His stage was an orange box and there was a small piano they brought with them and he sang for about, oh, over an hour all his various songs. And the troops nearly blew the roofs of the buildings around about down with the noise they were making…

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

The men who served during the First World War didn’t spend their entire time fighting. They would often have to find ways to pass the long, tedious hours when nothing was happening. Clifford Lane of the Hertfordshire Regiment described one of the simplest soldier pastimes.

I often wonder how we got over boredom of it all. You just imagine – nobody can imagine – being stuck in a trench, 6 feet high, in the middle of winter, day after day with nothing to do at all, really, there was nothing you could do. Well I’m talking about a quiet period, when there was nothing much doing. Because there were periods when perhaps for days on end there’d be no shellfire at all you know. And you just didn’t know what to do, so you gambled. Brag, pontoon and nap – we used to enjoy that quite a bit. It was very much… there used to be five cards dealt out and the rest of the pack was put away and I don’t know…you didn’t use all the cards. I can’t remember exactly how it was played but it was a simple game. Nothing like bridge, nothing intellectual at all – nothing like bridge. We used to do quite a lot of that. Well, that’s all you could do really…

Despite being poorly paid, gambling was very popular amongst the men, as it was easy to arrange and needed little equipment. One of the most widely played games was Crown and Anchor, as explained by British private, Frederick Plimmer.

Gambling? Good lord! People were gambling night and day; all day long, gambling. Oh, that was a very profound recreation, that. I wasn’t much good at that, myself. Crown and Anchor was a game in which they have a sheet, divided into six squares. One square’s got a crown in it – known as the sergeant major – another one’s got an anchor on it, known as the mud hook. And the other four spaces are filled up by the hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds, you see. Then a fellow has a couple of dice; throws these dice and whatever comes up, he pays out accordingly, you see. He can beat you at…he’s 3-1 all the time – always wins. And we used to play a lot of house – Housey-Housey – which is known as Bingo now, a lot of that. There was a great deal of patter went on. I used to play Bingo with them, House, you know.

Reginald Ashley organised Crown and Anchor games while he served aboard submarines in 1917-18.

I ran the Crown and Anchor board when I was in the submarine service. And I had to pay a bloke five pounds a night to keep watch for… in case the master at arms or one of the naval police came down. We had this board with the dice and you used to change the dice every so often – loaded dice – you know, if you were losing too much. All a fiddle. ‘Cos you had dice loaded, you see, you knew what the loaded dice was coming, you had to change your dice quickly without anyone seeing them. I mean, if you were playing with sets of dice and the hearts kept coming up, you’d know that dice was loaded for hearts. And if they spotted it, they’d keep on backing the hearts, you see. So we had to switch them over and they’d keep picking the heart and the heart would never come up, because the other dice would be loaded to come up for a diamond or a club.

There were other cases of dishonesty. Walter Grover of the Sussex Regiment remembered one.

We were all playing cards at the bottom of the trench and there was quite a little pile of filthy old notes and odds and ends of French coins and that – quite a pile of it, as a matter of fact. And this chap came round, he was watching us playing cards and that. And all of a sudden we saw he’d got in his hand a Mills bomb and he was messing about with this bomb and letting the lever come up. And of course once the lever sprung away, that detonated the bomb and you’d got about five seconds before it went off. Well this chap was messing about with this lever and all of a sudden the lever flew off and of course we saw it go and we all scattered. Some went over the top, some went round the other way, the bay, but this chap, he didn’t. He scooped up the money and put it in his pocket and off he went. What he’d done, he’d already taken the detonator out of the bomb and of course we didn’t know that! And of course when he let the lever go, we thought the bomb was going off!

Men of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps playing cards on a dump of trench mortar ammunition (known to British troops as 'toffee apples') at Acheux, July 1916.
Four men of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps playing cards on a dump of trench mortar ammunition (known to British troops as 'toffee apples') at Acheux, July 1916. © IWM (Q 1375)

When out of the front line, there was a bit more freedom for the troops. British officer Ulick Burke recalled what his men would do during their rest periods.

