Mirth and Mud
In which the curtain is rung down on the “comic relief" of the greatest drama in history
J. W. MCLAREN
Pen sketch by the author
IN my last article I described how we rustled some scenery from a convent in Hersin. The possession of this equipment caused a decided upturning movement of our probosces and elevated us to heights which we had never dared dream of before. Our ragged raiment up to this point had beclouded us in a certain mist of melancholia and lowered morale. The mist suddenly lifted, giving ample proof of the true artistry which encompassed our souls.
Without any warning, one day, in the midst of this latest emotion there appeared a dispatch rider on a motorcycle who dismounted, clicked his heels and handed us a message from our colonel, who evidently had suddenly remembered that “Somewhere In France” there was a band of fools who belonged to him. The gist of the message was about our prolonged absence and that if we didn’t put in an appearance at the battalion billets “toot sweet” we were in for it. One could almost feel in the colonel’s note the proffered right hand with the apple of benignant hospitality, while the concealed left gripped the strap of paternal anguish which was to beat the prodigals into sniveling submission.
The battalion was lying at Ecoivres, near Mt. St. Eloi, the towers of which could be seen for miles around on the Vimy Ridge sector. It is a great mystery to me why we haven’t got a painting of them in our Canadian War Memorial exhibit; they were the landmark of the Canadian Corps for months. There was quite a lot of that “well-come-on-make-me-laugh attitude” at that first show which we gave to our battalion after our long weeks of absence. Here was another trial which, though hardly as momentous as the first show at Stenvoorde, still meant either our continued freedom or a return to the souls’ incarceration by some misguided sergeantmajor.
Luckily, in our performance we made some happy references to our quartermaster, who was about to go on leave and be married. Next morning he appeared on the rat-infested stage where we were still asleep rolled in our blankets. It is a custom in most armies when an officer enters the room, for the rank and file to jump to attention, and when the quartermaster appeared that morning, some of our lads who suddenly remembered that they were in the army, jumped up and dislocated a few bones of the feet clicking their unshod heels. Our unkempt plight in this way was disclosed to the astounded gaze of the Q.M., who immediately attached a tailor to us, outfitted us with new underwear, socks, riding breeches, tunics, British Warms and tooth brushes. A special hut was assigned to us and one of the battalion pioneers put in a stove.
We were still held in favor and the guillotine went hungry.
At this time we came in contact with Captain Plunkett, another Y.M.C.A. officer who was in charge of all the Y.M.C.A. canteen work and entertainment in this sector. I fancy that he needs little introduction to most of the readers of these notes, but I would like to say that he could certainly get a hut full of Canucks going, as he sat at the piano and led a harmonized sing-song of all the popular hits of the time.
The Royal Canadian Regiment under the command of Colonel Claude Hill was in our brigade. A very happy and valuable friendship came into being in Ecoivres between the R.C.R. Band and the P.P.C.L.I. Comedy Company. The R.C.R. Band was one of the finest in the Canadian Corps. They orchestrated, from then on, all the music for our shows, and the excellent tone of their reed section provided a wonderful accompaniment. Captain Ryan who was in charge was a great help to us, and a fine gentleman.
Chalk Dust for the Scene Painter
TOWARD Christmastime we were moved over to Mount St. Eloi, where many happy nights were spent in the little theatre there. At this time we decided to paint over the scenery which we had found at Hersin. A raid was carried out on the engineer’s dump and we brought in some brushes, colors and size. Unfortunately, there was no white among the colors, and as the modernistic note was not striking in those days we didn’t dare to use pure color. No white! How then? It happens that most of the houses in this locality are built of a sort of a hard whita chalk, and as quite a few of the villas on Mount St. Eloi had been marred by Fritzie’s guns, we thought that perhaps some of the remnants lying around the streets would make a good white. We filled a sandbag full of this chalk and pounded it with a heavy piece of iron. Soon the rock yielded to our battering and we had an excellent white powder, which, when mixed with size, was as good as the real thing. We were putting on a pantomime at this season called “Aladdin,” localized of course, to the army vernacular. We painted the local scenes to fit into the story; for instance, the Magic Cave of Treasure was a canteen showing divers beer barrels, rum jars and other liquid receptacles. This sort of thing pleased the troops mightily but what really “stopped the show,” I think, was our first scene, a painted back drop of Mount St. Eloi which was greeted with prolonged cheering.
