Ways and By-Ways of a Singing Kiwi with the N.Z. Divisional Entertainers in France
Chapter IV. — We Leave Nieppe
We Leave Nieppe.
As our departure from Nieppe marked a very definite milestone in the young life of our troupe, perhaps it may be as well to give some idea of the lines on which it was run, together with a short account of some of the contributors to its success. There is no doubt at all that the pictures alone would have drawn large audiences, even without any additional entertainment; but I feel sure that the pleasure of hearing some decent music played in absolutely first-class style by a good orchestra such as we had, added to the attraction for many who missed the musical amenities of former civilian life.
That a good many considered the pierrot show was by itself worth the trouble of attendance can be assumed from the enthusiastic reception accorded almost every item on the bill.
Many came to see and hear Nelson, who made a marvellous girl, and whose songs, generally with a backing of the male chorus, were of the popular revue or music-hall type, and he could always be depended on to take two or three encores. On glancing through the old programmes, of which I have a complete collection, I find that Nelly's items were many and varied; but perhaps I may be permitted to mention "Fancy you fancying me," "The Broken Doll," and "I'm so glad to see you're back, dear lady," as being among the most popular of her (his) numbers.page 71
Of the many duets with this pseudo-girl, the French number of Christine's "Je sais que vous etes jolie," in which I was privileged to take part, was one of the most tuneful, though Trezise and Tidy did many excellent duets with the fair deceiver.
Trezise's offerings generally served to display his undoubted adroitness as an exponent of the terpsichorean art, and with his very noticeable flair for making up and dressing, he always lent a much-needed touch of colour to our programmes.
Not the least of Trezise's accomplishments was his great ability as a producer, and this alone would have made his services of all important value to us.
The straight songs of tenor, baritone, and bass were more or less in the tradition of English ballads, and as such, seldom failed to find a ready response from our audiences. Dick Moloney possessed a baritone voice of lovely quality, and one of his favourite songs was Sanderson's "Hills of Donegal," and there's no doubt that this self-styled "Sinn Fein Baritone" was never better than when singing one of the many beautiful songs of Ireland. Bert Green was a tremendous acquisition when he came up from the Base to join us early in March, his resonant bass voice being always in great demand; and if only one of his songs might be referred to, let us make it Eric Coates' "A Dinder Courtship," a semi-humorous ditty that suited him immensely, and of which he made a great job. His value as the foundation on which to build our male quartettes was most marked, and these concerted page 72numbers were probably among the star items on our programmes.
Of course, unaccompanied male voice singing will always be acceptable to almost any audience, especially when well rehearsed; and I can say, as a member of many quartette parties, both before and after the war, that when our best four were available, it was a great joy to be part of it. We spent an hour every morning of the week, including Sunday, in rehearsing our number for the next week's programme, so it may be accepted that we attained a very high standard of successful performance.
"Strange Adventure," from the "Yeoman of the Guard" and the ever popular Madrigal from the "Mikado" were two of the best of our serious numbers, while "Oh Zephyrs Blow," a satire on a church choir practise, at which we arrived at intervals, carrying huge music books bearing, in large type, the name of such an incongruous set of personalities as: Rua, Caruso, Little Tich, and George Robey, was one of our many incursions into comedy.
Then there were the numerous feature numbers, such as "Lantern Land" and "Chinatown," both sung by Charlie Tidy, with a be-lantered chorus, gyrating rhythmically round a darkened stage in the rear of the soloist.
All these ragtime ditties had a very definite place in our offerings to the Diggers at the Front.
Sketches, too, were always prime favourites on the programmes, and generally provided the occasion for the whole company to let off steam. Some of the earlier ones, such as "One Round O'Brien," and "Water Scenes," come to mind as being particularly hilarious affairs, though a much later one in "Sick Parade" was probably the funniest.
But in spite of all these afore-mentioned highlights on our programmes, the items which, by general acclamation, were best received by the Diggers as a whole, were those put over by our comedians, and more especially those done by cur chief funster, Jack Le Comte, who, by sheer hard work plus a peculiar streak of originality, not only made the audience laugh, but very often succeeded in convulsing us as well.
In these later days, twenty years after that fateful period spent in the vicinity of the war zone, it is scarcely to be expected that modern youth would appreciate all those wartime jokes that so excited our risible faculties; but, as it is not anticipated that any such will be amongst the readers of this book, should it ever get as far page 74as publication, I am tempted to give just one or two examples of friend Le Comte's humour which, as I have said, was one of the hits of our show.
Gagging with his "feed," or partner in comedy, Fred Nation, Le Comte, while apparently reading the war news from a newspaper, said, "Well, all I can say it that Jerry must be getting very short of reserves: it says here he's got women in the front line now."
To which Nation replied: "You can't show me where it says that in the paper?"; whereupon Le Comte points to a paragraph and reads aloud, "Enemy withdraws on the Western Front": "there you are, what do you know about that?"
