Mirth and Mud PART TWO
Being another chapter from the tragically comic experiences of the P.P.C.L.I. concert party, entitled: Orphans are Orphans
J. W. MCLAREN
Pen wipings by the author
IN MY last epistle I described the gradual growth of entertainment from the early days of the war up till June, 1916. I told of how reluctantly the troops come to see the first show on a compulsory parade and how, after the first two or three numbers on the programme, they were more than satisfied with the idea and applauded for more.
By the time of the following evening’s performance which the other half of the Princess Pats battalion was to witness, the fame of the little troop had spread so far that a strong picket had to be placed in front of the hall at Steenvoorde to keep off the crowds who tried to gain admittance.
The news of the show’s appearance spread from shell hole to shell hole and aroused such interest that if was decided to put it on for the whole of the Seventh Brigade. This decision kept the Comedy Company busy for another seven performances. Our work had been well and truly laid.
Then the time came to go up into the line again and bend low in watery ditches.
But, by this time, the reputation of the concert party had become established throughout the whole division, so that the great men who sat in authority decided that if the combatant merrymakers wished, they could stay out of the trenches and become permanent jesters behind the line.
I shall never forget that beautiful morning in Steenvoorde when LieutenantColonel R. T. Pelly sent for us and after having told us that he quite realized that we had volunteered to come over and fight, said he felt that we would be doing our country a greater service by staying out of the line as permanent entertainers. He gave us twenty-four hours to decide which we wanted to be, fighting men or actors.
The P.P.C.L.I. Comedy Company went into conference and, after having convened for about three seconds, the vote was unanimous with both hands to carry on as “Soldiers of Song.”
At this time the show wardrobe and properties filled two ration bags and a hatbox. Thanks to the taking ways and inborn collecting habits of Norman Clarke, we had, inside of three months, swelled this meagre paraphernalia into two lorry loads of “property man’s delights.”
As already stated, Norman Clarke, or “Nobby,” to give him his more familiar name, was not a very brilliant pianist but he was a first-class property man. When the trucks were moving along the road, taking us from one spot to another, he would ride beside the driver of the first load and keep his eyes “peeled” for any properties on the roadside which he thought might come in useful later on. In this way, such things as old cartwheels, deserted French sewing-machines, beds, barrels, umbrellas, and all sorts of bric-a-brac were added to our collection.
Here was created a new situation. In the usual scheme of things, an author will write a play and have his scenery and properties built for his special needs. In France it was different. One had to write up to the props he had. This called for much more creative and ingenious writing. For instance, take the cart-wheel already mentioned.
The alleged author would roll the wheel along some muddy road and in behind a hedge. Here he would sit down beside the beastly thing and try to think of something funny in the way of an act introducing a cartwheel, with the music of “Archies” for inspiration. But this method of approaching the play-writing question did a great thing. Every subject that was dealt with was a local one.
We finally had to employ the rabbit punch on “Nobby’ when he wanted to carry an incinerator along. He really got quite offensive and became obsessed with the idea that everything he saw should go in the props.
A few months after the formation of the P.P.C.L.I. Comedy Company, the Canadian Corps was sent to the Somme. On September 7, the troops had to march down from Ypres to Albert, and the comedians were told to beat it down the best way possible and bring as much of the properties as they could. At this point several friendships came near the breaking-point. “Nobby” insisted on carrying along the skeleton of a dinosaur or some such thing he had picked up, while the opposition refused to move a step if half of the junk pile wasn’t scrapped.
History has no record of a parting more pathetic than that of “Nobby” and the rusty, dusty mountain of useless whatnots. .He fell down on his knees weeping copious tears and finally had to be torn bodily away from his accumulated folly.
At this time there was an artillery battery going down to the Somme, and, after some rustling and conniving with the R.T.O., he allowed us to take one of the flat cars, on which we piled the scenery, costumes and what was left of the props and the lucky seven. That is a day that will long be remembered by the strolling players. It was a gorgeous summer day, and the trip was made via Boulogne and Le Havre right down the coast to a small town called Acheux, which was the railhead for the Somme area.
