Ways and By-Ways of a Singing Kiwi with the N.Z. Divisional Entertainers in France
Chapter III. — The Kiwis
The call for anyone with any claim to a singing voice, cr anyone with any stage experience whatsoever, had gone through Divisional Routine Orders, and I had the honour of assisting Lt. Dave Kenny in his selection from among the many singers, dancers, elocutionists, etc., offering of those most likely to be useful in combining into a Divisional Pierrot Troupe. Some ten of the successful applicants, together with the 3rd Field Ambulance orchestra, were released from their units, and the proposed concert party began to take on a definite shape. For some time the Maori Pioneer Battalion had been busily erecting a hall, the walls of which were of tarred paper, and this, on completion, was to be known as the Divisional Theatre. It was there, at the corner of the Sailly Road at Bac St. Maur, that the Division christened the new theatre by putting on a Christmas Treat for the French kiddies, who turned up in their hundreds from far and near to receive gifts from a heavily-laden Christmas tree. Each child got several toys, and, after a lavish partaking of buns and fizz, one of the children presented General Russell with an illuminated address, and much to the delight of the kiddies and Diggers alike, the General replied in excellent French.
The Division was in the line at Fleurbaix, where about this time they suffered numerous page 55gas casualties. On one occasion, when a party in the front line, on re-donning their gas-masks after having previously removed them, the first blowing of the eerie-sounding Strombus horn having proved a false alarm, the unfortunate victims found that in the meantime their saliva-filled mouthpieces had frozen, so that when the second and real warning came, the masks were unwearable, and all were caught without any protection from the gas whatsoever.
There was quite an epidemic of fractured Wrists during January and February owing to the numerous spills on the ice that covered the River Lys, on which all and sundry who could dig up skates spent happy hours daily in the enjoyment of the exhilarating exercise of real ice skating.
The cold was intense, and cars flying along the Sailly Road by day would be followed by what looked like clouds of dust, but what were actually clouds of frost.
The ban on all naked lights made walking extremely unsafe at night, with staff and ambulance cars and other fast traffic speeding along this same Sailly Road in the pitch darkness.
Being now definitely on the job, rehearsals for the first programme of the new show began in a small cafe at Sailly-sur-Lys, and there you might have seen a motley collection of sappers, drivers, bombadiers and just ordinary common Diggers, in scarves, and possibly balaclavas, sitting round in a half-circle, trying to learn an opening number, while Ray Goodison, the pianist, thumped out the notes on our little baby Cramer piano. This little instrument, inciden-page 56tally, had been with us all the way from New Zealand, through the sands of Egypt, and was now having its baptism in France.
It says a great deal for British manufacture when I say that it remained with us right through all the heavy going of the war period, until we gave our last show in Germany, when it found its way back to New Zealand, and can now be traced to a Digger's home in Taumarunui. The rightful place of such an historic instrument is, I think, the National War Museum, and I should like to learn that this can yet be made possible.
To get back to the projected entertainers.
The augmented orchestra was in the process of constant grooming for our long-awaited first performance at Bac St. Maur; but, of course, their objectives were nothing like as difficult of achievement as were ours, for they already had a fairly large library of orchestral music, whereas we found great trouble in getting suitable material on which to work.
The weather was terribly cold, and our temporary quarters in a very tumble-down attic were far from being ideal at this intricate stage of our development as budding theatrical stars. In fact I, for one, felt almost depressed at having left such pleasant company and surroundings as were almost always available in my old unit, for such a poor turnout as this new venture promised to be.
Senninghem, 1917. The Marquee.
See Page 78
En Route to the Base
See page 78
Site of Xmas Panto "Dunedin"
See Page 82
In my upstairs room I had several coffins to keep me company, and always used one as a settee.
The daughter of the house, who worked at the baths nearby, where the troops took a periodical dip, was a very lively girl of about 20, and her favours were much sought after by the boys; but I had the drop on them there, for the gay Marie used to bring my early morning coffee every day. I can still hear the gruff but kindly old father, calling out to his son about six o'clock every morning: "August, August, il est temps pour te lever" (sic). But August, being only a lad of some fourteen years, found it a bit of a task to tumble out on those cold and frosty mornings of January, 1917.
We rehearsed all day and every day at concerted numbers and sketches mainly, having much to learn as to the proper uses of entrances and exits, the good management of which are the very first essentials of a well-ordered stage technique.
If our performances did not at first attain the success ultimately achieved, it was probably mainly due to our lack of stage training, and also to our being set the altogether too difficult task of putting on a double change of programme weekly with our all-too-limited repertoires.
Our costumes were made to our measure-page 58ments by the nuns at Bailleul, and were of a white calico material, with a white fern in a black circle (the Divisional sign) on the left breast of the tunic.
