Mirth and Mud
The Chronicle of the first organized Canadian Concert Party to Tour the Trenches during the Great War
J. W. MCLAREN
IN THE schoolbooks of to-day it is recorded that in 1914 men gathered from all parts of the world into the fields of Belgium and France and started throwing lead pellets at each other.
It is evident from the great numbers who attended that this pastime was regarded as good entertainment: in fact some genius went so far as to call France and Flanders “Theatres of War.”
And so to those stout lads who from 1914 to 1918, or any part time thereof, did
volunteer to become a target or
learn to know his left foot from his right or
withstand the ravages of English weather or
solve the mystery of the Webb equipment or
sing “Tipperary” during disembarkation at Le Havre or
drink French coffee or
shout “00 La La” at every French mademoiselle or eat “Mulligan” for 208 consecutive weeks or carry for the first four months the souvenir piece of shrapnel which nearly killed you or speak unkindly to a poor dumb mule or carry water in leaky cans or
wrestle with “A” frames down miles of narrow trenches or
get binged on Vin Blanc or smoke the army cigarette issue or talk back to a sergeant-major or
lure rats with a piece of cheese on the end of a bayonet and then assassinate the intruders or eat pommes de terre et des oeufs in estaminets or refuse his issue of rum or refuse to go on leave or eat “Plum and Apple” and enjoy it or play crown and anchor and win or pray for a cushy Blighty or
get left in some saphead by some saphead of a relief party or make toast with a bayonet or cut the buttons off a Fritzie prisoner’s pants for souvenirs or
blow fish out of Zillebeck Lake with Mills bombs or fancy that every German plane was directly over you or say “Hoot Mon” when a Chinese labor battalion passed or
think that a piece of corrugated tin was bomb proof or
sing “Mademoiselle from Armentière’s” or
grouse morning noon and night or
go broke the second day on leave or
get all the soap off at the bath house or
answer the note in the toe of a sock or
eat Bully Beef and hard tack or
wear the Balaclava and mitts knitted by some ladies’ aid society or
say “mademoiselle, promenade avec moi?” or smuggle a German helmet on leave to Blighty or refuse a job in the London pay office or carry diminutive tormentors on your person or have the sergeant drink your rum or hear “the latest rumor” that Fritz was running out of ammunition or
put half of Belgium in sandbags or
Be you the Governor-General or some bald-headed postman, poet or peasant, I care not. If you think that soldier shows are unique and a product of the little argument of 1914-1918, you are laboring under a serious delusion. Let me say that they are only part of another “Bread, College,
Cabinet and Cottage Pudding” scheme. They are not unique.
Soldier shows saw the light years ago. Truly there have been one or two changes since those dark days.
Little things have been happening as the different wars came and passed, but still there have always been Jesters of the Joust.
The historians have given us
exchange two little ones for a big one or curse the moon on working parties or shout “Good Old Band” or bribe the cook for hot shaving water or listen to tales of South Africa or dream of capturing the Kaiser or
sway the metal on sick parade. To those stout lads I take off my hat, but:
To the hearty who sang A SONG IN A DUGOUT I salute and dedicate these articles to you.
—J. W. McL.
Henry V. and Other Old Timers
TAKE bread pudding, college pudding, cabinet pudding and cottage pudding and shuffle them up. Place them in a row and I defy you to tell me who’s who.
definite proof that such things as concert parties existed in other wars. Long after Henry V. and many other gallant warriors “simply faded away” and lay motionless in their rest camps, there came certain supermen in the last controversy who made a great discovery—the troops needed entertainment.
Undoubtedly with the last quarrel came many new developments. To wit, the poison gas, the tanks, anti-aircraft guns, aerial bombs, tin lids and trench feet. And to the great majority the concert parties were something quite new. This, of course, is not so.
How did those concert parties first come into being? I cannot speak for the swashbuckling comedians of old, but for the latterday jousting humorists I think the best answer would be: “From a song in a dugout.”