On arrival here, we were told that Warloy was the most suitable place for shows in this sector. It was halfway between the railhead and the front line. When we arrived there, a Y.M.C.A. marquee was thrown against the end of an old house and Captain Fred Hancock, one of the finest Y.M.C.A. captains over there, built a stage and put in seats with the aid of a pioneer battalion.
In this place the P.P.C.L.I. Comedy Company did some of their best work. Men who had been in the battle of the Somme just two hours before would make up the audience. Some with bandaged heads or arms in a sling or just a touch of shell shock. How those lads enjoyed the shows. Possibly the finest compliment came from the C.O. of a dressing station over the road who came across one day and said: “You boys are doing more for the troops than I can. Keep it up.”
After a week or two playing in Warloy we were told to report to Albert where our battalion was resting. On the way up we decided to rehearse a new show on the lorries. If the reader has had the experience of traveling over the French roads in war-time he will have some idea of the difficulties encountered not only in writing a show but also rehearsing it under such circumstances. From those who have not had the experience of such travel I am sure will come admiration and sympathy when I liken it unto “The Whip” and other such seismic pleasures to which one subjects oneself at amusement parks.
Good comedy is hard to conceive when one is suddenly submerged by a quartette in the corner of a lorry. Under such conditions, however, we wrote and rehearsed a show which was received with a demonstration of hearty approval in Albert by our battalion that night. It’s hard to say if that show was actually as good as some others which had had more rehearsal, but often the spontaneous in such performances is much funnier than the labored, well rehearsed performance.
Very often, too, there is one man in an audience who has such a hearty laugh that he will carry the rest of the “house” with him. Watching this interesting psychological process, I have often remarked to my fellow actors during a poorly received performance that I wished “that man” were present.
It was very interesting also to study the response we got from various battalions. For instance, an Edmonton battalion would receive our efforts in a much different manner from that of a Montreal battalion.
It finally reached the point where we knew exactly what sort of a performance would be given on a certain night that the “so-and-so’s” were parading.
During our sojourn to the Somme we parted company with our original pianist, Leonard Young, of the Ninth Field Ambulance. He had to go off with his unit and “carry on” up the line. We came in contact at this time with Gitz Rice, who later made such a hit both in England and on this side of the water.
Gitz played for us at the first show in Albert. Even in those days he had an amazing sense of the theatre and, without a note of music in front of him, fairly gamboled through the show. We had the pleasure of his assistance on various later occasions when we met him on different fronts.
Six Orphaned “Funny Men”
AFTER having “done their bit” at ■*the battle of the Somme, the Canadian troops were ordered up to the Vimy Ridge front on October 10, 1916. In the mad scramble of vacating the area, no orders were given to the P.P.C.L.I. Comedy Company regarding movements, so that our battalion simply disappeared into the mud of the north, leaving six little orphans on their own. Captain Pembroke at this stage left the entertainment unit and went back to battalion duty.
In his place came one by the name of Biddulph, better known as “Biddy.” He had been an actor traveling with Mrs. Langtry who, when the company was playing His Majesty’s Theatre, Montreal, in 1916, decided to enlist with a draft which was going over to reinforce the Princess Patricias. Biddulph was an excellent performer and proved a great favorite with the troops.
We learned from a Captain Carey, of the Y.M.C.A., that the troops were going north via the village of Helloi, for which point he was making, and if we cared to go along he could get some lorries to take us and our effects to Acheux. We were very glad of this assistance, as our source of rations had evaporated and we were overjoyed, I remember, to partake of some stale bread found in a deserted dugout on the Brick Fields.
At this period the morale of the Comedy Company began to droop. We had been lionized up in Steenvoorde and down on the Somme. Pickets had been put outside our “theatre” every night to hold our admirers back, and now here we were deserted, hungry, with our battalion gone and no one who loved us. We were refused clothes and rations at all quartermasters’ stores and existed for the most part on parcels which we had received from home.