We had the traditional high pierrot hat with pom-poms, and a goffered ruffle round the neck.
Icicles hung from the roof of the theatre, for it was the coldest winter in Europe for thirty years, and the discomforts of our draughty dressing-room were a severe trial. There were very many humorous incidents during those opening few weeks, though some were not considered funny at the time, as when our hard-working comedians in their first careless rapture failed to clear the fence, and had to stand the ribald criticism of some of our hard-boiled P.B.I.
We sat on-stage in a semi-circle in those early days, and the only drapings we possessed were a couple of wings and a back cloth of some black material, behind which we contrived to dress, and to make up at a long shelf, whereon rested several tins of various brands of pipe tobacco, which now did service as receptacles for our few sticks of grease-paint and face powder. There was scarcely room at the back to pass anyone making a change of costume without cannoning into the back cloth, which was all that hid us from the audience and disgrace.
Our expert trombonist, Herman Lange, could do some marvellously clever imitations of an aeroplane zooming overhead, and an especially good one of a "whizz-bang" arriving; and sometimes he would put this latter on during the show when, to make things more realistic, we on stage would all smother up and duck for cover.page 59
One night this impromptu act went over particularly well, when someone fell on the back cloth, bringing it down, together with all its attendant riggings, to make a real wreck of the whole show.
Several Maoris in the front seat, evidently very impressed with the realism of our trombonist's efforts, went for their lives and made for the open, while the whole house was in an uproar for about ten minutes. The Maoris got a great reception as they slunk back to their seats, one remarking with a smile, "Py korry, tat te plurry good shell, eh?"
We had a small cinema outfit attached to us, and while the latest Chaplin film was always prime favourite, the weekly instalments of the serial "The Exploits of Elaine," starring Pearl White and Craig Kennedy, were of consuming interest to everyone.
We of the pierrot troupe always strove to remove our make-up as quickly as possible so as not to miss the weekly episode of this enthralling, if somewhat over-melodramatic film, for the reaction of the Diggers to the villain's dastardly deeds never failed to bring down upon his head loud outpourings of righteous or, more than probably assumed, indignation, which always delighted us.
It was for all the world like a crowd of boys letting themselves go at a cowboy picture and, of course, the relaxation so obtained may be all unappreciated by the Diggers themselves, but was of inestimable value to them, for the opportunities of relief from military duties, apart from a visit to our show and a little skating on page 60the River Lys, which was frozen over at the time, were very far to seek at Bac St. Maur in 1917.
As I have said, it was tremendously hard work to put on the double change of programme weekly, but by serious application to our newly-assigned duties, we very soon were able to give quite a decent show, and signs of appreciation from our hard-boiled audiences were not lacking.
In February the Division went into the Messines sector, and we were installed in Nieppe at the Salle Saint Gerard, a church hall with a capacity for about 500, which was re-named the "Kapai Theatre," and situated just off the main road. Nieppe was to be our home for some seven months, and Green and I were fortunate in securing a billet at the Estaminet de Moulin kept by M. and Mme. Garcette.
As its name implies, our abode was situated adjacent to a mill, from which, it was said, a spy, by manipulating the large wind wheel, gave signs to the enemy.
Another rumour was that a farmer near us, by ploughing his land with white or black horses also gave valuable information to the enemy's observation balloons.
That there were grounds for these suspicions seemed evident from the fact that, though other parts of the town often suffered bombardment and destruction, the most obvious target in all the district—the large ever-grinding mill-wheel—was left severely alone. Six months later all civilians were evacuated, as they should have been when the line settled down outside Armen-page 61tieres in 1915.
Here, in Nieppe, I consider we did our very best work as entertainers, for although we later achieved much more polish, and consequent fame, here we had comfortable billets and a good theatre to rehearse and perform in, and so were much more happy in our work than later, when we had to live as best we could, and show in a tent. I'm not complaining, for it was our job, and we were never happier than to be with the Division; but conditions were often most difficult, whereas here we were practically "on velvet" or, to use a typically Digger expression, we had a "cushy job."
In Nieppe we were fortunate in the addition to our troupe of a well-known Main Body sapper in the person of Theo. Trezise, a dancer with years of London stage experience, who took over the most important duties of producer, and the improvement he made in our performances were readily noticeable. Lt. Kenny rehearsed the orchestra at an earlier hour after which Trezise put us through our facings in a thoroughly workmanlike manner; his intuitive knack of at once being able to set a number and put us through it was remarkable. Of course, as time went on, and more interest was taken in the show, we were able to obtain a little more scenery and a greater variety of stage clothing and props generally. Divisional Headquarters at all times took a keen interest in the new unit, and any request for assistance in this direction was readily attended to.