In a place like Wieltje, when you’d finished your usual work in the morning – that’s drills and that sort of thing – we would get hold of the soccer and play soccer, sometimes with another unit; mostly between ourselves. Sometimes, if the ground was not waterlogged you’d have paper chase, but that wasn’t often in the winter. And when we were in Wieltje, the men used to go into a village – which was very well known by every British soldier who’d been in the sector – named Poperinghe. Now there, although it was badly battered, there were still some estaminets open where the troops could get beer and they could buy a few of the little luxuries they wanted. And there was a famous club there nicknamed Skindles after the one somewhere on the River Thames at Maidenhead, I think. It was where one used to go in and you could get an egg omelette or something like that.

Estaminets – small cafés run by civilians – were places where many soldiers spent their free time… and money. John Terrell served with the London Regiment on the Western Front.

We used to be allowed one pass into Poperinghe when we were at Ypres and, well, according to what the financial circumstances were you bought a meal of kind. Usually either a pork chop and chips or egg and chips and so on. And then, after that, we used to go into a shop and buy some of those cards, you know, the fancy cards the soldiers used to send home. Then we used to go into an estaminet and have a drink. But I, not liking beer, I used to buy, if it was… you only got the rough wine in an estaminet and it was a bit too rough for me, and I used to have either white wine and citron or red wine and grenadine. And that used to make it more like a port.

Although films and the cinema were still relatively new during the First World War, many people already enjoyed the escapism that they offered. Royal Engineer George Clayton couldn’t remember much about one film he saw when stationed behind the lines on the Western Front.

Well Pearl White was the star in it but I think it was a sort of a…well I don’t know that I can tell you much about what the film was about, it’s gone now. But she was a leading actress at that time, Pearl White was. I think it was an American film and Pearl White would be an American actress, film actress. Well, I suppose you got all kinds and you could please yourself whether you stopped in or you went out! But the King of Belgium was at one film show I was at. He was sitting in a box and we got tea and cake with the compliments of the King of Belgium. And it was something to get a piece of cake I may tell you, at that time!

Edwin Hiles was a schoolboy in east London during the First World War. He described his visits to the cinema.

The most famous music hall cinema I went to was the Britannia in Hoxton Street. In 1913 it was taken over by a film company – Gaumont – and they started showing films from that day. And I as a boy would go into that cinema, we used to line up in the street outside for… oh, a queue a quarter of a mile long – Saturday morning. And you would enter the back of the building and there on the floor would be a large tin bath and as you ran in, you threw your penny down and you ran upstairs into the gallery and you sat there – this was two hours before the start. You sat there and you’d eat the peanuts and then suddenly ‘Hooray!’ here comes the pianist – silent films. The pianist would come in and on the screen would come the characters of those days – Eddie Polo; Tom Mix is another one I remember seeing, he was a film star then in those days; William S. Hart; Rudolph Valentino, I remember him: he was a proper heartthrob, he was. And when that was over, you just came out and galloped all the way home.

Despite the privations, dangers and restrictions, wartime life in Britain could still be enjoyed. Factory worker Jane Cox was a fan of London’s social and entertainment scene.

Though during the war it was all fun to me, you didn’t realise the significance of it – it wasn’t until after the war that I realised the effects of the war. Because I mean, in those days London was a swinging place, it really was. People from the East End started going up the West End – before that they never went up the West End: there was quite a division between the rich people and the poor people. But we started to go up west, my sister and I, we used to go to shows. We spoke to – oh there was all sorts of different forces there all centred around the Strand and Trafalgar Square. You went round the square and they’d all be sitting round the fountains and it was interesting, we used to count up how many boys we’d speak to, and what different nationalities. And in the Strand there was a hut where the different forces could go for refreshment and entertainment. Some of the soldiers were so grateful that an English girl would speak to them and oh! I used to get on very, very well! I was taken out to cinemas and treated – the cinemas there, there was one place on the Strand and the girls used to come round with boxes of grapes and boxes of chocolates and the boys used to be only too pleased to spend their money..! I had a fabulous time – even though I was engaged.

Florence Thompson worked long hours at a munitions factory in Leeds. She remembered how she made the most of what leisure time she had.

We used to go to the cinema. And Queen’s Theatre, we used to like to go to Queen’s Theatre – that’s pulled down now. And of course, yes, we used to go to the cinema. And I tell you where we used to go to, Leeds varieties, city varieties at Leeds Empire and at Theatre Royal and Hippodrome, we used to like Hippodrome. It was all turns, you know, music hall – there were Florrie Forde, you know, and Vesta Tilley, Gwladys Stanley and Mona Vivian. I can remember a lot of old turns.

