our central message is that because of the Allied counterattack to retake Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day eve in 1918, the German artillery was denied the high plateau from which it would have flattened the strategic railway yards at Amiens nearby. This act saved Amiens cathedral, France's tallest and most precious Gothic masterwork, from almost certain destruction.
Built between 1220 and 1270, it stands as a reminder that there was a lasting benefit for all those Australian deaths in the Somme. When one stands within it and witnesses the millions of tons that soar effortlessly towards the heavens, one feels ennobled. On one of the pillars hangs a panel acknowledging the Australian dead who helped to save it.
At the end of the Diggers' Requiem a great pealing of 62,000 bells will ring out, a bell stroke for each of our World War I dead, before the angel sings the final words in French, English and German, "we the dead, speak to you the living - make peace".
I cannot be sure if this requiem will create any real change in the world but it has provided me with a direct experience of something truly miraculous. In March, 2016, I made the first of many trips to try understand the scale of suffering that occurred in the Somme, so I could prepare this requiem. In a week I visited more than 100,000 graves, carefully noting in my diary the number of Australians, British, Canadians, New Zealanders, French and Germans who had died, and where. By the end of the week I had collapsed under the weight of that grief. On Good Friday, my French mother arrived to spend Easter with me and found me crying uncontrollably, in despair, unsure how as an artist, I could respond to the scale of the trauma. She suggested that we go find my great-uncle's grave. "A great-uncle buried in the Somme – that couldn't be possible," I responded, "how could I not know about that?"
On Easter Sunday we finally found him, in the Adelaide cemetery a few rows over from the grave of the Unknown Soldier, now buried under the dome of the Australian War Memorial. My great-uncle Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Grey Latham, DSO, Military Cross and bar, had led the 2nd Northampton Battalion in their head-on attack on the town of Villers-Bretonneux. He was killed instantly when a shell fell on his forward HQ.
After several years of detective work, the reason for his obscurity revealed itself. He had made the terrible error (at that time) to marry a divorced woman and raise her possibly illegitimate child as his own. An artist who worked in metal, his life in business had not been smooth and only when thrust into war was his greatness revealed. His wife, who clearly loved him, travelled through France just after the war to find him. Her photo of his grave, found in a set of slides by Bob Bridges, a complete stranger who somehow pieced together the story, shows his name on a wooden cross in the middle of the frame.
On April 24, the day after the Diggers' Requiem premiere, my family will gather around his grave on the anniversary of his death. I will meet relatives I had never known I had, and from his rediscovery on a northern springtime's Easter Sunday, new life will spring. To honour him when I direct the concert, I will wear the same plain green shirt and pants as he had worn a century before under his uniform.
I hope that the music we will make will somehow reach him and all those who fell, wherever they are now. And I hope that this requiem will move all who hear it, so they take increased devotion to actions, which cumulatively through time, may deliver for all a lasting peace.
The Diggers' Requiem will be performed in Amiens, France on April 23, and in Canberra on October 6, 2018. theflowersofwar.org