The enemy had an observation balloon high up, and looking directly down the main street of page 62Nieppe; so, in an endeavour to protect the long queues of waiting audiences from its view, we had a long screen of scrim erected, leading right up to the front door of the theatre; and though on several occasions we were "straffed" and had to take to the fields in the rear, the wonder was that the place was not more intensively shelled.
On one of those occasions when we were bombarded, an unfortunate Digger, who was getting a "buckshee" eye-full of the show through the front door key-hole, was hit in the tenderest part of his anatomy by a stray piece of shrapnel.
When the long-prepared Messines stunt was approaching, we were sent to St. Omer for a few weeks, and were quartered in the Military Barracks; but as there were complaints that our saluting was very bad, and the town being full of "brass hats," we were sent back to rejoin the Division.
From a window in those St. Omer barracks we overlooked a yard wherein, each day, could be seen soldiers from various units of the British Army undergoing Field Punishment No. 2, which consisted of their being chained up by the wrists held above their heads, in the sun, until an N.C.O. sped them round the yard at the double, with full packs up. The rations of these poor unfortunates were, as may be imagined, not sufficient to enable them to do such gruelling exercises; and while no doubt they fully deserved all they got, it was a very unedifying sight to look on at such cruelty.
So ill-disciplined a band as ours was most un-welcome in such surroundings; and when, one page 63light, the loud voice of the guard ordered us to put our lights out, Dick Moloney, in equally stentorian tones, told the N.C.O. in charge of the guard to "dry up," at the same time describing him as being devoid of parentage.
Sergt Charlie Cimino came in a little later to enquire, in a bleary voice, who it was that called the corporal of the guard such a nasty name, and on Dick admitting to being the culprit, Charlie said, "Well, you ought to see him; they're just bringing him round in the guard-room now."
In the Tommy army, even a lance-corporal's word must not be questioned, he having as much power as one of our colonial officers.
The story was often told in France of the amazed Tommy one-stripe artist who had apparently been jostled by a big Australian while he "were in queue down at canteen," and when he had complained, the Aussie had had the audacity to call him a very nasty name, preceded by some equally lurid adjectives, much to the disgust of the Tommy, who ended by saying: "And me a full lance-corporal and all!" His injured dignity was, of course, quite lost on the Australian.
After "the guard incident at St. Omer," a sergeant of the red-caps appeared in our dormitory and in stern words reminded us that "we were not with our own Division now, and that such conduct would not be tolerated; if we were not very careful we would all find ourselves on the mat in the morning, and we were to put our lights out at once, or he would know the reason why." Charlie Cimino, on whom the page 64effects of the Bock he had consumed were becoming more and more noticeable, was at this moment removing his socks, and looking up at the irate Tommy sergeant, said, with one side of his face all askew: "Say, Serg., have yet got a pair of nail scissors on yer; I want to cut my toe-nails." The rest of us, who were feigning sleep, with the blankets jammed into our mouths, all burst out laughing, and the red-cap retired in abject disgust.
So we were returned to the Division, and gave a few concerts on a stage erected in an open field, just before the boys went in at Messines.
A fifteen-inch gun on the railway nearby was very active, and at times quite overshadowed us, both as to sound and interest. At this time the Air Force were experimenting with tri-planes, and in one of these a New Zealander serving with the R.A.F. used to give us demonstrations of the ease with which he could stunt with the odd-looking three-winged machine.
I was in a billet at the corner of the Pont d'Achelles and Bailleul roads when, on looking from my upstairs room one evening, I saw the 'plane come straight at me, and feeling it simply must strike the roof, I got underneath the bed to await the crash.
The 'plane must have zipped up enough to clear the house, for when I looked out, its occupant was zooming past with a beaming smile on his face.
On the Sunday preceding the Messines stunt we gave a concert at Red Lodge, Hill 63, where, by peeping through a camouflaging screen, we were able to see the Germans on their side of "No Man's Land."
The owner of my billet was an old lady who had lost her husband and two sons in the war.
Everyone knew that the Canadian sappers were working at top speed to complete the mining of Messines, so as to allow the attack to take place on the scheduled date.
The whole scheme had been thoroughly rehearsed by General Plumer and his 2nd Army Staff, so as to ensure its complete success. On that night of 6th June I could not sleep a wink, thinking of the great event, and of all those unfortunates who would never again see the sun rise.
At three o'clock I awoke my elderly landlady, and explained the position, so as to prepare her for the tremendous explosion which would surely be felt, as well as heard. On the tick of ten past three, whilst watching over across that dark hillside, with only a few occasional star-shells to break the still blackness of the night, we observed a sight never to be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it.
Strangely enough it was the sight—or spectacle—rather than the sound, which appalled me the more.