After a session of optical straining through the periscope or over the parapet, our noble lads would crawl away into their little dugouts to sleep or to boil water on flaming pieces of sandbag dipped in the tallow of candles; others to read or to play “Black Jack” and still others to make bronchial noises at little impromptu concerts. The dugout talent usually was called on first, and as some of these artists were not all that they might have been, this stimulated the more reluctant to sing a song, say their piece with actions, or do a dance.
Pianos were a distinct novelty, the music of those days being usually furnished by a mouth-organ. We can mark the farm barns with a cross to indicate the spots where the company smokers took place. Straw furnished a splendid substitute for the upholstered plush of the modern gilded Temple of Art. Very often an old haycart served for the stage, this being illuminated by candles.
The day of the mouth-organ was really the happiest of all the concert party days in the late acrimonious struggle. It was here that the one big family spirit prevailed. The audience and actors became one and thus banished all their worries for at least a little while, or as long as the vin blanc lasted.
In these barns and at such functions there were men who sat and cheered on the singer of a sentimental ballad by shouting: “Put a quiver in it, Jim!” — men who died the following dawn with the song still on their lips.
And so the day of the mouth-organ was the day of the real esprit de corps as far as entertainment is concerned, a day which eventually passed when the art of entertainment took on a more or less professional air.
From the company smoker in the barn We move on to the next phase. The Y.M.C.A. was now beginning to do things. I shall never forget the panic that was caused when the first piano was carried into a Y.M.C.A. hut near Ypres. Bewildered sons of Pugwash and other points east would nervously approach the instrument, meekly touch one of the notes, then flee for their lives. It is surprising how rusty one gets when he is away from civilization even for a few months. It does not take long before the civilized reverts to savage.
The Noxious Vamper
WHEN the piano entered into the life of the
Y.M.C.A. hut there also came with it a creature known as the vamper. This monster must not be conflicted with little ladies one sees on the stage and
screen. The differ-
ence between the vampire and the vamper is this: The vampire lures many men to their destruction while the vamper sent many
men to their untimely demise. Here’s how it would happen:
A Y.M.C.A. hut
full of Canucks. A little program has been thrown together, perhaps half an hour before, by the Y.M. C.A. captain. There are half a dozen who will sing but, unfortunately, there is no pianist. Is there a pianist in the audience? Alas, no! Is there any one who can vamp? Is there? Before that fool ‘Jack Robinson’ can be mentioned, there are a dozen vampers trying to see who can reach the piano-stool first. After much weeping and gnashing of teeth the victorious one perches his objectionable anatomy in front of the piano. Let us suppose the song is “Thora.”
The singer asks the vamper if he knows how “Thora” goes. The vamper is not quite sure, so the singer leans over the vamper’s shoulder, close into his ear, and bouche ferme’s the air of “Thora.” Oh yes, all right, the vamper remembers it now!
The ghastly business of the vamper now starts and consists of hitting two chords. No matter what the song is, it is always the same two chords that are used. If one could have had a chance to see all the Y.M.C.A. war pianos in 1918 when the big show was over, I’m sure there would be found about a dozen corresponding white notes on each piano which looked as black as coal—this was the terrible result of the vamper’s deadly work.
I have seen big, strong, healthy men reduced to raving maniacs who would fight their way out through windows, or kick a hole in the side of the hut, and rush madly past our front lines, across no man’s land and into the enemy country—anywhere to get away from the “oomp pong pong—oomp pong pong” of the Y.M.C.A. hut vamper.
To kill the vamper was useless, for as soon as he hit the mat there would be others ready to take his place. Thousands of these loathsome specimens lined up awaiting their turns at every Y.M.C.A. piano all over poor war-scarred France and Belgium.
However, be it said that there were also some good pianists and accompanists among the troops. It was around 1915 sometime, so far as I can gather, that the first real start was made by a Canadian concert party. By that time the British Imperial troops had quite a number of such companies. I do not know the names of them all, but the “Whizz-Bangs,” the “Very Lights” and “The Fancies” are some of the parties I was acquainted with.
