Larry Collins looks at the function of theatre entertainment during the First World War and its role as unofficial recruiter, propagandist, and fund-raiser.
The usual location for entertainments was at depots and rest camps in the rear, but there was always the YMCA canteen hut situated a short distance behind the front-line trenches. At one end of the hut stood the ubiquitous piano, which was intended as an aid to the singing of hymns at church services – but it was not always light airs or hymns for which it provided accompaniment!
The battalion canteen shows varied in quality. They included crude comedians as well as singers. They were often organised, wrote a reporter, by ‘some grey-haired old member of the permanent staff’ who had a walrus moustache and ‘probably sported ribbons of the Zulu campaign and the Boer War’. He had the unenviable task of acting as Master of Ceremonies at these boisterous and bawdy entertainments.
The division concert party
The division concert parties were altogether more sophisticated affairs. The divisional concert troupe drew men from different regiments and corps, and was judged to be of such importance that its provision became a statutory requirement in some base camps.
The staple diet of all concerts was the songs, especially those in which the troops had the opportunity to join in the chorus. The soldiers needed to laugh and sing as a release from the tensions of trench life and the stench of death. Edmund Blunden, referring to the well-known song Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty and describing the scene of collective emotional escape, wrote:
The barn roof ought to have floated away on the paeans and warbling that rose from us … we roared inanely, and when a creditable cardboard train was jerked across the stage and performers looking out of the windows sang their chorus ‘Birmingham, Leeds, or Manchester’, the forces of illusion could no further go.
The females in the audience, the nurses and VADs, because of the decorum expected of them, would pretend to be embarrassed by some of the crude allusions and references made by the comedians and singers.
There were times, however, when the collective rendering of a song could evoke an emotional poignancy that was deeply moving. At one reported concert, the pianist began to play and the men to sing The Long, Long Trail in a quiet and reflective mood. The first two lines of the chorus are:
There’s a long, long trail a-winding
Into the land of my dreams,
Where the nightingales are singing,
And the white moon beams …
The sentiments and the atmosphere could make even the most war-hardened nurse’s throat constrict: ‘it cut you to the heart’ wrote Dorothy Nicol, a VAD, in July 1917. This was during the Third Battle of Ypres, which lasted until the Allies took Passchendaele in November. Allied losses amounted to 240,000.
Most of the division concert parties mirrored the Pierrot troupes that performed in the music halls and at the end of the pier at seaside resorts. The standard dress of ruffles and skull cap was thus a common feature of military concert parties. Many of the troupes were run by ex-pros and it was they who, through their theatrical connections, obtained the requisite costumes and props.
The assembling of a cast was a constant problem, and it was difficult to maintain a permanent theatre company due to the movement of battalions and the ever-increasing casualty list. The losses were not always attributable to the enemy; on one occasion the concert party producer was relieved to hear that the baritone had been released from ‘clink’ in time to do the show.
At division level, auditions were held. Musicians, singers, and comedians were not too hard to find, although the quality varied. But the show stopper was always the female impersonator. So when a young Highland Light Infantry soldier, who had worked professionally as a female impersonator, turned up for audition, he immediately became part of the concert party.
A problem arose when his division had to move and the remaining division wanted to retain him, as he was the star of the show. The latter, in order to keep the impersonator, offered to exchange ‘her’ for ‘two radial machine-gun mountings’. The offer was rejected, so they kidnapped the performer. This caused considerable enmity between the two divisional commanders; a problem finally resolved when the army commander was invited to a show. It was pointed out to the high-ranking guests that the young Highlander was of more use entertaining the troops; they agreed and he was transferred.
Theatre productions followed the British tradition and at Christmas there were pantomimes. The panto, with its melodramatic characters, its heroes, and its victims provided the script-writers with ample opportunity to adapt the dialogue to fit the times. The seating capacity was usually around 400 and houses were always full. It was not unusual to have to turn people away because the ‘theatre’ was packed hours before ‘curtain up’.
The importance of recreation
Prior to 1918, all personnel involved in concert party production were fighting men. The proliferation of concert parties underlined the importance of theatre entertainment. There was a growing awareness by the authorities of the importance of recreation and the part it played in the convalescent process, both for the physically injured and the battle-weary serviceman. The obvious next step was to form a theatre company whose specific task was the entertainment of the fighting troops. In 1918, Leslie Henson – the musical comedy artist – was employed to form such a company.
In Lille in 1918, following the German evacuation, Leslie Henson and his concert party located the opera house and made it suitable for production. The show was attended by the British army commander and the mayor; prior to this, the local population vowed not to go to the theatre until enemy troops had been driven from the town.
The show was reminiscent of a masque with patriotic scenes. At the finale, the stage lights went up to reveal 100 children who began to sing the Marseillaise. ‘The audience stood in awed silence,’ recounted Henson. The final effect was the distant heralding of the Scottish pipes from three floors below the stage; as the pipe band got nearer and the music louder, the audience erupted. The performance heralded the coming armistice.
Works of Shakespeare were played, but not in their entirety. Attempts were made to cater for all tastes, but most entertainment reflected the contemporary culture of the music halls.
The forces’ newspaper, The Somme-Times, used the language and advertising style employed by the music halls. This was vividly illustrated on the front page of the July edition and is a good example of the soldiers’ ironic wit: FRITZ, in his new sketch: ‘I’VE HAD SOMME’.
By 1917, each division had at least one military theatre company. The concert parties filled a variety of functions. The inclusion of some sketches clearly gave the troops a platform on which their grievances about food, conditions, sergeants, and officers were aired; they provided a safety-valve for a shared and sympathetic grumble. The theatre could aid recovery, claimed the doctors, and it brought some colour into the lives of the troops and reminded them of home.
Larry J Collins is the author of Theatre at War, 1914-18, published by Jade Publishing, price £13.95.