The final set for our pantomime was a master conception, and an endurance of no meagre proportions for “Nobby” Clarke. We had to finish our panto with a loud chord in “G,” and a palace scene which “Nobby” set to work to build out of biscuit box tin. There were four pillars and a staircase, at the top of which stood a large tin of MacConachie. With only the can opener of an army jack-knife “Nobby” cut up dozens of Y.M.C.A. tin biscuit boxes which he nailed on to the flats—the whole effect being rather good, as the tin reflected the lights from the “foots” which at this period were composed of eight acetylene lamps. Poor “Nobby” worked long and laboriously into the small hours of many mornings, his hands cut and bleeding from the sharp tin. I often wonder what his answer is to his large family now, when they ask: “What did you do in the great war, Daddy?”
One performance still stands out clearly in my memory. It was New Year’s Eve and the performance which was for our battalion started at ten p.m., so that the show would just be over for the entrance of the New Year. Before the curtain went up we could hear the troops out in the body of the hut giving vent to the cheery qualities with which a full day of celebration had primed them. Our prognostications of it being a well received show proved only too true, for suddenly in the middle of a song or sketch some feeble-minded offspring of a wealthy Canadian parent would suddenly come to and applaud most vociferously. Toward the end of the show when some of the more jovial spirits began to sag, a whole bench suddenly collapsed, throwing the occupants to the earthen floor where they decided to finish their slumbers. At five minutes to twelve the colonel and his staff carrying the regimental colors were played into the theatre by our pipe band. This was the signal for another great ovation.
We, the poor actors who had finished our show were of the opinion that all that remained to be done was to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” pull down the curtain and go to bed. The troops were adamant however, and insisted on some impromptu turn from each member of the caste. At about three a.m. they considered that they had had enough.
Another rather amusing incident happened at this time. In one of our shows the opening was a scene laid in a dugout. The set was composed of sandbags, filled with straw on a square wooden frame so that the whole illusion could be easily moved by one man. If the reader has ever passed through the misery of singing in a quartet he will thoroughly realize what the word temperament means. For those who haven’t had such a harrowing experience I should explain that very often the tenor doesn’t see eye to eye, or rather note to note, with the bass. That is to say, some one of the four strikes a rancid note and immediately the singing ceases and each songster accuses his brother. This, of course, happens rarely during a performance but always at rehearsal. On the particular occasion to which I allude it was during a performance. The curtain went up, disclosing the quartet gathered round a brazier, the close harmony was being dispensed with much gusto when suddenly it happened—the sour note floated out. Immediately temperament arose, to be subdued by three of the quartet who continued to sing, but the fourth, T. J. Lilly, who simply refused to curb his feelings, arose and, bearing the whole dugout on his broad shoulders and after a torrent of army invective, made his exit, leaving the remainder to get off stage as best they could. It has been remarked that an exit is half the act; so, needless to say, the dugout scene was not one hundred per cent that night.
In the early part of the year of 1917, our division was moved back to the mining town of Bruay. There was an excellent theatre with all the regular stage props and equipment. We, of course, enjoyed our stay here very much. The company was billeted in the miners’ homes for the most part—two men to a billet. There is one custom that pertains over in France—at least among those who follow the mining habit—which contrary to all previous reports that had reached me, manifests an excellent sense of repose and sangfroid in their attitude to society. I refer to the custom of the public bath in the midst of the family circle. I should like to describe intimately what takes place, but modesty forbids.
At this period of our sojourn in France we got word from our colonel that we were to give a command performance in London. The excitement was great and we got together the cream of all our past shows. It was a bitter disappointment to the boys when this plan fell through—at least for the time being. From Bruay we moved up again to the Vimy Ridge front, as the troops had undergone a thorough training in how they were to attack this famous spot and capture it from the Germans. We were here located for a few weeks at Gouy Servins, being billeted in the Château there. The mud was terrible and I remember one member of the party who celebrated Burns Nicht or something by diving into one of these large lakes of mud, doing a scissors stroke and entreating his brethren to join him with such alluring statements as—“Come on in, boys, the water is fine—Palm Beach— Come on, fellas.” The same gentleman on the following day was not so exuberant and it took him nearly a full week to get all the mud cleaned off his Palm Beach suit.