Eventually we arrived at Acheux, unloaded our “production” from the lorries to the station platform and spent that night in the shell-torn sugar refinery which stood alongside the station. The night was very cold and a thousand draughts moaned through the building.
The jesters lay down to their night’s repose on a cement floor, using Canadian newspapers for a covering. I woke up to find that the funny section of a weekly had slipped off my shoulders. However, a speech by the then Mayor of Toronto kept a more vulnerable part of my anatomy quite warm.
A Canadian “forty below” with a wind never felt colder than that night in the sugar refinery. Added to this was the uncomfortable fact that there was an old “Blanc Mane” chimney attached to the building which swayed like a navigator in his cups, making the place decidedly unhealthy. To add to our enjoyment, Fritz was playfully throwing over long range souvenirs which came perilously near the smoke-stack.
The Vagabond Train
ABOUT three in the morning the - funny men arose, made a fire with the newspapers and waited for “Sun Up.” After some palaver with the R.T.O., we were told to pile our things into a freight car of a train which stood on a siding nearby, and to get our stuff on board as quickly as possible, as the train was pulling out in fifteen minutes.
I am painfully aware now why men refer to a train as “she.” Evidently, this train was living up to the reputation of her sex, for she must have changed her mind. Fifteen minutes passed and still she stood there. Half an hour and an hour passed and still we waited patiently. Bear in mind that it was 5.30 a.m. when we loaded our goods aboard.
At 12.30 that afternoon the engine was uncoupled and went careering off on its own hook, heaven knows where. Well, that was one thing about army trains in France and Belgium—one never knew just what they were going to do or when they would do it. They were the most impossible, carefree things imaginable, and would cavort all over the countryside in the heartiest manner as if they never heard of such a thing as a war. One never asked where a train was going. The main thing was to get aboard and then “wait and see.”
Very good! We were aboard and waiting but not seeing very much. Our frigid friend, the sugar refinery with the rubber chimney, was still on our starboard at seven p.m. The curtain of night rang down on another day and the yodelers decided to seek their repose on the floor of the box car. Soon, tribulation was forgotten, at least temporarily.
Suddenly, out of the night came a terrific cataclysm resulting in a heaving, tossing, pushing, cursing pandemonium of humanity at the far end of the box car. Investigation showed that the hour was now eleven p.m. and that the sugar refinery still leered down on us, while some engine had evidently romped gaily down the track quite without the knowledge of our presence and tried to “buck the line.” Whether it was the same or not that had pranced off from us earlier in the day -will never be known.
At any rate it seemed to say to itself: “Oh, here are some box cars. Come on, I’ll hitch up to you and we’ll have a night out.” After much shouting outside, both in French and English, and some Frenchman blowing short staccato blasts on a falsetto horn, we felt our love-nest swaying and could hear the wheels creaking under us.
We were off. Good-by, sugar refinery; good-by, chimney; good-by, Acheux. We traveled all that night, and in the morning, when we pushed back the “wood in the hole,” found ourselves rocking through the most beautiful countryside. Where we were, we didn’t know and we didn’t care, for we were on our way to Helloi.
Of course, we had no idea of location or direction except what could be guessed from the position of the sun. One minute we would be swaying southward down a three-in-one grade, then suddenly we would do a right-about through a tunnel and puff northward up a two-in-one. On the second day, as the sun sank low, so also did our foodstuffs, but the merry revelers had no fear, for on the morrow we would be in Helloi among friends and rations.
Through one more long night of shuffles and bumps lay the “lucky seven.” As already mentioned in connection with war-time lorry travel, there are many devices at our amusement parks where one can pay money to be knocked around, bruised and have their clothes torn off their backs. I may say that there is a fortune looking for a good home for the hnan who introduces the French Box Car idea to our natives.
Of all the diabolical contraptions, the French Box Car stands A.A.A.l. Just ■what the method is I must confess ignorance, but I imagine that the engineer quickly starts in high till he has sent a succession of jerks and shocks down the entire train. Then he suddenly shuts off all power, which repeats the shock of jolts. This exercise happens half a dozen times till the travelers are compelled to play a game called “who’s who.”