In 1915, the first Canadian concert troop was formed in Bailleul by the first Field Ambulance. This took the form of a minstrel show and was the most pretentious thing of its kind up till that time. They had a large company and orchestra.
There may have been other organized parties in the Canadian Corps but, if I remember right, the next to come into being was the P.P.C.L.I.
Comedy Company. This little battalion organization started their show just before the third battle of Ypres in the spring of 1916.
The Princess Pats Comedy Company
rT"'OWARD the end of May, 1916, the 4Princess Pats battalion was lying in a rest camp near Ypres. The evening came for the battalion to go up and relieve the R.C.R’s in the front line. The sector to be taken over was right up at the nose of the salient. A pleasant little job !
Just before the Princess Pats moved off, there were six surprised men who were called out from the ranks and told to report to the paymaster, Captain Pembroke, at the transport line which was about two kilometres back. They were Privates T. J. Lilly, W. I. Cunningham, P. D. Ham, S. Morrison, F. Fenwick and the present writer. I do not know what the thoughts were that passed through the minds of the others of that small band, but on my way over the fields to the transport lines I asked myself the following questions: Have I been overpaid? Have I been underpaid? Am I going to be shot at dawn? Am I going to be discharged or am I to be specially equipped for a raid into Fritz’s trenches?
When the sixth and last man arrived at the paymaster’s, they were all lined up and told that they were to miss a trip in the line and rehearse a little show instead. The paymaster, who was quite a comedian, would be one of the party. Oh, lucky seven! Instead of doing a trip up the line they were to rehearse songs, acts and dances. What a wonderful night that was. What a glorious sunset. The lucky seven felt just the same way as a golfer does who has been dubbing his drives all day, and when all hope is about gone, he hits a lulu cooler at the eighteenth. The party was to be known as the Princess Pats Comedy Company.
The morning after the great liberation was a different story. Things didn’t look so rosy. The lucky seven were to rehearse a show but (how I hate that word!) they had to write it first and they had only seven days to do it in. Still another restriction was that Major Adamson had gone to England and was returning with “some costumes.” What would the costumes be? No one knew and it would be four days before he would be back. Four days of agonized suspense.
Well, after all, the sort of things the boys would like best would be local topics; so the dugout, the orderly room, the sick parade and C.O.’s headquarters were selected as an objective. The show had to be written, and this was accomplished by the seven sitting around a shell hole, with three making valuable contributions and the other four wasting time.
The rehearsal for a show in those days was funnier than the actual show—rehearsals always are as a
matter of fact. But here in the quietest corner of the transport, behind a hedge, a space was marked out with stones to represent a stage with entrances and exits on either side. Ham was chosen as stage manager and the fight was on.
High in the blue heavens above, the Allemand would be over in his plane watching everything, and our anti-aircraft guns would open up on him. The falling pieces of shrapnel were often a provoking and very disturbing feature when rehearsal was in full swing. The rehearsal had to stop until a “better hole” was found.
I often chuckle to myself when I hear of some poor benighted director tearing his hair because the leading lady or the prima donna makes a display of temperament. Bah! Suppose he had at the same time to put up with bombs and pieces of shrapnel dropping
all over his stage? What would he do if he had just got his big scene all set—the palace scene—the one with the stairway and the arches and then had it blown up? Would he still tear his hair? No! He would locate himself in the deepest dugout in the vicinity; and that’s just what the Princess Pats Comedy Company did.
Did Fritz see from the air the many fantastic Oriental and Spanish dance steps that were executed by that original “beauty chorus”? I am sure that he opened his eyes, headed his machine for the Vaterland, dropped down on top of the German General staff headquarters, clicked his heels, saluted, and imparted the gay news that the war was driving the Canadians out of their minds.
The battalion grooms too, while out exercising their horses, would suddenly come across us in our secluded corner and stop dead. They would loop the loop backwards three times, pull their horses to safety, then beat it, being of much the same opinion as the German aviators.