It was a wonderful sight every night before the Vimy Ridge show to see the roads jammed tight with artillery, ammunition, and engineers’ equipment all being moved up the line. It made one think of the early days in the Ypres Salient when we had to lie there and take all that Fritz liked to send over while we had only a peanut battery back in Maple Copse. After the success of Vimy we were moved to Villers au Bois where I think the Comedy Company spent some of the most pleasant days in all their wandering. The Canadian Corps was celebrating the recent Vimy Ridge victory; the weather was ideal and we slept out in bivouacs in an orchard; the troops out on rest played baseball till sundown when the shows started.
Casualties and a Revival
"RROM the early part of 1917 on, other concert parties began to put in an appearance. These were mostly the divisional shows with a few battalion concert parties. With the coming of these new parties the Canadian Corps headquarters began to build some very creditable theatres. One of these, which was outstanding, was built at Châteaude-la-Haie.
Owing to a slight difference of opinion between the Y.M.C.A. and ourselves, the activities of the original P.P.C.L.I.Comedy Company came to a close on June 25th, and the Thespians went back to duty with the battalion. The Patricias went into brigade reserve at Fosse II, CitéSt. Pierre, on August 20, 1917. The battalion, while billeted here, suffered about twenty casualties from gas poisoning. Five days later we relieved the R.C.R. in front of Cité-St. Laurent on the outskirts of Lens. It was a somewhat stormy passage and two of the Comedy Company were wounded and went down the line never to return—W. I. Cunningham and “Nobby” Clarke.
From the Vimy Ridge Sector the Canadian Corps was moved once again, and for the last time, to the Ypres Salient. During the fighting on the Meetcheele Ridge in the battle of Passchendaele on October 30, Stanley Morrison went down the line. He lost a leg and died from his wound a few years later in Montreal. P. D. Ham went down the line to take a special course.
All that remained of the original concert party were T. J. Lilly, Fred Fenwick and the writer. From Passchendaele we moved to St. Hilaire on November 20, where we reorganized the second battalion concert party. This consisted of S. G. Nicholls, W. Filson, C. Hillman, C. Stephens, W. Kilpatrick, N. D. Nicholson and the remaining three original members mentioned above.
After our somewhat harrowing experiences of Lens and Passchendaele the new Comedy Company set about the old job of entertainment with renewed vigor. Our new men were all excellent artists— Nicholls, one of the original battalion to go over in 1914, had a splendid tenor voice. Filson was a baritone of very high standing. Hillman had been a professional actor for many years in the United States. Stephens was a female impersonator of merit. Kilpatrick took “Nobby” Clarke’s job as property man, while N. D. Nicholson was our pianist.
Kilpatrick, more intimately known as “Dad,” was a most entertaining and likeable companion. His father had been the scenic artist for George Edwardes, the well-known London producer of musical comedies, so that “Dad” came to us with a potent knowledge of stagecraft. He was one of these fellows who could always tell you, if a flock of birds were flying overhead, just what they were, where they had been, what they had been doing, where they were going and what they were going to do.
Unfortunately, “Dad” was troubled with lapses of memory. One night in St. Hilaire I was playing a sketch, during the performance of which the curtain suddenly came down surpassingly quick. I stepped into the wings where “Dad” was standing, rope in hand, and with the aid of scurrilous army language asked for an explanation. Poor “Dad,” with a faraway look in his eye and a shake of his head, admitted that his thoughts were thousands of miles away.
The Montreal Scottish Chinaman
I LOOK forward to many pleasant evenings,rwhen I sit beslippered in the corner of the fireplace, just thinking of the “old days.” No incident will linger longer, however, than the one in which that master joker, T. J. Lilly, played the part of the Chinese soldier in a musical act which he produced.
Far back in the reserve areas, battalions of Chinese were maintained for the handling of ammunition and engineers’ stores. The Oriental soldier in France during the late war was an extremely interesting character. His official uniform was dark blue in color with brass buttons. With this idea of dress standardization, however, the great majority was clearly out of tune. On pay day it was a common happening to see these laddies returning from some village close by, dressed in the most whimsical ensembles one could conceive.
