A Stage for the Brave

12 May 2014

History | Literature | War and Conflict

I, for one, adore the theatre; the bright lights, the energy, the set, the somewhat mystical quality that envelops you when confronted with the stage, upon which unfurls anything from a deeply moving fictitious work to light-hearted and humorous banter. After all, we all seek a sense of escapism and a yearning for pure entertainment.





‘The Dumbells’ Troubadours Troupe © Imperial War Museums



Our upcoming First World War resource, Visual Perspectives and Narratives, features several photographs of theatrical troupes, sourced from Imperial War Museums. From songs bursting with poignancy to slapstick and frivolity, troops were often entertained by members of their own unit or battalion in order to boost morale; concert parties proved a significant activity, contributing to the convalescence process and generally transporting thoughts away from the front line. A few pictures in particular feature the Canadian entertainment troupe ‘The Dumbells’, whose repertoire included popular songs, dancing and comedy sketches, ultimately providing soldiers with a taste of home. Each member was chosen from the 3rd Canadian Division in France, where they gave hundreds of performances to troops, often under heavy shell fire.



In all theatrical troupes female impersonators were consistent showstoppers, decked out in a vision of glamour – a definite escapism from a stiff peak cap and bulky ammunition boots. Other photographs show the casts of a concert parties performing for wounded soldiers in Calais, and ‘The Balmorals’ 51st Division entertainers in Chelers, France. Such extravagant and humorous costumes (particularly fabulous clown costumes and statement wigs) truly add to their importance as a respite from war.In all theatrical troupes female impersonators were consistent showstoppers, decked out in a vision of glamour – a definite escapism from a stiff peak cap and bulky ammunition boots. Other photographs show the casts of a concert parties performing for wounded soldiers in Calais, and ‘The Balmorals’ 51st Division entertainers in Chelers, France. Such extravagant and humorous costumes (particularly fabulous clown costumes and statement wigs) truly add to their importance as a respite from war.





'The Balmorals’ 51st Division Entertainers, May 1917 Â© Imperial War Museums



Entertainment became such an important factor in a soldier’s life that many of those performing in groups such as ‘The Dumbells’ did not return to their regular units; they would return to the front lines as actor, dancer or comedian. Theatre companies were formed merely to entertain troops, and by 1917, many divisions had at least one military theatre company. It was a far cry from the makeshift stages of muddy crates and boxes in the earlier days of the war.



More photographs on entertainment and recreation during WW1 are featured in our upcoming resource The First World War: Visual Perspectives and Narratives, publishing later this month.

About the Author

Sarah Mellowes

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew Digital, an academic digital publisher of primary source collections for the arts and humanities. Since joining in October 2012, I have primarily worked on our First World War portal, featuring items sourced from leading libraries and archives around the world.

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