Faith at the Front: A chaplain's wartime diaries become a choral inspiration

William Charles Campling

Some people might have framed medals or heard old stories from their relatives about their time in the Great War, but few get to read the kind of extended diaries that Andrew Campling found when he looked in his grandfather's attic.

William Charles Campling was Chaplain to the Essex Regiment and the 11th Somerset Light Infantry of the British Forces from September to November 1918.

Andrew Campling, a composer with more than twenty years of experience and current musical director of the London Docklands Singers, set to work after some trepidation, crafting his grandfather's war diaries into a work of musical art.

The finished product will be performed at Southwark Cathedral, where William Campling was an honorary canon, later this year in celebration of the centenary of the First World War. Christian Today caught up with Andrew to find out more about the music and his grandfather's faith.

CT: How did this performance come about?

AC: It first began brewing in my mind when I found my grandfather's war diaries. He died in 1973 when I was 17-years-old so I knew him as a young person myself. It wasn't till after he died that these war diaries were found. My grandfather never talked of his war experiences, and his diaries were only found in his attic after he passed away. They were initially looked at by my uncle and then transcribed. My father mentioned them a long while ago, and I had other things I was doing, but eventually I looked at the diaries and when I did that, I concluded that they would make an excellent work to base a piece of music on.

So being a composer it was something I eventually came round to, not for a few years because I didn't feel up to the task, to be quite honest. It was only after composing seriously for fifteen to twenty years that I really approached the idea, with intentions to make it public.

CT: What particular aspects of the diaries themselves changed the style of the music you used?

AC: I've always been interested in writing music with links to the vernacular. Folk songs or hymns or work songs – music which has rich associations for many people. Writing this piece, I wanted to continue that and so I included the popular war song "It's a long way to Tipperary".

Following the prelude, it's the first song actually sung by the choir. I also used the hymn "Abide with me" which has strong associations with funerals and death, and I also actually used a German folk song. The diaries often mention the front, as my grandfather went up with the troops to what was called windy corner, which was very near to front.

The diaries actually say that "350 yards away there was a strong Bosch outpost", 'Bosch' being a slang term for the Germans. At that point, I went to look for lots of German folk songs because these people were at times sitting just that close, 350 yards from the British troops.

CT: How did it come to be that it would be performed at Southwark Cathedral?

AC: Well, it was performed first three years ago at St Paul's Church in Covent Garden, a wonderful venue my choir uses quite regularly. It was especially poignant that the first words we quote from the diary of my grandfather were "September 3rd 1918, Left England, Charing Cross, 12:25" less than a mile away from where we're actually singing this piece, which made it very personal.

Southwark Cathedral is a location I have performed with my choir several times before, and my grandfather was an honorary cannon of Southwark Cathedral, so that has further associations that are quite rich in themselves.

CT: What do you remember of your grandfather's Christian faith?  How has that impacted you?

AC: He was a very impressive man in that he was 6ft 6" and had quite a commanding presence. He was also very gentle. As his grandchildren growing up, we always looked forward to visiting him. We were very aware that he was a clergyman and I just remember him as a very inspirational, very spiritual man.

We occasionally saw him just standing and looking out of the window. We sensed that he was deep in prayer, but having looked at these diaries, and in completing this work, I wonder if he was in fact haunted by some of these memories that he experienced as a young man.

He dealt with humanity at its best, and at its most difficult. I would say he was an inspiring figure to the whole family, particularly to my father and uncle who are both priests. He was an inspiration as a person and as a Christian.

CT: How does he express his faith in the diaries?

AC: His Christian beliefs come through very, very strongly. He mentions the thoughts he had towards the men, both the officers and the rank and file. He talks about setting up an evensong, giving opportunities for the men to take confession, and men talking about wanting to go forward for ordination.

These were all very big parts of the diary, and one does get the very real sense reading these that it is a chaplain writing a diary. He is there to be a representative of the Christian faith, and to help people with their own trials of faith in their own, almost impossible circumstances really.

