Christmas Pantomimes – light in the dark

© IWM (Q 54736) Private Wilfred Steward Bramall 4619 as Dick’s mother and Private E. James as the cat while producing a pantomime for the troops in Salonika, 19 May 1917. They were both servicemen of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

If it was not the fear of being shot on the front it was the mind numbing boredom whilst on ‘rest’ behind the front lines; pantomimes offered much needed diversion for the men and women serving in the First World War. Soldiers of all classes and ranks would dress up and put on a show for the enjoyment of their fellow soldiers. To celebrate this festive season, in this guest blog Anna Hook examines how pantomimes brought light and laughter to the soldiers of the First World War in a time of darkness and danger.

 

  • From the West End to the Western Front.

At the start of the war approximately 800 professional actors had enlisted and joined the war effort, with countless more to follow after the introduction of conscription in 1916. They were joined by enthusiastic amateurs in putting together shows and concerts.

Pantomimes were so popular as a form of entertainment for the soldiers that one Royal Flying Corps pilot Frederick Powell, recollects how one of his officers, the actor and pilot Robert Loraine dismantled a Red Cross hut that appeared to be disused, and rebuilt it inside his aerodrome complete with a stage which was used to put on plays and shows for a capacity of 250.

 

 

  • ‘Female’ acts.

Naturally these pantomimes were lacking the actresses to fill the female rolls in these productions. However men were happy to perform for King and country as women – Joseph Napier told of how whilst in Mesopotamia his men were left a little stunned when they found out the ‘women’ they were watching perform were in fact men, as they had not seen a woman in some time. With this in mind it is clear to see by the picture below of  Edward Joseph Dillon (on the left) how the men could be fooled.

 

© IWM (Q 54731) Corporal Edward James Dillon 152 (dressed as “Alice”) and Private Frank Kenchington 126, both of the Royal Army Medical Corps, members of a concert party members of a concert party while producing a pantomime for the troops in Salonika, 19 May 1917. Private Kenchington was the author of the pantomime.

These men took these positions with pride and gave their all to entertain their fellow men at a time when happy times were few and far between.

 

  • Sound of music.

Pantomimes were not the only source of entertainment for soldiers, with no place to go soldiers would group together and sing.

in no man’s land soldiers would group together in a hut and give small concerts to fill the time

Private Walter Spencer explained how whilst out in no man’s land soldiers would group together in a hut and give small concerts to fill the time, all of this was done for the enjoyment of their fellow troops.

 

Captain Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss

Composer Arthur Bliss brought enjoyment to his fellow soldiers on the front, by playing piano for the troops after volunteering for service.

 

  • The show must go on.

Overall it is clear to see how despite the horrors surrounding these soldiers day after day, they still managed to find some light in the darkness by piecing together any materials and men they could find to put on a show for their fellow soldiers.

© IWM (Q 26328) The Allied Occupation of Austria, 1918-1919 ‘Sandbag the Sailor’ a pantomime performed by officers of the 2nd Battalion, Honourable Artillery Company in Imst, Austria, 31st December 1918. 

 

 

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