Music halls, variety shows and theatres were all popular forms of entertainment during the war. RFC pilot Frederick Powell’s officer found a way to bring a bit of show-business to the Western Front.

Our CO was this famous actor-airman, Robert Lorraine, and he found a hut: it was a Red Cross hut, which he saw and he’d noted that nobody seemed to own it. And all the officers went off in cars. We dismantled the hut and we brought it back to our own aerodrome and built it again. We had a wonderful theatre. It had a stage. It would hold about 250 and we used to do odd things like plays. We actually acted two unpublished plays of [George] Bernard Shaw’s and to our intense delight, who should arrive to stay with us as a VIP for a week but Bernard Shaw himself.

Many other famous names served during the war – including song-writer Ivor Novello, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and actor Maurice Chevalier. The composer Arthur Bliss was a member of William Taylor’s battalion, the 13th Royal Fusiliers.

I remember one of our company commanders was Captain Bliss, who afterwards became the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Arthur Bliss. And he always tried to find a billet where there was a piano and I can remember sitting down in his billet one day and listening to him playing. Unfortunately, a little later on he was hit and came home. So we lost a certain amount of enjoyment in listening to him playing!

British NCO Lendon Payne attended one of the many wartime concerts given by the music-hall singer, Harry Lauder.

The troops used to sing quite a lot especially in the trenches when nothing else was happening. They very often made up their own songs. But I’m afraid they couldn’t be repeated in public! I remember when Harry Lauder came along and his stage was an orange box and there was a small piano they brought with them and he sang for about, oh, over an hour all his various songs. And the troops nearly blew the roofs of the buildings around about down with the noise they were making. I remember that very well. Harry Lauder was only a little man but he had a fine voice and he was a very fine comedian and great humourist. The troops were absolute delighted at it.

Victor Lansdown of the Welch Regiment was wounded on the Somme in 1916. After arriving back in Britain for treatment, he went to see the singer Gracie Fields in a concert.

Any rate, when I got there, Sister Ann came to meet the ambulance and a lot of wounded were getting into a charabanc. And I said, ‘Where are they all going?’ And she said, ‘They’re going to a concert in Rochdale Town Hall,’ Gracie Fields was singing there. She said, ‘Would you like to go?’ I said, ‘Yes I would.’ But, when they took me in there, the silly so-and-so’s wouldn’t let me get out and sit in a seat – which I was quite capable of doing – and then I wouldn’t have been so obvious to people. But, no they would insist on getting a pair of trestles, sticking me in the alleyway down there with the place full of people and just me stuck there, it was awful, terrible! And especially when Gracie Fields, after her turn, came down a couple of steps and just a short distance to me and asked me where I was wounded and all that sort of thing. And young women up in the gods there were shouting, ‘Kiss him, kiss him!’ It was amazing, crazy – I felt terrible! She bent over me, actually, but I’m sure she didn’t kiss me. She asked me where I was wounded and all that sort of thing.

Throughout the war, concert parties were the main way to entertain the troops and keep up their morale when they were together out of the line. Walter Cook of the Royal Army Medical Corps outlined how he helped to start one up.

Captain Tindall had an idea. He said, ‘These troops want cheering up, you know, in the division – we’ll form a concert party.’ Well, I helped with the sewing – a little gang of us, we scrounged sheets and things; anything we could find from where the rest billets were, where places had been bombed, we found enough to dress them all. And they went round touring; they did it to the troops. Now, if you’ve seen 1,000 infantry men who’ve been at war in a great barn listening to a concert party of talented… The tenor singer and Scottish songs – because they were Scots you see – and a bass singer who would always bring the house down. And harmony of, I suppose, what would be considered now by young men sentimental songs. The troops, once they got something they really liked, they brought the house down. It was a wonder to me the roof didn’t go off! Now these were fighting soldiers who had a moment of laughter – and did they enjoy it.

The types of acts in the concerts varied, but singing usually featured. There might also be comedy sketches, jokes, dancing and poetry recitals. British private Walter Spencer described the concerts that he took part in.