The Pearl in the Oyster
BUT it was just in this very corner that the first girl “beauty chorus” sprouted. Of course, we had to have ladies in the party— which meant wigs. On certain occasions one gets much the same feeling as one sees advertised in our daily newspaper. I refer to spots before the eyes, that sinking feeling, dizziness, a pain in the neck and other symptoms. This was the feeling one had when you knew you had to have some wigs, and all that could be seen for miles were battered houses, cathedrals, cloth halls and so on.
No doubt there were beautiful wigs hidden under the Ypres ruins, but so are there also oil and gold hidden somewhere in the soil of our beautiful dominion. But where there’s a will there’s a wig.
In the back garden of what had once been a cosy little cottage there were two chairs almost lost to view in the tangle of tall weeds. One chair stood upright and the other evidently had fainted. Now some oyster shells carry pearls while others don’t, and so with chairs— some carry hair while others don’t.
Imagine the hearty cheers and a tiger that rent the air and crashed a weak-kneed house nearby when the great discovery was made—hair. Here was our pearl in the oyster shell, here was our Yukon, the thing we’d desired more than anything else in the world and no digging.
Carefully we removed the stuffing of both these chairs. It was a black horsehair, but what beautiful wigs we made—at least to us they seemed beautiful. A most extraordinary event occured the same night.
On the walls of a certain barn near the transport lines there hung the hide of a calf. A calf! Only a calf? Yes, and more. Here was our second big strike on that Continued on page46
Continued from page 15
never-to-be forgotten day. With the aid of a jack-knife and darkness, little pieces of the bovine youngster’s red coat were secured and fashioned into excellent comedy moustaches and beards.
About the fifth day of our rehearsals word reached the transport lines that the Germans had broken through the salient and the battalion was badly cut up. This was the beginning of the third battle of Ypres. Of course, shows were forgotten. We donned our equipment and went up the line that night only to find that te battalion was being relieved. Fritz was trying to get through to the channel ports and certainly came perilously near to success on the morning of June 2.
Preparing for “The Enemy”
A VERY small scattering of men went ■**-back to Steenvoorde to wait for the reinforcements that were to come to what remained of the P.P.C.L.I. Never was entertainment needed more. As the morale of the men was low, it was decided to put on the show.
In Steenvoorde there is a little upstairshall with no ventilation and a fair stage. We used bunting as scenery and illuminated it with acetylene lights. All was set for our first show when we were confronted with a terrible dilemma—we had no pianist.
Someone mentioned a Norman Clarke who had come out on the latest draft; so he was immediately lassoed and brought into the corral, but alas! he had to be branded as a "vamper.” Although Norman was no relation of Rachmaninoff he proved himself very handy with a hammer, and so was elected as property man without a dissenting vote.
However, although we now had a property man he didn’t relieve the situation by building a player-piano or anything like that, but he had a good idea. That was to open the one and only window in the place and then thump the piano. Now, as I have already mentioned, a piano up in that sector in these early days was a nouveau mode. The inharmonious jangle which oozed out through that open window to the street below fell on the ears of troops. Timidly like sheep they approached up the wooden stairway and peeped in. Gradually they became bolder till some of
them made the white notes black by pawing at the keyboard.
Anxiously the group of actors stood back waiting the arrival of "Rach,” but alas, only the occasional usual vamper appeared! After a disgusted and despairing hour and a half of this, we repaired for supper, after which we were billed for our first performance. And still no pianist. Dejectedly we ate our bully-beef ■—I mean more dejectedly than usual— then all started back for the theatre.
On arrival at the entrance we all paused, lifted our fallen crests, opened wide our eyes and ears and listened. Had we gone mad? Was this some trick of the brain? Out of the open window there flowed the most wonderful music. This was just another one of these miracles which happened during the war.
After much argument, wrestling and language with troops on the stairs and up the hall we finally arrived beside the piano, and there with a mess tin on his belt-hook, no puttees, and wearing a balaclava sat our great white hope, literally making that piano eat out of his two hands. The player was Leonard Young of the 9th Field Ambulance.