A private’s lean pittance would only allow for the purchase of a cap and one wing collar—celluloid. Corporals usually rose to a Christie stiff—brown for preference—while a Christie stiff plus an umbrella marked the wealth and rank of a sergeant. In the study of those Allies of the Far East, T. J. Lilly saw wonderful scope for an unusual characterization. There was a large encampment of them just outside St. Hilaire, and T. J. spent several days studying the “Heathen Chinee” at close quarters.
In this make-up he employed two pieces of tape to pull back his eyelids to the almond-shape desired. A master of make-up, as one of the accompanying photographs testifies, Lilly’s characterization was well-nigh perfect. The act itself consisted of two upright posts holding a Union Jack, which, with a quick flip of the hand, was removed, disclosing a row of socks; little ones on the left growing in size to large ones on the right. After a great harangue in Montreal Chinese, with the suspicion of a few Scottish words thrown in, he commenced to play the “Blue Bells of Scotland,” ably assisted, of course, by someone off-stage.
The news of this strange Chinaman reached the Chinese battalion, which came over to the tent to investigate one afternoon while the act was on. They crowded round the stage door and on to the stage in a state of perplexity and confusion, much to the delight of the audience.
In the early part of 1918, our battalion was moved back to the Vimy Ridge Sector, so that for the most part the Comedy Company played in such places as Bully Grenay, Noeux les Mines, Camblain, Villers au Bois, Mont St. Eloi, La Targette, Carency, Château-de-la-Haie and Neuville St. Vaast. The party was showing at the latter place on March 21, when the great Ludendorff “drive” at the south began. There followed some days of extreme activity in the Canadian Corps, which took over more front line to set free the 46th (North Midland) Imperial Division, which was moved south. All the available troops in the back areas were called back to front line duty, so the concert party polished up their equipment once more and cleaned their rifles. Still continuing with our performances at Neuville St. Vaast, we daily awaited the word from Colonel Stewart, who was then in command, to report back to duty.
A Summons to London
"pINALLY, the messenger arrived to say that I, who was then in charge of the party, had to report immediately to battalion headquarters in the front line. Before going forward that night, I left instructions to move all our scenery and properties back to Villers au Bois and find a suitable place for storing. I arrived at the colonel’s dugout that night, clicked my heels and saluted. On volunteering the information to my colonel that the Comedy Company was all ready to dodge shells once more, he replied with: “Yes, but they’ll be eggshells at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, you lucky--. Read that.”
With a few endearing words he handed me a dispatch which he had received that morning, ordering a Command performance in London a few weeks later. Famous for his practical jokes, I simply handed back the dispatch and informed my O.C. that we were all ready to join the battalion. I was finally convinced, however, that this dispatch was the real thing, when the colonel threatened to “fall in two men” and put me in the clink.
Here was a most peculiar situation—all ranks were rushing back to their units to stem the threatening tide of the Germans, while the Comedians were ordered to Blighty. On arrival back at Villers au Bois the next morning, I was answered by mocking peals of laughter when I told the boys what was happening. They sang the familiar army song to me which is set to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”
On the arrival of three lorries to move us to Château-de-la-Haie, however, their doubting turned to belief, and we started to prepare for the great event that had been denied the original party. Along came the special tailor again and we were made to look presentable. A great deal of coaching as to the correct methods to employ when confronted by Royalty was given us which, in the light of what followed, was extremely amusing. After much special rehearsing, imbibing the correct deportment for such occasions, we finally found ourselves in that state of highly nervous prostration which is common to prize fighters on the eve of a world’s championship bout.
We had, of course, a special leave ticket, which included the whole party. The embarkation officers at Boulogne surveyed us in a most suspicious manner, and closely examined the hamper in which we carried a few necessary costumes. I really believed that they suspected us of being a party of German spies who should be thrown into the Tower of London.
On our arrival at London we were met at the station and conveyed to the Regent Palace Hotel, where we were lodged and told to order anything we desired except reanimating beverages. Is it necessary for me to state that the boys “did themselves proud” during our fourteen days sojourn there? A year before we were in the brick fields on the Somme, thankful for a black crust of bread—to-day we were being fêted to the extent of ennui.
Receiving Royalty en deshabille
THE great day finally arrived, and the P.P.C.L.I. Comedy Company made their appearance at the Apollo Theatre before Royalty. We put on five acts— the last one of which was a scene in Hell. When the curtain went up, Old Nick was discovered with one of his imps, who imparted to him the news that such characters as the sergeant-major, the paymaster, the sanitary man, and last, but not least, Kaiser Bill, were on their way down. These well-known characters each came shooting down a chute and were consigned to various punishments. When his Satanic Majesty was confronted with the War Lord, he immediately warped into submission and abdicated the throne to the Kaiser, declaring that he was an amateur compared to him.