This, of course, was considered almost risque in those innocent days before newspaper advertisers and window-dressers took the plunge.
Another and more proper example is one of many digs at the officers, which never failed to draw roars of approval from the back-benchers. Jack came on one night, and after he had nodded to, and apparently recognised several of the officers in the front seats, Nation remarked that he seemed to know more than half the officers present; to which Le Comte's reply was "Know more than half of them? Why I know more than the whole blooming lot of them put together; as a matter of fact I'm thinking of going in for a commish myself."
Nation "pooh-poohed" the idea, and plied him with questions, asking if he knew what a platcon was; to which the reply came that "a platoon was a small body of men entirely surrounded by officers." Asked how, if he were an page 75officer, he would get his company, marching in four, into a three-cornered paddock; he scratched his head for a while, and said: "Oh, that's easy; you'd just march them straight up to the main gate, take a deep breath, and sing out 'Carry on, Sergeant'!" Jack's explanation of the letters S.R.D. on all rum jars was that they meant "Seldom Reaches Destination."
I could give dozens of such examples of Le Comte's self-made humour, some of which you would probably rate as being funnier than those cited; one such being when, after a raid, he informed Nation that we had got two prisoners in the raid: "Yes, a big Hun and a little 'un; and they had given us some very valuable information: Yes, we found out what they were doing with the bread in Germany."
Nation's excited "No! what are they doing with it?" brought the absurdly laconic reply, "Eatin' it, eatin' it!" His conundrum, "If bread is the staff of life, what is the life of the Staff?" the answer to which "One long loaf" was a typical instance of his clever wit; but an end must be made somewhere if this saga is not to reach omnibus proportions, so here we will leave this somewhat lengthy reference to our leading comedian, who was at all times such a pillar of strength to the show.
Two other alleged comedians were George Carr, whose hackneyed "My old friend John" was scarecly what was required to be successful in such surroundings but, truth to tell, its perpetrator gave able assistance elsewhere, and especially in the straight concerted work.
Of Ike Richardson it must be said that his page 76best effort was Stanley Lupino's great song from "Arlette," "I'm on the Staff," though Ike always found it most difficult to remember his words and was certainly not assisted by his rival, Le Comte, who generally contrived to talk nonsense to him right up to the moment of his entry on stage, and then bet him he would forget his words.
Le Comte, let it be said, won nearly every time.
Dave Kenny's humorous songs at the piano, and his comic duets with George Lyttleton were necessarily somewhat in lighter vein than were those of our low comedian; nevertheless they were always looked forward to, and received with enthusiasm. Lyttleton's worth was, unfortunately, not generally apparent to our audiences, who could not be expected to know all the inner workings that allowed of the show being put on. Besides doing his own items on stage, he could, and generally did, take his place in the well as a viola player when the orchestra needed him for the overture, and afterwards, when providing the music for the pictures.
Another verse, which was reproduced in the Continental edition of the New York Herald in Paris, when we sang there, ran:
The general says we must take Lille,page 77
(second voice) Really? Great Scot!
His scheme's quite good, and I think we will,
Really? Great Scot!
He's giving us. all a holiday,
And letting us over-draw our pay,
Of course, Lille will be out of bounds that day,
Really? Great Scot!
The bally Yanks are in the war,
Really? Great Scot!
They don't know what they're fighting for,
Really? Great Scot!
France is full of Yankee hordes,
With Stars and Stripes, and waving swords,
They don't have tanks, they've all got Fords,
Really? Great Scot!
Topicalities, of course, were always sure-fire winners, whenever we cared to turn them on, the very circumstances under which we performed lending themselves admirably to this purpose.
The opening and closing choruses were generally taken from the best of London shows current at the time as, for instance, "To-night's the Night" from the show of that name, and "Tingleingling" from "High Jinks," both of which made good bright opening numbers; while the "Ringaling" from the "Bing Boys" became our stock closing number.
All piano accompaniments were played on stage by Lt. Dave Kenny, and his superb artistry and ability as a first-class musician was evident at all times, as when, lacking a copy of a song in the correct key, he could transpose it at sight, up or down, in any key whatsoever: God's gift to vocalists.
Any resume of our entertainment work would not be complete without a word of reference to our indispensable scenic artist, popularly known as "Ike," though admitting to the illustrious name of Nelson.page 78
Ike won a competition for the best cover for our weekly programmes, receiving the £2 prize money offered by the Division for this event, and his subsequent work for us, in the way of painting back and front cloths, wings, in the manufacture of stage furniture and all sorts of stage properties and gadgets, large and small, culminating later in the excellence of the five changes of scenery he, assisted by carpenter Frank Williams, provided for the pantomime, to say nothing about the four following revues, proved him to be absolutely indispensable to us. When one considers the difficulties under which he was compelled to work, together with the limited material and tools of trade with which he was supplied, the results he was able to achieve, stamp him as an adept in the art—very desirable in war—of improvisation in the field.
