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‘A tonic for troops’: What British theatre did in the First World War

Members of Lena Ashwell’s YMCA wartime concert party, who travelled as far afield as Egypt
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UK entertainers played a vital role in the war effort, as a new book by Roger Foss explains. Nick Smurthwaite discovers how performers not only lightened the gloom but also came together to raise funds for the troops

During times of national crisis, theatregoers have often flocked towards the frivolous, seeking out relief from the grim realities of the moment with uplifting shows.

While this was largely true of entertainment during the Great War of 1914 to 1918, underlying the flimflam was a serious strain of patriotism and propaganda. In musical revues of the time, songs with titles such as Our Own Dear Flag and Your King and Country Want You were directly aimed at encouraging young men to enlist.

In Till the Boys Come Home – a new book on the vital role British entertainment played in the First World War – author Roger Foss explains how theatres throughout the land became unofficial recruiting centres for the armed forces.

Vesta Tilley on stage as a typical British Tommy with boots covered in Flanders mud

During the early months of the war – before the introduction of conscription – music hall stars of the day such as Marie Lloyd, Phyllis Dare and Vesta Tilley believed they were doing their bit for the war effort by exhorting – and sometimes shaming – the men in the audience into joining up. “We don’t want to lose you / But we think you ought to go,” went one not very subtle refrain.

What these doughty ladies weren’t to know was that they were, in fact, processing cannon fodder for the grisly battlefields of France and Belgium.

This jingoistic fervour had actually started some time before the outbreak of hostilities. Sensing that war was imminent, producers cashed in with plays entitled Wake Up England!, A Nation in Arms, and An Englishman’s Home, all intended to stir the public’s anti-German feelings.

Once war was declared, and the death toll began quickly mounting, the tone of the theatrical fare on offer changed. The earlier gung-ho shows – full of misguided euphoria for the conflict ahead – gave way to the more frivolous, escapist charms of Chu Chin Chow, The Bing Boys Are Here and High Jinks.

Lord Derby, minister for war, praised the entertainment industry as “a tonic for returning troops”. He told an audience of soldiers from across the British Empire: “Let those who come home feel their time away from the trenches is an amusing time that will distract them from the anxieties and dangers they have undergone.”

A sign outside the London Pavilion read: “An atmosphere of gloom will never help the nation, while rational amusement will do much to lighten its burden.”

Foss writes: “Laughing in a theatre could get you through whatever turmoil you might be experiencing in your personal life, even if a show lasted only two hours and you had to negotiate charity collection boxes, overtly patriotic interval music, actors on stage looking older than they used to be, and posters outside alerting you to the danger of Zeppelin raids.”

The need to propagate good cheer wasn’t confined to home. From the start of hostilities, musical and variety performers – mostly women – were despatched to entertain “our boys” across the Channel. By the end of the war there were 25 separate companies in France and Belgium, supported by some 600 entertainers.

The tireless producer of these shows, Lena Ashwell, who was later honoured with an OBE for her extraordinary work, movingly described the effect of Ivor Novello’s iconic song Keep the Home Fires Burning on the audience of young servicemen: “‘The men seemed to drink it in at once and instantly sang the chorus, and as we drove away at the end of the concert, in the dark and rain and mud, from all parts of the camp one could hear the refrain of the chorus.”

Foss points out that Ashwell extended her creation of theatre outside the mainstream into peacetime, pioneering the idea of professional companies supported by local authorities as a civic amenity.

As soldiers began to form frontline concert parties, music publishers stepped in to supply sheet music for camp concerts

A good deal of Foss’ research for this fluent and illuminating book was gleaned from The Stage Archive – notably a column entitled Actors and the War. This was a kind of analogue chat room for servicemen from the entertainment industry. Running for the duration of the conflict, Foss describes it as “a lifeline between dressing room and battleground”.

It is clear from the pages of The Stage that the entertainment industry more than pulled its weight at home and abroad. In March 1915, Actors and the War noted that some 800 theatre professionals had died in the first seven months of the war.

Performers continued donating their time as morale boosters and fundraisers well into the 1920s, and the 1919 Royal Variety Performance specifically celebrated “the generous manner in which the artists of the variety stage have helped the numerous funds connected with the war”.

One of the unintended consequences of the ad hoc nature of wartime performances, Foss argues, was to influence the way post-war theatre was produced. He writes: “When you knew productions could be mounted in crowded camp huts or tents filled with smoke and improvised on the tiniest of budgets, it’s not surprising that some of this experience transferred to post-war theatre.”

Till the Boys Come Home: How British Theatre Fought the Great War is published by the History Press

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