After every one is straightened out and the injured cared for, the train now nymphs its way forward. When the engineer thinks he has mustered sufficient speed, he automatically uncouples and dashes ahead, leaving the line of box cars to follow. When he has succeeded in getting out in front about a mile he reverses and comes charging back with full steam on to bounce the oncoming box cars. A very amusing trick and one which I feel sure would prove a highly diverting pastime with Canadians.
When the second rolling night had passed, we pushed back the door to find one of the most depressing and melancholic sights I ever hope to set eyes on. Imagine our sensations when I tell you that we were pulling once more into the siding at Acheux with our nauseating friend the sugar refinery and “old malaria” as the objective of our two days peregrination.
There are some situations which bring out all that is best in men. May I briefly suggest that this was not one of them. If language had meant anything in the way of promotion, then that box car was carrying seven Field Marshals.
Once more we repaired to the R.T.O., who didn’t seem to be in the least disturbed at seeing us again. Evidently this sort of thing was happening every day. After enquiring what the next move was, we were informed that we should stay on the train and make a second attempt to reach Helloi. This attitude of the R.T.O., who was of the Imperial Army, demonstrates the old Bull Dog breed of persevering Englishmen who, never knowing when they are beaten, muddle their way through to a happy and successful finish.
That same morning we were rocking out of Acheux once more with a supply of food which was compassionately given to us by the R.T.O.’s sergeant. The same evening saw us arrive at Helloi safe and sound without any further merry-goround.
Find Your Own Stage
TN HELLOI we found the Y.M.C.A. A people getting everything in readiness for the troops who were to make this place a stop-over on their route march to the Vimy Ridge sector. So the Comedians also set to work on the following day erecting a marquee in which they would perform for the troops.
Evidently the sight of British troops in this village was something new, for the natives would come out to their doors, stare at us and follow us all around. One little chap in particular took a great fancy to us, and it was with great difficulty that we sent this ubiquitous leech home to his people when the sun went down.
Long before any of our party had stirred the following morning we could hear some one prowling outside the tent. On lifting up the flap, we discovered to our chagrin our much attached and evident admirer waiting for us outside. As some of our party could talk a little French, we discovered that his name was Paul and that he was the mayor’s son.
Now this was most distressing news because we were compelled to do a little rustling on all such occasions. Lumber was needed to build a stage, with accessories and other necessities; and having the son of the village mayor running between your legs all the time created a detrimental depression of spirits among the Strolling Players. We fully expected that the troops would be in town the following morning, so we resolved, mayor’s son or no, to go out and get our lumber.
At the entrance to many courtyards in the French villages are huge wooden gates built in two sections. On a side street we came across an unusually large portal which, if secured, would approximate the dimensions of a Hippodrome stage, or, at least, so it seemed to us. With the mayor’s son right in our midst, we had to tell each other in sign language of our innermost thoughts lest Paul should have a comprehensive knowledge of English and be faking the unmitigated mental deficiency written on his face.
We passed those wooden gates a dozen times that morning, no one daring to look directly at them lest the suspicions of our little mascot should be aroused. A few of us unloosed ourselves and held an urgent meeting behind a hedge to decide what would be done with this clinging menace who had entwined himself round our most private and intimate doings.
One was for pushing him into the river which ran through the village. Another suggested that we feed him some Bully Beef and Hard Tack, and, personally, I think it was coming to him. Still another suggested strangulation, but when we thought of all the pictures in the home newspapers which showed “our boys” with the poor, dear little French and Belgium children in their arms, we resigned ourselves to fate and decided to let him stay with us a little longer.
That night, long after the mayor’s son was fast asleep, half-a-dozen figures crept stealthily along, hugging all the shadows, toward the hinged treasure. It was, indeed, a big job to tackle and needed a scientific plan of action in order to be carried to a successful conclusion. We had, however, become experts in such exploits, and by the following morning the barnyard doors had been transported, cut up into the desired lengths and shapes, so that even our dear little French comrade and playmate, Paul, didn’t appear to realize what had happened, or recognize the felony that had been committed in his midst.
