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Post Memories: Historian Nick on theatre, song and ‘lighter side’ of First World War

PUBLISHED: 10:28 16 June 2014

On Christmas Day hostilities often slowed down, or even ceased in some sectors of the war, and this allowed some soldiers to enjoy a game of football.

On Christmas Day hostilities often slowed down, or even ceased in some sectors of the war, and this allowed some soldiers to enjoy a game of football.

PA Archive/Press Association Images

The First World War saw unprecedented loss of life and tore apart a generation – but troops had to keep their spirits up, and now and then they found time for songs, games and even theatre. As the Post continues to mark the centenary of the war’s outbreak, Shekha Vyas finds out about beating boredom and smuggling pianos into the trenches.

Nick Dobson with his First World War memorabilia.Nick Dobson with his First World War memorabilia.

The words “lighter side” aren’t normally used in the same sentence as “First World War”.

But that’s exactly what historian Nick Dobson wants to highlight at Barking and Dagenham’s local history museum tomorrow.

His talk, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, is at Valence House Museum at 7pm.

It sheds light on the antics, sports and theatre performances that took place in soldiers’ spare time.

The event takes its name from the famous song by Jack Judge, written about a young Irish man’s surprise at how different London is from his home town.

During the war, a Daily Mail journalist saw Irish regiment the Connaught Rangers sing the song, and reported it.

German soldiers of the 12th (2nd Brandenburg)  Regiment playing cards in a dugout in a shallow trench in German-occupied Russian Poland during the First World War.
One of the soldiers (far right) is holding an accordion.German soldiers of the 12th (2nd Brandenburg) Regiment playing cards in a dugout in a shallow trench in German-occupied Russian Poland during the First World War. One of the soldiers (far right) is holding an accordion.

It quickly caught on with other regiments and became a light-hearted First World War anthem.

“It was different,” Nick told the Post. “Many other songs had a patriotic pro-war theme, whereas this one was about going home.

“A lot of pastimes would have taken place to deviate from the horror and the boredom. The boredom was sometimes a greater threat than the enemy.

“Some of the amateur theatrics that took place were very close to the front line – there are records of them getting a grand piano into the trenches.

“Where there was a will, there was a way.”

Nick has been inspired by his grandfather, east London native Edward Mair, who fought as a Fusilier but was wounded and forced to find another way to spend his time.

Edward was heard singing by Leslie Henson, a famous comedian and founder of The Gaieties, a touring group that performed shows to entertain troops.

He spent the rest of the war with The Gaieties and working in professional theatre.

Games and theatrics happened on an ad hoc basis, Nick added, with troops putting on crudely fashioned shows for each other when they had the time.

They became more organised at divisional level and, by 1918, the authorities realised how important entertainment was for morale.

At a time when death was always a danger, poetry, art, comedy and theatre blossomed from the battlefield.

Nick, of Chigwell, said: “There were many reports about the British sense of humour. We see it time and time again.

“This was also true of British prisoners of war. The antics they got up to, baiting German authorities, were amazing.

“There was a German report into the First World War that claimed we had won because we had a better sense of humour.”

Nick will be hosting his talk as part of the museum’s late night programme. Tickets cost £3. Call 020 8227 2034 to book.


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