The whole hillside seemed to rise slowly, for all the world, it seemed to me, like a lazy man page 66getting out of bed to stretch open his arms to their fullest extent, and yawning the while, before ejecting all the air from his lungs, with one swift rush of sound.
The sight was truly appalling as the earth erupted at great length to throw rocks, flame and, of course with them, though unseen, hundreds of human beings, into the air; and the poor old lady, greatly shaken, could only murmur fervently "Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu," and make those odd little clicking noises with the tongue, which, in French as in English, depict astonishment, and which are so hard to put on paper.
Perhaps "tch, tch, tch, tch," is as near as we can spell the sound we are all so familiar with.
I was sure I could detect gas, and hurried off to warn the members of the Company who were quartered in an open field at the corner of the Bailleul Road; and much to my surprise I found that some of them had slept right through the whole nerve-shattering affair.
About this time we made two visits to the Chateau at La Motte, where Capt. Izard, of the N.Z. No. 2 Field Ambulance, ran an officers' rest station.
On the first occasion we were overlooked, and waited hours after the performance, while our O.C. was feted by the Baroness and her daughter, the Countess de la Motte; returning to Nieppe late that night in a starving condition. However, they made up for it on the second occasion, when we were given a most enjoyable supper.
It was on that visit that Trezise, a full-blown page 67sapper, astonished some Tommy officers by ordering them out of the dressing room, whence they had come to pay respects to our girl. Early in July I got my first leave to "Blighty," after having been in France for fifteen months; and like most Diggers I took my ticket out to Scotland, which was always a happy hunting ground for the Aussies and ourselves. I was commissioned to spend up to £17 on a 'cello, and some strings for our little Cramer piano, and after the usual rush to have my pay-book adjusted, I set out for the railhead at Steenwerck, en route for the "Big Smoke."
The worst part of going on and coming from leave was the compulsory period spent at what was known as "One Blanket Hill," a camp at Boulogne, where everyone had to report for delousing before crossing to England, a ticket being issued to each man certifying him to be free from lice. There, too, we were issued with ration cards, or rather books of tickets, each one of the latter entitling us to certain items of food-stuffs such as meat, bread, and butter, etc.; for in England the shortage of food was very acute, and there were long queues everywhere of people waiting to purchase the necessities of life.
Punch's cartoon of the servant girl who returned after an absence of some hours to explain to her mistress that while waiting in the bread queue she "got mixed up with the one for the pitchers next door and got swep' in," might very easily have happened at that time of food shortage. S.O.S. in those days was interpreted as "Short of Sugar," and all cafes and restaurants sold little tablets of saccharine, to be used in lieu page 68of sugar; but even at two tablets a penny, I never liked them.
I took to London immediately, for from the very first night when I found myself face to face with St. Paul's Cathedral, while strolling idly round the streets, it was like visiting some place I had been to in some previous existence. In spite of having spent almost two days in my search for the 'cello and piano strings, and in having them suitably packed for their passage to France, I could obtain no extension of leave from Colonel Hall, whom I saw at our London Headquarters in Bloomsbury Square.
In consequence I had a very rushed trip to Scotland, where I met relatives for the first time at Greenock and Kilmarnock, and had only time for a hurried look at Glasgow and Edinburgh before returning to London.
One or two shows at the theatres (including the opera "Madame Butterfly" with our own Rosina Buckman in the title role), and it was time to get the train at Victoria on my return to France.
What a rush it had all been, and how it had whetted my desire to see everything I had been unable to see in that short week. I landed safely back with my freight at Nieppe, where we reopened at the Divisional Theatre on July 19th, 1917. The Division was still in the line at Warneton, where the attack on the sugar refinery was completely successful, though, unfortunately, we suffered a sad loss in having General Johnston killed in the trenches about that time.
Things had been becoming increasingly active in Nieppe, where the enemy had been page 69sending over thousands of gas shells for some weeks past.
We were almost alone in the town, and our audiences consisted mainly of Tommies, and a few civilians who were very sad at the thought that they were soon to be evacuated, even though it was to be to a safer zone, for of course they could not take everything with them, and who would like leaving with the thought that they might never see their homes again?
Several of our civilian friends had been killed quite recently, including little Georgette Pembert, a chubby little girl of about ten, whose elder sisters were a great atraction to the troops, who bought souvenirs at their shop in the main street. I had occasion to assist a dressmaker friend of mine—Lucienne Verfailles—to seek safer quarters when she and her elderly parents were, twice in one week, shelled out of their home. It was a very sad day when the evacuation was carried out, but it was for their own good, and should have been done much earlier. We continued to show in Nieppe, however, until September 6th, when we left in lorries for Seninghem in the St. Omer sector, where the Division were being made ready for the big Passchendaele stunt in October.