We were now all ready to amuse the troops but, alas, they never came. We waited for two or three days and finally got word that the Canadian Corps had gone by another route. Once more we had to pack up our box of tricks and, fortunately, managed to get some lorries which took us to Barlin, which towrn lay back of the Vimy Ridge front. Here we again came in contact with Captain Hancock.
Another Treasure Haul
ON THE outskirts of Barlin are the coal mines where the biggest part of the population is employed. The town itself is made up of long rows of miners’ houses, each and every one exactly alike. This agitated more than one member of the party, as we were billeted in these houses, and should anyone become slightly exhilarated through his association with the crimson vintage, it was extremely difficult to locate his place of rest.
Although we could not get any new clothes, still our rations were very good and we were living like lords after our wanderings in the wilderness. We put on a show every night and played mostly to second division men.
Close to Barlin there lies the village of Hersin where more troops of the second division were billeted at this time. Captain Hancock told us that there was a good-sized hall there in a convent and requested us to go over and give the boys some shows.
On arrival at the convent, our gaiety rose to boundless heights when we found an excellent little hall, stage and dressingrooms all complete. This exhilaration turned into a cataleptic trance, however, on discovering what we did in the basement of our new “Billet de Thespis.” The fact that there was a little theatre here induced us to explore for the usual accessories that go with such places— scenery and props. “Nobby,” of course, led the expedition which tracked upstairs and down, through long corridors, into rooms and cupboards till at last we had searched every nook and cranny with, alas, no sign of what we had hoped to rest our eyes on.
The following day I was accosted by T. J. Lilly, who was exhibiting such unalloyed excitement that I immediately came to the conclusion that some estaminet in town was dispensing vin blanc at a franc a bottle. After three of his futile attempts to impart the jolly news to me, I finally succeeded in pacifying him and learned that he thought he saw what looked like some scenery, and if I would follow he would show me what he had discovered.
We went out round to the back of the convent to a small manhole sort of opening at the base of the wall. He suggested that I light a match and take a look in the dungeon below. It was with great difficulty that I could keep the match alight; also, the opening was very small and I had quite a struggle to get my head and shoulders through the aperture. In the intermittent splutters of about a dozen matches, my pulse began to accompany that of my dear old friend Lilly. Was it true? Were these actually drops lying there in the dank, abysmal gloom below us?
Like a thirsty man who fears he has been looking at some mirage of an oasis on the desert, “T.J.” looked at me to see if I would give any sign of confirmation to his wild ungovernable hopes. On whispering to him that I thought they were drops, he suddenly let out a war-whoop and dashed off to bring the rest of the party to the “Strike.”
Having assembled at the spot, we had to settle the next question: Who was going to get the treasure out? We rubbed the lamp and said “Abracadabra,” but the opening remained there as if guffawing at us, without opening up to permit us to enter the cave. It was clearly a thin man’s job, and as the present writer who, though standing nearly six feet high, only weighed one hundred and twenty pounds at that time, the die was cast selecting him as the one who must investigate.
After a great deal of wriggling and persuasion which was far from peaceful, I finally plopped into the slithery reverberations of the Chambre de Terre.
These drops had been built for the small convent stage and being easily handled were just the right size for the average Y.M.C.A. hut. There were seven drops and six wings, a throne chair and a few other precious valuables which were carried with loving hands on to the stage and hung up before the admiring happy little group of soldier canaries.
Not since the day of finding the horsehair in the chair at Ypres had we made such a wonderful discovery as this scenery in the Hersin Convent. Our next problem was to get some brushes and paint to create the desired sets which we wanted, and this was solved after overcoming many difficulties which I shall describe in the next “Reel.”
Editor’s Note—This is the second of a series of articles by Mr. MacLaren, describing the experiences of the P.P.C.L.I. Concert Party in France. The third will appear in an early issue.