Evidently the stage manager didn’t understand the cue, for the curtain didn’t come down. There we were all standing en tableau waiting for the curtain which never came. As in France, the first one to show temperament was our friend Lilly. Without disclosing anything to the audience and employing the ventriloquist’s art, he intimated to the gentleman in the wings that the time was propitious to lower the curtain—no response. Once more the ventriloquial request—no response. Next he turned round and in a fairly audible voice asked for the curtain —the rest of us not moving a muscle but holding the picture like true Princess Patricias. Finally T. J. could stand it no longer—he got down off the throne, walked over to the wings and in clarion voice that echoed throughout the whole theatre, pleaded with the carpenter to drop the curtain, who finally acquiesced, accompanied by a burst of cheers from the “house.”
Our instructions were to get dressed in our uniforms as soon as possible when our performance was over, so that should the Royal patrons wish to see us, we would be ready to comply with their wishes. This is what we had strenuously rehearsed for weeks for in France—this is what the special tailor had made us spick and span for, but “the best laid plans of mice and men—” It so happened that we had used the Green Room to dress in, as it ran along the back wall of the stage, and our changes were very quick.
As far as the rest of the party is concerned, I don’t know what state of dishabiliment they were caught in, but, personally, I, minus my nether garments, was feverishly trying to get my shirt buttoned when Royalty walked in.
The Royal family, however, behaved with their usual splendid democratic mien and refrained from the habitual thorough inspection of all details of equipment. As it has been all down through the ages, so the topic of the weather served to brighten our few fleeting moments together and turned what might have been embarrassing confusion into a lighthearted, frolicky tête-à-tête.
After playing at the St. James Theatre, we visited Bexhill and played to the Canadian troops there. Altogether, our trip to “Blighty” was most successful and the high light of all our playing.
VJL 7"E arrived back in Boulogne on YV August 7, where we were asked to put on some shows at the base camp. August 8 and 9 were great days in the calendar of the British Army and marked the beginning of the Hundred Days. Back at the base we could hardly realize the news—nothing went wrong, the wildest hopes were realized: the cavalry went through, the trenches seemed to be left forever behind; while the toll of prisoners, the captures of guns and supplies, and the number of relieved villages, were all prodigious.
For us at the base it seemed as if the burden of our work was over, as, in fact, it actually was. No more would we play to these pent up, nervously enthusiastic audiences before whom it had been our pleasure to appear. The cloud was lifting and the realization of our goal was at hand.
The Princess Pats Comedy Company moved up the line to the Village of Frevent, where they lay in monotonous inactivity till November 10. The movement of the troops during the period was so rapid that shows were entirely out of the question. The boys were having too much fun with Ludendorff and his lachrymose lackies.
During this period of stagnation in Frevent, the third divisional party, the “Dumbells,” dropped into town on their way back from London, where they had also appeared after our departure. After a little conference with Captain Plunkett, it was decided to amalgamate the two companies and put on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
After a few weeks of rehearsals we moved out of Frevent in lorries on November 10, getting as far as Valenciennes that night. After getting into billets there, the rumors of the Armistice on the following morning came to us— one of the weirdest sensations I have ever experienced. Nobody became jubilant, but rather the overwhelming meaning of the end was, certainly to us who had spent two or three years in the midst of the turmoil an incomprehensible numbness.
The following day we went on to Mons and the wonderful reception which all the Canadians received by the people of that city. Owing to the fact that the Germans had cut all the wiring in the theatre, we were unable to play our first performance in Mons on the night of the 11th. On the following evening, however, the curtain rang up on “H.M.S. Pinafore,” which was well received by both civilians and troops.
The many long months of tribulation and trial which went hand-in-hand with the production of a new show every thirty days in France and Belgium will always remain with me as a pleasant memory that money can never buy. My one great wish is that some day I will clean up in nickel or oil or soap or something, so that I may charter a fleet of liners that will take us all back to the barns of Belgium and France, barns strewn with straw, back to the barns where the true brotherhood of man existed. I wonder if we could capture it again?