CT: When you're looking at trying to create a piece of music out of this, how do you think Christianity inspired the various aspects of your work?

AC: Well, I'm very much a Christian myself. At one stage I was really quite struggling to complete the work. As a composer you have some moments where things just flow along. But there was a moment where I had written quite a lot but I was struggling to work out a conclusion to the work I was happy with, both from a musical and a general artistic point of view.

Andrew Campling

I know I did pray about it, and I also got a lot of inspiration from a visit to the Sandham Memorial chapel in Hampshire, which was somewhere I went with two of my friends who suggested it to me. That chapel is a very inspiring, very spiritual place, and there are many pictures commissioned by Sir Stanley Spencer, who of course made the chapel famous. I found those very inspirational, because even amidst the horrors of war, they communicated something life affirming. You see pictures like ones of the soldiers eating strawberry jam sandwiches when they were away from the front in hospital wards. That experience helped me to get back on track with the work, and to be able to complete it.

It's a mixture of my faith and the two friends who suggested that I visited the chapel that enabled me to finish the work.

CT: Were there any particular Biblical passages that seemed to particularly matter to your grandfather or to yourself when writing this?

AC: Well, I chose to use Psalm 23, the Lord is my Shepherd, of course well known and beloved by Christians around the world. I chose to use it at the end of a period of narration from the diaries where my grandfather had actually saved the life of a soldier.

They were up near the front, and they found a bridge over a canal blown up, and they were wondering what to do when bullets whizzed past. They took cover and it became clear that one of them was wounded. My grandfather though managed to take care of the wounded man, at great risk to himself. In the diary it says "what a relief... I seemed to love the man".

It is after this section that I bring in Psalm 23 which of course has the lines 'yet even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil'.

Those words of scripture are very rich in association, for my grandfather, for me, and hopefully for the performers and listeners at the concert.

CT: Would you say that, after reading the diaries, your own faith was impacted?

AC: I think it has had an impact on me. Having composed the work, and having had it performed, along with the comments on it I've heard, it has affected me deeply. I feel much closer to my grandfather, which I suppose is not surprising if you spend so much time focusing on the words of another person.

I think overall I have been affected in a very positive and overall affirming way, despite the very serious and sombre nature of the subject matter.

As we all know, life in the trenches was hard for people on all sides. It's clear my grandfather's faith was rocked by the experience, but it was not destroyed, and that in itself is greatly affirming and that's helped me very much in my own faith.

CT: What was the single biggest challenge presented by trying to turn a work like your grandfather's diaries into a performance?

AC: I think, from a musical point of view, the biggest challenge was to write an ending to the work which I could be confident was right. I actually do end with some words by St Ambrose that are translated as 'extinguish flames of strife, destroy harmful passions, grant us bodily wellbeing and true peace in our hearts'.

I think that from a literary point of view, it somehow makes the piece more universal. There are so many parts of the world still experiencing war, we still as human beings don't always have peace in our hearts, but it is what we strive for. I wanted to universalise the ending of the work, and eventually I found some words that I was happy with. Hopefully the music somehow gives a sense of transcendence to the horrors mentioned earlier in the work. Whether I've succeeded is for others to decide.

CT: What came most easily to you and what was the most natural part of the piece to assemble?

AC: I think the wonderful thing is that as a composer, sometimes things just flow. Things just spring out of you and they seem right. I was lucky enough on several moments to get these 'eureka' moments, where ideas seemed exactly right. There are numerous occasions in the score where I think that, particularly the inclusion of 'It's a long way to Tipperary'.

It appears at the beginning as part of a very light hearted section of the piece, and it's then followed by a very different rendition of it later in the minor key, and that seemed absolutely right. Having sung it in a rather gung-ho manner early on, it almost turned into a lament the second time round.

Having been listening to it again, and looking forward to the early rehearsals, I think it's safe to say there is very little I want to change.

For further information about the concert at Southwark Cathedral on 7 November 2014, entitled 'et in terra pax', please consult: