'The man who stopped the war'

01 March 2019 by Claire Hunter

Ted McMahon

Ted McMahon in the Boulder City Brass Band in 1910. Photos: Courtesy Kerry Everett

When Sergeant Edward McMahon played The Rosary on his cornet in the foothills of Gallipoli in August 1915, everyone stopped to listen.

Ted, as he was known, was a bandmaster from the West Australian goldfields. He would often play for the troops and was asked to put together a small concert to boost morale ahead of the August offensive – the Allies’ final attempt to seize control of the peninsula.

“On arriving on Gallipoli we found conditions rather tough, and lacking of any amenities for the troops, so naturally it was left to ourselves to make our own way in providing a little relaxation between our spells of duty in the lines,” he wrote.  “I would sit in my dugout in Reserve Gully at night and play my trumpet to the boys with a handkerchief in the bell to drown the sound.”

While it was often said that Gallipoli was too bleak for music, the gully the troops were sheltering in created a natural amphitheatre for a varied program of songs, recitations, and even a magic show.

“General [John] Monash, then in command of the Fourth Brigade AIF, sent for me on the afternoon of August 3rd, and asked me to arrange a camp fire concert in Reserve Gully where all the troops –Indian, New Zealand and Australian – were to be assembled and move out at midnight to start the offensive,”  Ted wrote.

“The Turks were only a few yards away from our trenches on the hills above the Gully, and every round of applause from each item bought a vicious burst of machine-gun and rifle fire.”

Ted chose The Rosary by German composer Ethelbert Nevin which was one of his favourites. The popular tune had been published in German, French, Italian and English, and he knew that anyone who was musical would know it.

“Both our troops and the Turks carried on as usual during the concert with rifle and machine-gun fire,” he later wrote.  “[But] the spectacle of thousands of soldiers from all parts of the Empire – black, brown and white – lining the sides of the steep hills on both sides and in the gully, to the accompaniment of chattering messengers of death, was indelibly printed on my memory.”

Ted McMahon

Sergeant Edward McMahon was a bandmaster from the West Australian goldfields.

More than 100 years later, The Rosary has been recorded by the Australian War Memorial as part of the Music and the First World War project.

The project aims to showcase the Memorial’s rich collection of sheet music and concert programs, by cataloguing, digitising, and professionally recording 100 musical works from the archive.

Selected and researched by senior curator Theresa Cronk, the works include well-known songs relating to Australia’s wartime experience, as well as lesser-known music owned or written by the soldiers themselves.

These often rare pieces are being made available online for the first time with links to anecdotes about the works in soldiers’ diaries and letters as well as notes on concert programs and information about the composers and the men and women who performed them.

The works were recorded over a 12-month period by the Memorial’s Musical Artist in Residence, Christopher Latham, with pianist Alan Hicks and singers Christina Wilson, Andrew Goodwin, Rohan Thatcher, and David Hidden, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.

As the nephew of Hugh McMahon, a famous bandmaster in the West Australia goldfields known as “the Emperor of the cornet”, Ted knew all about the power of music.

"As I started to play, on this beautiful quiet night, when the sound of my trumpet would carry for a considerable distance, a real barrage of small arms fire broke out,” Ted wrote.

“During the second verse, only spasmodic shots could be heard, and as I started to play the final verse, all was still; not a sound could be heard ... only the strains of Ethelbert Nevin’s famous song …

“At the conclusion there was a tremendous outburst of applause from all listeners, including those in the trenches above us, and then everyone settled down to the grim business of war ...

"The charm of the music had cast a spell over all, and for a time the war was forgotten."

Ted McMahon

Ted McMahon went on to serve on the Western Front and continued to play music after the war.

Latham said Ted McMahon’s story was a remarkable one, showing how music played an important role during the war.

“Music was performed or sung by the soldiers, often in the most modest and humble circumstances,” Latham said.   

“It helped to heal the wounds that left no marks, and helped sustain the human spirit in the battlefield.

“It helped them come to terms with the war’s unresolvable contradictions – slaughter and heroism, kindness and savagery, beauty and barbarity – which lived side by side throughout the First World War.

“Those sad sentimental songs they sang helped them to express their grief and to remember what home felt like – what love felt like.

“It made them forget and cathartically release the terrors of the day.

“Whether they went to a concert party or were singing in the trenches, what matters is that it made them feel again.

“It provided an antidote to the traumas of the day and helped men to recover and to regain their sense of self.”

He tells the story of Driver George Cloughley, of New Zealand, who saw beauty amid the horror of war and took solace from the music he heard during the Gallipoli campaign.

“The nights were beautifully mild and warm and if we weren’t on duty we used to gather in little bunches and sing and yarn by the hour,” Cloughly later wrote.

“The Indians used to hold concerts on their own and make a most unearthly noise. The Turks concerts in their trenches were even worse, like our fellows they had their concerts in bomb-proof shelters.  [But] I used to like to sit on top of the hills behind us by myself. In the firing line one would hear occasional shots fired at imaginary targets and the muffled explosions of shells, and then you could hear someone singing I wonder if you miss me.”

Cloughly argued that soldiers were “peculiar in their selection”, singing either “songs which make you cry, or those that make one feel very much at home”.

Ted McMahon's cornet

Ted McMahon's cornet. He died in 1970 and the Goldfields Brass Band played at his funeral.

For Latham, and the soldiers on Gallipoli, Ted’s music had done just that, leaving a lasting impression.

Colonel James Lumsden McKinley spoke of the man he knew as the “Gallipoli Trumpeter” during an oral history interview for the Memorial in the 1970s.

“There was a trumpeter in one of the West Australian battalions ... stationed right at Quinn's Post,” McKinley said.

“Every night as the sun used to sink down, he used to play his trumpet.

“The firing on both sides came to a standstill when this happened, I suppose because he used to play [things like] Silent Night … and he’d let everybody around hear just as the sun went down.

“Of course, the Aussies never fired, neither did the Turks, and on one occasion I happened to be passing along the canal [trench] just as he was about to play and I thought, ‘I’ll have a look over and see what the Turks are doing.’

“Through a peephole in the side of the thing I noticed the Turks, when he finished, put their hands above the parapets clapping or else belting tins or something to show how much they appreciated our trumpeter playing Silent Night.”

Ted went on to serve on the Western Front and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his actions in France, but it was his music that had “soothed the breasts of war-hardened men”.

He later joked to family that he was “the man who stopped the war”, if only briefly.

Ted McMahon's cornet

Ted McMahon's cornet.

His rendition of The Rosary on Gallipoli had left a lasting impression on many, including Lieutenant A.J. “Gus” Harris, a bandmaster with the 14th Battalion.

“One evening the Australians held a concert in a natural amphitheatre on a sheltered slope behind their trenches,” Harris wrote.

“Songs, recitations and mouth organ solos were heard with a background accompaniment of scattered rifle shots and machine-gun burst.  

“[But] there was a dramatic change when Ted stood up and began to play … The Rosary

“In the still night air the sound of the instrument carried a great distance. On both sides the men with fingers on triggers heard and paused to listen.

“The firing faded away until the only sound to be heard was the clear, yearning music of Ted’s cornet.”

For more information about the Music and the First World War project, visit here.

Senior curator Theresa Cronk will present a free public talk highlighting some of the songs that were popular during First World War in the Research Centre Reading Room on 5 March 2019 at 12.30pm. For more details, visit here.