Trench Brothers is an imaginative and inspiring project taking the incredible story of our Great War ethnic minority soldiers to London’s primary schools. It is a wonderful synthesis of music, theatre and puppetry engaging young people and challenging them to think about the events of a century ago.
Dr Andrew Murrison MP
HMDT Music's Trench Brothers brings the First World War to life for primary school children through the experiences and personal stories of the Indian army, British West Indies Regiment and black British soldiers, commemorating their contributions using puppetry, music, artefacts and cross-curricular learning, and culminating in performances of a new music theatre work.
Since 2014 Trench Brothers has commemorated the achievements and contributions made by ethnic minority soldiers during the First World War with an education programme for primary schools. Alongside the commission of a new music theatre work, the programme has delivered a wide range of events enabling students and their communities to develop a creative response to their stories and immortalise the deeds of these forgotten soldiers for their fellow students and wider audiences.
The project aims to show young people learning about the First World War how the war related to them and their own family heritage by enabling everyone to empathise with the service of ethnic minority soldiers, whose lives they discovered for themselves, thereby taking an ownership of their individual stories.
A wonderful experience – would do it again in a heartbeat. A very fulfilling and interesting project to be a part of. Teacher, Morningside Primary School
Trench Brothers has visited over 50 schools in London, Lancashire, Staffordshire and the South East since it was launched in 2014. Each participating school received an artefacts handling session (delivered by partners National Army Museum or Lancashire’s Heritage Learning Team), in which students tried on uniforms and handled a range of objects from weapons to letters, helmets shattered by shells, and magazines.
I loved all the new facts I learnt and I am hungry for more – I love learning from the past now! Student
Next was a visit from a costumed interpreter – an actor portraying a First World War soldier from the Indian Army bringing his physical and emotional experiences on the front line to life for the students.
It was very emotional and gave us a good experience of what happened in the war and what they went through - I now respect the soldiers who risked their lives to save our country. Student
Supporting these visits was the use of the Trench Brothers on-line Education Zone for teachers offering contextual background information to the First World War with an emphasis on ethnic minority Commonwealth forces, together with over 90 newly commissioned lesson plans, activities and downloads in every curricular subject.
We have been able to plan our whole curriculum around the project with the brilliant Education Zone being a valuable resource to support cross-curricular learning. Teacher, Colvestone School
Each school was given a specific soldier to research (aided by our on-line tool kit), after which every child characterised their soldier’s story by writing a letter home from their soldier.
The writing we got out of the children was phenomenal. Each child, at their own level was able to excel and produce work of a very high standard. They were keen to know more and many did their own research at home. They brought every experience from this whole project into their writing and were able to produce some amazing poems, diary entries and letters. Berger Primary School
After editing these letters into lyrics, students then set their letter to music in composition sessions with a range of professional composers working in different musical genres, many of which have been incorporated into tonight’s performance.
We loved seeing our letters transform into a song and work with a real composer. We learned how to make our song come to life using emotions and feelings. Student at Berger School
Students also worked with puppet workshop leaders from partners Little Angel Theatre (or in Lancashire, Horse and Bamboo), to build their own force of Trench Brothers: puppets in historical uniform who embody their soldiers’ spirit.
I learnt that you can create anything with a little imagination and some materials. Student
The project culminated in performances of the half hour specially commissioned music theatre work which, following research into unknown and known stories of West Indian and Indian troops, draws from their historical, cultural and musical influences. It was performed in each school by an artistic team together with all the participating students who sang the Letter Song they had helped compose, (making every performance unique), as well as other songs from the work, and formed the chorus of troops with their Trench Brother puppets.
It gave an understanding and grasp of the impact of war – a huge feeling of pride at being able to tell a story respectfully, giving the soldiers the recognition they deserve. Walker Primary
What an opportunity for our children! We have never done anything like this before at our school and I was astonished with the results. We loved learning our songs and taking part in a show with another year group. All the children were so proud of the part they've played and the feedback from parents has been amazing. One parent said 'Best thing I've ever seen.’ Teacher, Willow Lane
Following five successful terms of running the project across London, Trench Brothers was developed for a tour with ten schools in Lancashire alongside the creation of a new interactive exhibition which toured to the Lancaster Maritime Museum, The Flyde Gallery (Lytham) and Clitheroe Castle. The exhibition follows the stories of eight individual soldiers drawing visitors into their experiences with recordings of school’s Letter Songs and artwork offering a creative response to the complex subject matter through the eyes of children aged 9-11.
Hidden histories and new stories told poignantly. Brilliant
Very enlightening. Humbling.
This year it was seen by around 20,000 visitors at the National Memorial Arboretum which also hosted an outdoor performance of the small-scale work. The exhibition is currently being shown at Newhaven Fort supported by artwork as part of a final large-scale project in the South East with 7 schools. The exhibition includes findings from a new research project managed by local community interest company Strike a Light Heritage and Arts which explores the impact of the First World War locally through the Indian Military Hospitals in Brighton and the British West Indies Training Camp at Seaford.
Local impact has been an important focus of bringing the project to the South East. Alongside guided visits to Chattri Memorial and Seaford Cemetery, students from our seven participating schools in Brighton, Lewes, Newhaven and Seaford composed a Letter Song with local composer James Redwood, from Manta Singh who spent his last days in the Kitchener Hospital in Brighton having saved the life of his officer Captain Henderson. Singh and Henderson’s sons went on to serve together in the Second World War and the families are still friends today – an uplifting legacy amidst the pain and horrors of so much of the reality of the First World War.
Trench Brothers culminated in large performances of the extended music theatre work by composers Julian Joseph and Richard Taylor set to Tertia Sefton-Green’s libretto at Brighton Dome, home of one of the former Indian Military Hospitals. Bringing to life, soldiers’ hopes, fears, camaraderie, courage and valour, the fully staged production was performed by 250 children from local schools, jazz singer Cleveland Watkiss, opera singer Damian Thantrey and actor Richard Sumitro accompanied by a range of instrumental forces including a jazz band and sitar and tabla duo. Letter songs from the past 4 years were woven into the piece alongside the new one bringing together work from over 3000 children in a true spirit of collaboration and commemoration.
Julian Joseph and Richard Taylor’s music help to elevate the performance into something wonderful to experience – each character’s culture is reflected in their music and it is a joy to hear different genres and influences being woven together to reinforce the narrative’s themes of camaraderie... The highlight for me was a daring four-part chorus which saw the students conjure up the terrors of the trenches by having four of the songs overlap and crash into one another, throwing up a disturbing set of images... a truly incredible and moving performance that serves as a fitting tribute to the soldiers whose stories are too often left out of the narrative of the war.
Music Teacher Review
Find out more on the HMDT Music website.
Photos: Clive Barda