The experiences of the pioneers of entertainment for troops
Troupes of entertainers visiting armed forces in areas of conflict are now a familiar concept, and the performers have become highly respected for their patriotism, courage and commitment to ‘the boys over there’. Most people now accept this as a normal and invaluable demonstration of support for the military, but this was not always so. Senior officers understood the value of ‘good morale’, but initially there was reluctance to acknowledge the important role that entertainment could play. The First World War was a huge catalyst for military support organisations; it brought about the active involvement of women as volunteers doing vital work in canteens, hospitals and other areas, against much opposition from the military establishment. When entertainment for the troops was first proposed it met the same obstinate rejection, but those who believed in the benefits it could offer were undaunted and pressed on in their belief ‘that the show must go on’. This book contains two accounts by female entertainers who took their principles to the front line and brought moments of light relief to thousands of men in times of darkness and horror. Lena Ashwell is credited as being the founder of the military entertainment initiative, and Ada Ward, another dauntless lady followed in her footsteps.
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There were in all nine Firing Line Parties, the first going up in January 1916 to the northern part of France and Belgium, to Bailleul, Poperinghe, Locre, etc.
There was a certain amount of excitement and interest in seeing a civilian. It is a curious thing that men would feel they were somehow in touch with civilisation again in just stroking a sleeve of a coat which was not khaki. They were deluged by requests to give concerts, as of course the troops were always changing, and what is one tiny little party of four men amongst the thousands who were in the front line?
When with the Second Army Corps on St. Valentine’s Day, 1916, there was so much to be done that they stayed a few days longer before going to the First Army.
It is impossible to convey in a letter what these concerts mean to the men. We are deluged with requests to give concerts, and they all want us to stay months instead of weeks. You see, the men are always changing. It is very fortunate that there is a large place here which holds about seven hundred men. We were very near a heavy bombardment the other day, which continued the whole day. It is astonishing how quickly one gets used to the sound of the guns. In between two concerts we walked up the hill and had a wonderful view of the line. The nearest we have been to the front line is a mile or a little over.
The nine parties at different times gave their entertainments to the different armies, but there never were more than two parties out at the same time, for we soon found that the conditions were impossible; most of those who were medically rejected, especially when the age-limit was raised and age was added to the disability of bad health, could not remain fit for work under the very trying conditions.
We had the car presented by Mr. Dennis Bailey from Nottingham, and bought two small pianos which were easy to transport. One was called “Little Peter,” of course because it could not grow up; and the other was nicknamed “Wee Donal” by the Scottish party. He had no pedals, so was supplied with a fearful contraption constructed with “a window pulley, two boot laces, a block of wood with a swivel, an armature supplied with a nice penny hook, and two gimlets with which to attach it to the floor. It had a Heath-Robinson appearance, and excited unseemly mirth.”
The concerts were often given in the open, punctuated by 9.2 guns, with one or two aeroplanes coming over the platform, which was two empty packing-cases of unequal height. Whilst the aeroplanes were being happily shelled, the party carried on. The big guns were firing directly over the concert, so the party were literally performing under fire.
Here is a description of a concert in June 1916:
It was a great experience. Our concert last night took place in a small glade in the open at the foot of an important hill, and the nearest trenches were about a mile from our performance. Our audience consisted of Yorkshire Tommies, who are daily in the actual firing line—a splendid set of lads in their new steel helmets. A lot of them were going on duty immediately after our show. The concert was going splendidly, and Charles Tree was singing, ‘O no, John! no, John! no, John!’ Precisely on the last note a 9.2, about one hundred yards behind us, spoke, and over our heads. Lord! What a crash! I am proud to say not one of us so much as blinked. It sent the Tommies into torrents of laughter and cheers.
I had the next turn, so opened up by saying that ‘they had missed the last performer, and I hoped they’d miss me.’ (More laughter.) My turn was punctuated by a 9.2 and a few of his gentlemen friends, lesser men but more noisy, as is usual, of a six-inch pattern, so I said in Liverpool style, ‘Oh, shut up! You’re spoiling the show,’ which brought down the house!
Then two aeroplanes came almost overhead, and the rest of my stunt was further punctuated with German shells bursting all round. But I stuck it, and got a huge encore, which came off in a torrent of shrieking shell-fire. It was absolutely ripping. I’ve never enjoyed anything so much.
On our homeward journey we called in at a camp where we were to give two concerts the same evening. When we arrived, a padre was holding a service, and was praying extempore. It was a beautiful prayer, and the kneeling soldiers in the dim light made a most touching scene. I can stand shell-fire, but this picture knocked my end in completely, and I had to retire to hide my emotion.
My school friend sent four of her sons over from Toronto, one of whom was killed. The third son, who was twice wounded, wrote in December 1916:
We had one of your concert parties last night, and, Lena dear, it was wonderful, such a treat as we seldom get out here. I wish you could have been there. It was held in the Y.M.C.A. Cinema Hall, which is in an old brewery, and which is used as a disrobing room for the divisional baths. It was bitterly cold, and the poor performers were absolutely blue in spite of an oil stove, which they hugged when they were not doing a ‘ stunt.’ This in no way interfered with the spirit of the party, and they certainly put their whole hearts into it. I wish you could have heard the way the coughs and sniffles died away when the tenor sang ‘Somewhere a Voice is Calling’ in his beautiful clear voice, and the violinist held them in the same way.
There is no doubt about it that music means more than can be realised, even to men who have never troubled about it before, when it comes under these circumstances as a beautiful thought from home. I am positive that every man that was in that hall—and there must have been five or six hundred of them—left feeling that life really was worth living and the war worth winning facts which we are sometimes apt to lose sight of amid all the rottenness and discomfort and fed-up-ness of life out here. It sums up to be more than the entertainment of the men for a couple of hours and the forgetting of weariness and discomforts, though this in itself makes it worth while. It acts as a tonic and uplift to us, which does not wear off in a hurry, and I am convinced that it was not only my own ‘bucked-up’ feeling which today made the men seem to be much more alive and happy than they were yesterday. I suppose you have heard all this before.
He was a company commander.
Another concert was given in a barn on the roadside. To reach it the artists, with “Little Peter,” travelled twenty-five miles on a transport waggon—not an ideal conveyance over rough roads, especially when “Little Peter” worked loose and went bumping about on his own. There was some difficulty in finding the barn, the night was so dark, and of course it is unhealthy to show lights so near the enemy line. The platform, however, was lighted by two acetylene lamps, and in the straw of the barn was crowded the audience—lines upon lines of faces looming out of the dim light, on the floor and up in the eaves. How they got there or what they were supported on, or how they were going to get down again, was a mystery to the performers; but the audience did not only consist of soldiers—there were also rats, and they were obviously musical rats, for they came out and ran along the beams, and seemed to enjoy the concert in a most whole-hearted way. The audience were entirely friendly to them. “They’re our little bed-fellows,” they exclaimed in chorus, when a fat but agile specimen started a star turn in a prominent position right in front of the platform.