Well there were about, I should think, about 30 of us who got together and we used to sing songs. You’d get together in an evening in any hall you could find, and you’d sing little songs. We sung in, you might call us a male voice choir – a military male voice choir. And we gave concerts frequently when the troops were out, because there was nowhere to go you see. You were out in no man’s land: there was only perhaps an army hut or something like that that you could assemble in to give concerts and it was for the benefit of the troops. There would be other acts. We’d usually have a comedian or two in the battalion who’d come up and say something very comical and they’d get quite a number of people who were quite talented, you know. You’d have a fellow who’d come out of the audience and sing a song on his own – a solo, you see. We could put about an hour, an hour and a half’s entertainment at a concert and they were always very popular

When it came to acting in the concerts, the lack of women meant that men took on any female roles – as Frederick Goodman explained.

We had the Bow Bells concert party which became very well known in the division. And we also had our own concert party and we had this chap, now he was a great chap, in finding all the different things that you wanted for a concert party. And including, of course, all the female attire that was necessary for the job. We had one chap who took the ladies part, the women’s part, you see. He was a wonderful fellow. Ethel Levey, for instance, he used to take the part of Ethel Levey. And he was astonishingly good at the thing.

While stationed in Mesopotamia, officer Joseph Napier’s men were initially taken in by the presence of ‘women’ in a visiting concert party.

The first one we had they came out and we… they came round by brigades to our division. And one evening they were all up on the stage and the brigade was all around them looking at them and enjoying it. And suddenly four women appeared on the stage, to the great excitement, you might say, of the troops who hadn’t seen a woman for quite a time, many of them. And it was rather sort of shattered in the end because, after dancing a while and throwing their legs about, they suddenly started talking and it turned out they were men dressed as women. So you can imagine what the troops felt about that one!

Concerts were an opportunity to highlight the wide range of talent among the troops. British private Reginald Johnson – himself a ventriloquist and conjurer – recounted his comrades’ skills.

When you’re not in action you’d be behind the line, oh a mile or two perhaps. And in that time there was time then to indulge in some sort of recreation of some kind. We had a sort of a small concert party arranged somehow. There were one or two people who had had experience in entertaining. Some were singers and some were dancers – there was one dancer I remember. We had one man who we were surprised when we saw him go on stage and start flinging his legs up in the air, like these ballet dancers do. It seemed funny to see a man doing that, but he was marvellous how he could dance and evidently he was a professional dancer.

Comedy sketches and jokes were welcomed by soldiers keen for some light relief from trench life, as Alexander Burnett of the Royal Scots Fusiliers found.

We use to have the RC padre with us, he was attached to our battalion. And he used to run a concert at night, you know, just all in the dark – everything was shaded, if you can understand. And he used to go up and tell jokes – he could tell jokes better than anybody. Then he’d get somebody who could sing and he was a good lad, he was a good fellow, no question about it. And that was how we spent the time then.

An open air performance in front of a large audience of troops by the "Bohemians" concert party of No. 14 Convalescent Depot at Trouville. The stage has been erected in the shell of a ruined building. 16 August 1918.
An open air performance in front of a large audience of troops by the "Bohemians" concert party at Trouville, 16 August 1918. © IWM (Q 11503)

Performing with the 12th Division’s ‘Ace of Spades’ Concert Party on the Western Front, professional actor Tommy Keele also managed to make the troops laugh – although not quite in the way he had intended…

By that time I was a good tap dancer and they said, ‘Well, before you go on and do your tap dance, why don’t you sing a song?’ And I said, ‘I haven’t got a voice to sing a song!’ And they said, ‘Well get a funny song and do it and nobody will notice if you’ve got a voice or if you haven’t got a voice.’ So I searched around and I found a song – it was supposed to be a sort of pantomime dame in real old women’s clothes – and the song was My husband’s left me again. And then I used to break into tap dance. But the first time I did it, I got about as far as ‘My husband’s left me again…’ and I dried up. And I could not remember one stinking word of that song. And I couldn’t remember how I started the dance, so i just did a lot of antics of some dance steps and some kicking about and when I came off, I got colossal applause – they thought I was the funniest thing ever. But I wasn’t! I was in desperation; i had to do something to fill in my five minute spot. But it was awful. But they liked it, so I kept on with that!

The British Army allowed some talented men to be released from active duty to join permanent British concert parties. Joseph Yarwood was a member of one – but after a while he found that he wanted to return to the front line.

