Ralph Vaughan Williams

Our information pack about Ralph Vaughan Williams, including his life and works during World War One, is now available for public download.
To download the resource pack, click below:

Vaughan Williams Resource Pack

As a composer, teacher, writer and conductor, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a key figure in 20th century British music. By the outbreak of the First World War, he was receiving great critical acclaim and public recognition. Although aged 41, and therefore over military age, he nevertheless chose to enlist, initially joining the Special Constabulary in August of 1914. At the end of the year, he joined the 2/4th London Field Ambulance, part of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) Territorial Force. He served in France as a wagon orderly in 1916, and in Greece later that year and in 1917. The work involved back-breaking labour and dangerous night-time journeys through mud and rain. Towards the end of the war he trained as a gunner with the Royal Garrison Artillery, serving as a lieutenant on the Somme in 1918.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

During his war service, Vaughan Williams, with great enthusiasm, found time to gather groups of singers together to perform informal concerts, and after the armistice he was made Director of Music for the First Army of the British Expeditionary Force while the army was demobilised. He was finally demobilised in 1919.


Vaughan Williams was able to compose little during the war but in the immediate aftermath of the conflict he was at his most creative. He rarely referred to his wartime experiences, but he would have seen many harrowing sights which would have left deep psychological scars, and he lost friends killed or incapacitated. His most notable work influenced by the war is the Pastoral Symphony, completed in 1922. It is elegiac, tranquil and contemplative, and is a highly personal response to the horrors he witnessed, the title referring, not to England, but to the landscape of the trenches, where every night Vaughan Williams brought back wounded soldiers.


Sancta Civitas, an oratorio completed in 1925, explores humankind’s destructive nature, and the struggle between good and evil. It uses texts from the Book of Revelation, and the score is prefaced by a quotation from Plato on the immortality of the soul.


Photographs reproduced with the kind permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust.

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