My greatest pleasure at that moment would have been to collect all the vampers in the army, handcuff them and have them all sit down together and listen to how this stranger who had strayed among us had that piano trained. On our asking Leonard if he would oblige us for the performance he acquiesced immediately.
As far as the immediate show was concerned our worries were over. That’s what we thought—but alas! The show was scheduled to start at 6.30 and we were busy putting on our make-up and getting into our costumes, when the air outside the hall became turbulent and was rent by noisy rumblings of the mob who, to say the least, seemed almost out of hand.
We could hear the “enemy’s” approach up the wooden stairway and I often sympathized a great deal with the German boys in later days when I heard that the Canadians had raided their trenches or taken a plot of ground from them. To be on the Canadian side when a raid is on is one thing, but to be the opposition and hear these same lads
shoving and mauling each other to avenge themselves on the adversary and you are the adversary—well!
Luckily, we had a curtain drawn over the stage so that they couldn’t see us, but we could peer through the burlap and see and hear them. I hope you will fully realize what I mean when I say that they weren’t exactly shouting compliments at us.
In order to grasp the situation, let us look it over. The month is June. The summer weather is beautiful. The troops had been paid twenty crisp new francs. The lure of the estaminet was upon them, and then on top of that situation half of the Princess Pats had been made to forego such pleasant surroundings and instead fall in and parade to an entertainment some six kilometres from their billets.
And the Audience Lost!
THIS mauling, shouting crew coming up the steps to see the show had come on the compulsory parade route march to see us. We were the Christians awaiting in our cells to be thrown to the lions and they hungered for blood.
But the saddest part of all was the fact that our volunteer pianist, Leonard Young, was the first who had to appear and go down among them in the pit. Fortunately for this gallant Samaritan, the front row was occupied by officers who formed a sort of cordon against bodily injury. Still it took a fair amount of dutch to go out there and play a piano in front of those “roaring forties.” Nevertheless our ambulance friend faced the music heartily both before and behind him and went through with his overture while the audience executed theirs. To make matters worse the audience won easily.
Then the time came to pull the curtains and start the show. I’m sure there never was a more nervous, stage-struck lot of actors at a first-night performance on any other stage, either before or since. With the opening of the curtain there came a roar from the body of the hall which would put the Lions’ Club of Woodsbridge or any other centre to shame.
The actors standing in the wings took a last look at the photos of their next of
kin, inhaled a deep breath, bade each other a touching farewell and stepped out in full view of the angry multitude. The opening of the show was a burlesque on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Through a torrent of boo’s, hisses and vulgar references to parentage, the lucky seven fought their lines across to the “enemy.” Relations at an Irish wake never shouted at each other more lustily than these two factions, audience and actors. But the thing had been started and the Thespians rolled up their sleeves, put their ears well back and gritted their teeth in sheer determination.
At the end of the first round, about seventy-five per cent, of the audience still roared while the other twenty-five per cent, began to assume that try-andmake-me-smile attitude. The bell rang for round two which was a single, a funny song sung by Captain Pembroke. Gradually the tornado from the front was blowing itself out till the odds against us became fifty-fifty. This round went in favor of the audience but they were beginning to weaken.
Round three was a duet with chorus. After about two minutes of this there was a decided turn in events; the audience were pretty groggy now and, on the entrance of the chorus at the end of verse one, we had them taking the count and as docile as a dormouse.
The next act was a sketch in which a comic staff officer and a private appeared, played by T. J. Lilly and the writer of these lines. The lads out front fairly gobbled this part of the menu up and then cried for more. The trick had been done. The lucky seven had turned the tide in this “western theatre of war” and the world was safe for democracy and concert parties. Compulsory parades from now on were taboo. The great problem was to let only those in who had not seen the show and to keep the repeaters away.
After the show was over and the troops had marched off to their billets, the players repaired to their place of sleep, stretched out on their blankets a tired but happy band of minstrels.
Editor’s Note—A second article by Mr. McLaren, continuing the story of the Princess Pats Comedy Company will appear in an early issue.