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The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918

Music in The Desert

Music in The Desert.

"You can do something with mud, but you cannot do anything with monotony." So remarked a Padre, who had spent a winter with the Australians on the Somme, and who, for health reasons, had been transferred to Egypt, where he was attached to a field hospital.

Work in a field hospital can be described by one word, "monotony"; and the conditions under which the work is done do not seem to alter the fact. Whether the hospital is in a building, with all its attendant advantages, or under canvas on the desert, with all its obvious disadvantages, matters little—the work is the same, a monotonous routine carried out seven days a week. It can be easily understood that music entering into this life is appreciated beyond measure.

That, in a comparatively small unit, an orchestra should have been maintained for over two years is an achievement of persistence and perseverance, but it is one that has been made by Sergt. F.W. Spargo. The history of the No. 2 Australian Stationary Hospital Orchestra is a chapter of difficulties and disappointments. When the hospital was at Tel-el-Kebir, in l9l6, one evening Sergt. (then Private) Spargo was playing the piano, and someone else brought to light a flute. Later on a violin made its appearance, and subsequently a cornet helped to swell the volume of the sing-songs for which the boys so often asked. Such was the humble beginning of an orchestra which has since delighted thousands of our soldiers, in hospitals and leave and rest camps. When the hospital was moved to Port Said, definite action was taken to form an orchestra. Talent was discovered in the ranks and the necessary instruments and music were secured through the generosity of the Australian Branch of the British Red Cross Society. During the last nine weeks of our stay at Port Said the orchestra participated in sixteen concerts, and it is estimated that over 5000 hospital patients, besides soldiers on leave, were entertained. The move from Port Said took us to a lonely place in the Sinai Desert. The daily visitation of a hospital train was about the limit of excitement, and it was here that the monotony of the work was greatly relieved by the music of the orchestra, which met two or three evenings a week. Members of many of the Australian homes represented would have appreciated the wholesome fun and pleasure which the music gave to both patients and staff. With the progress of the Desert campaign we were sent farther up the Line; but while at El Arish we had such a busy time that little or nothing was done in the way of music, though occasionally a few of the instruments would be brought out.

Time wrought changes. When the hospital moved back from El Arish only three of the original members remained; but when we had settled down in a Canal training camp, efforts were made to reinforce the ranks of the instrumentalists These efforts have been crowned with success, and, for the last year, although we are still surrounded by sand, the dreariness and monotony of the life have been greatly relieved. Rehearsing after the day's work is done, the orchestra has attained a creditable standard. It has assisted in many functions in the Camp and in the neighbouring town. Soldiers' concerts, mess dinners, Australian, British, French and Italian Red Cross Societies, clubs and Australian, British and French hospitals have alike benefited.