Well this went on for some weeks or months and now, I was doing damn all. All I would do would be get up in the morning, go down to the hall for a rehearsal and then I was free for the evening and my pals were starting to go up the line – I didn’t like that. That didn’t strike me as right, especially as my pals were going. So I dropped a brick – it didn’t do me any good but I said, look, I asked to go back up to my unit. And of course in a way it was a reflection on them. I know they were doing good. But I didn’t like the idea of my pals going up to the dangers of the roughing of the trenches and so I asked to go back to the unit. They never forgave me for it! They never asked me to do another concert! You know, because there were occasions, after that, when we were no longer doing it professionally but we might do it on an odd occasion, you know. But I was – I blotted my copy book then. Can’t be helped!

Despite the levity that the concerts provided, those who attended them were still in a war zone – as Clifford Lane discovered.

I can remember a concert in some sort of hall or some sort of building – barn I suppose, where we were in rifle range, anyway. But we had this hill where the front line was in front of us so the Germans were firing over the hill, sort of thing. Then, coming from that concert to our where we were billeted – which was only in ruins really, in dugouts really – the Germans would every now and again fire bursts of machine-gun fire. Coming home from that concert, we had three men wounded coming back! We only had to come about 200 yards!

Even if the men serving in the front line were unable to attend concerts, music and singing could still provide some kind of entertainment for them. British private E Todd served on the Western Front.

There’d be times when you would sit around on the fire-step. The lads would sit and talk and sing. Coming towards evening they would get sentimental talking about their homes. We had one chap who was a very, very good singer and he used to indulge in his singing and lead us in the choruses and he was always inclined to get a bit sentimental. But we had to shut him up for obvious reasons, as we couldn’t stand too much of that. And then there was old Cornet Joe over in the in the German front line. He used to blow his cornet and play to us British songs and he would play his song and we would shout out, ‘Damn good, Jerry, give us another one, Joe’. We use to call him Cornet Joe and he would ask us what we wanted because the lines weren’t too far away and we would say, ‘Give us the Old Bull and Bush’. He would play that and we would sing it but of course the other Jerries couldn’t but he would play it and sometimes that session would last half an hour. We would have mouth organs of course and well, there was nothing else to do but talk, reminisce and sing.

Some were lucky enough to have records to listen to on a gramophone – although for NCO Leonard Gomm, the enjoyment of this was short-lived.

I wrote to the colonel of our regiment in England, pointing out that it was very dull there and would it be possible for him to send a gramophone out. And we were very delighted and perhaps surprised that eventually one arrived, with lots of good records – music, current ballads et cetera. And we had a lot of pleasure in playing these to the troops. But one night, the enemy made a foray into our lines and incidentally picked up our very much prized gramophone with all the records.

Many songs were made up by British soldiers, often based on well-known tunes with humorous, satirical or vulgar lyrics replacing the original ones. Andrew Bain remembered the words to one song composed by members of his division.

In the Highland Division was a very good concert party called the Turnip Tops. And the score and the ballads were all made up by members of the division. Some of our divisional staff was musically inclined. And I still have the score of that Turnip Tops. The tunes are still excellent, you know, and the wording, you see. It was all taking off various people, you see. We had one song there, The Highland Division they called it. It started…

‘When war was declared the chief of the Huns / Thought he’d march across France wi’ his men and his guns / But there was naithing to mind / When making provision / He didn’t attack the Highland Division / Men for the tweed up to old John o’ Groats / Brought up on porridge and haggis and oats / A wee man it was a mission / He didn’t attack the Highland Division’

Music: Troops in 1917 singing Pack Up Your Troubles

Soldiers also sang the popular tunes of the day, such as Keep the Home Fires Burningand Pack Up Your Troubles. Singing helped lift the men’s spirits – as Royal Fusilier Charles Quinnell explained.

I was supposed to have a good voice in those days and I used to sing Until. It used to go something like this:

No rose in all the world until you came/ No star until you smiled upon life’s sea/ No song in all the world until you spoke/ No hope until you gave your heart to me.

We used to have a sing song, but I’m afraid that when we were out of the line when the wine used to flow – in other words the beer – some of the songs were most profane which I don’t propose to sing at the moment. And after you’d had half a dozen beers, the world was quite a good place. So we had our happy moments as well as our solemn ones.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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