During the First World War, theatrical performances and other forms of entertainment became increasingly important for the war effort both at home and abroad. In Britain, patriotic plays encouraged support for the war and helped recruitment drives. Concert parties and revues provided temporary distraction and boosted morale.
The theatre also provided a means of raising funds and supplies for servicemen. Some of the money raised was used to buy theatrical equipment for soldiers at the front. Instruments, costumes and props helped soldiers stage their own performances on the fighting fronts. Although concert parties and theatrical troupes were found on all fighting fronts, it was in France and Belgium that they were most numerous.
Organised entertainment was often of high standard, partly because many of the divisional concert parties included professional actors and others with experience working in theatre. By December 1914, 800 professional actors had volunteered for military service, and many more entered the armed forces after conscription was introduced in 1916. Servicemen also enjoyed more amateur performances by individual performers such as comedians and ventriloquists.
These performances were one of the few forms of amusement or recreation available to soldiers. They reminded them of life before the war and of those dearest to them at home. They also helped maintain morale and provided temporary comfort amidst the often difficult and dangerous conditions of the front.
Theatre as escapism
Theatre was an important form of recreation for servicemen. Seeing a show or participating in one was an opportunity to escape the boredom that many soldiers experienced whilst on rest behind the front line. But theatrical performances also had a deeper impact. They gave men a semblance of normality even in the terrible conditions of trench warfare.
Performers created props from anything that came to hand, such as old sacks and canvas, as seen in this photograph of a Royal Flying Corp's' rehearsal of Cinderella. But amateur actors serving at the front often requested better quality props. In December 1917 their appeal was answered. The Musicians Gift Fund asked for money, music books and instruments to send to British troops on every fighting front. During the first six months of appeal £2,000 was raised and 2,500 sets of instruments were sent overseas.
Wanted: female impersonators
Female impersonators were hugely popular. Their presence was a rare asset in an army made up of men and officers appreciated the boost to morale that female impersonators gave to their men. This photograph shows members of 'The Maple Leaves', a Canadian concert party, rehearsing for a production of Cinderella. Female impersonation in the forces stemmed from a variety of theatrical traditions, including the 'panto dame', and their often bawdy sense of humour was part of their appeal. Men also performed female roles quite simply because there were few or no females to play the parts.
Theatrical performances were a vital source of recreation for prisoners of war and provided a welcome distraction from prison life. Allied theatrical troupes were formed in prison camps in Germany, including Cottbus, where plays performed by British prisoners included The School for Scandal and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Prisoners continued to perform after the war had ended. The two clowns in this photograph are German soldiers interned at a POW camp in France in 1919.
Theatrical troupes not only performed popular pre-war plays, but also developed their own material that related to the soldiers' experience of war. 'The Balmorals', pictured here, performed a satirical sketch entitled A Peep into the Future to an audience including the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Douglas Haig. The sketch depicted a British soldier using a bayonet periscope as a German soldier looked into the mirror of the periscope to shave.
Soldiers first, actors second
In this photograph, the entertainment troupe 'The Jocks' is seen among the ruins of Blangy in October 1917. Before 1918, members of theatrical groups were still expected to fulfil their duties as soldiers. Their role as entertainers was secondary to their role as fighting men and, given the high casualty rates on the Western Front, sustaining theatrical troupe numbers proved difficult.
'The Gaieties' - the 1918 tour
By 1918, the importance of organised entertainment was generally recognised by military authorities. General Hubert Gough, Commander of the Fifth Army, charged professional entertainer Leslie Henson with forming a theatre company in France, the sole task of which was to perform for troops. Henson's troupe, which was called 'The Gaieties', consisted of both professional and amateur performers and, unlike most divisional concert parties, toured across the Western Front. Henson is pictured here with other members of the troupe during a post-war performance in December 1918.
Douglas the Dummy
Individual performers were also popular with soldiers. In March 1917 Sergeant Arthur Harden arrived in France with the 59th Divisional Ammunition Column. He performed a ventriloquist act with his dummy, named Douglas. When Harden's commanding officer, Colonel K C Brazier-Creagh, noticed the positive effect the act had on morale, he put him on clerical duties out of the front line. He even discouraged Harden from pursuing an officer's commission.