It is because I consider some record should be left to posterity of our work in 1916-1918, in our endeavours to provide acceptable entertainment to the troops, that I have gone to such lengths to describe our show, for now that we were to move away from Nieppe, where we had served almost eight months of our apprenticeship as entertainmers, the entire character of our programmes was soon to alter very considerably.
Arriving at Senninghem in the second week of September, it was here we were presented by the Y.M.C.A. with a huge marquee which could hold a thousand people comfortably and, sad to relate, from now on our troubles commenced. We had, probably after travelling long distances in lorries over rough roads, to erect this enor-page 79mous tent with its six tall poles like the masts of a ship, secure the canvas walls to the ground with hundreds of heavy screw-irons, arrange the seating, and a dozen and one other things that left us in poor shape for putting on a show at all.
The opening programme here was a special performance on Sept.10th, on the occasion of a visit from Sir Thomas Mackenzie, k.c.m.g., High Commissioner for New Zealand in London.
We continued to appear until the Passchendaele stunt, when we were sent down to Etaples where we were given a reception on arrival by the Base show, the N.Z. Pierrots, afterwards (though greatly altered) known to Australians and New Zealanders at home as "The Diggers."
While at the Base we went to Paris Plage and gave a show at the Duchess of Westminster's Hospital at La Toquet. As we were given the use of the laundry for a dressing room, our seven big wicker panniers held a lot more than our costumes when we came away.
In view of the approaching winter we had taken the opportunity to provide ourselves with as many woollen comforts as we required, but I'm sorry to say that it availed us not at all, for most of them disappeared at the very first washing.
Evidently some needier persons admired our choice of garments, and we were left to make other arrangements.
In response to a request we gave a show in the open air to a most distinguished audience, including Princess Louise, at the popular sea-side resort, Berck Plage. Although strictly page 80against orders, I think most of us had cameras, and I was fortunate enough to obtain a snap of no less a personage than little Princess Marie Jose of Belgium, then only a little curly-headed girl of thirteen, but now Crown Princess of Italy, with a family of her own. She was playing on the sand with some other children when she was pointed out to me, and when I asked her to face the camera, she said in good English: "Why do you want to take my picture?"; but when I said I had come all the way from New Zealand to get it, she readily assented.
In October we returned to the Division at Senninghem, where they were re-organising after what must have been, for us, the worst stunt of the whole war, and the only occasion during the war that our New Zealand Division had failed to take its objective: a feat, it was later admitted, that was practically impossible. The conditions at Passchendaele were appalling, the whole sector being a quagmire, so that every time the guns fired, they sank deeper into the mud.
In consequence, the barbed-wire covering the objectives was not cut, and the attacking infantry were mown down at every attempt to move forward.
Sad tales were told of how that most popular officer, General Bill Braithwaite, reviewing his second Brigade subsequent to their withdrawal from the line, broke down and openly wept on seeing how badly their ranks had been decimated.
Etaples, 1918. The Kiwis in "Y Go Crook?"
Back Row: H. Baxter, G. McBeth, A. McGuinness, D. Moloney, J. James, A. Saunders, R. Harrison, B. Green.
Middle Row: H. Prechner, O. Pinches, C. Tidy, S. Nelson, E. McKinlay, J. Le Comte, G. Lyttleton, F. Nation, R. Shaw.
See Page 102
It was about this time, at Senninghem, that I had my first bout of illness having been stricken with a severe attack of bronchitis, which came very near to being the end of the war for me. One night in particular I felt I was going, as I had no more strength left to pull air into, and force it out again, from my lungs; and had it not been for the care of Les Probert and Ossie Devlin, in sitting up all night to put steaming hot cloths to ray chest and back, I feel absolutely certain I could not have lived. The bronchitis, which has been my particular bugbear ever since, was contracted, I have no doubt at all, when on the way up from the Base I slept in a stall where horses had been quartered a few days previously.
It was a great blow to the troupe when its only tenor was taken way in the ambulance to our stationary hospital at Wisques, there to remain for several weeks. I had never in my life been in hospital before, and I soon made up my mind to leave it as quickly as possible, as I found the whole environment most depressing, especially when a badly shell-shocked Canadian sergeant nightly went through the whole terrifying experience of dodging his way through a creeping barrage, ending in his being blown up, when his heart-rending screams were blood-curdling. That poor chap went through the whole terrible experience every night, while one of the sisters held his hand and tried to pacify him; and though some of his unconventional language sometimes brought a smile to the faces of the page 82other patients, we all resolved never again to think lightly of shell-shocked cases.
Lt.-Colonel Eugene O'Neil, who was in charge of the hospital, one day brought round no less important a visitor than General Russell himself, who had a cheery word for everyone, informing me that the entertainers were rehearsing a pantomime and wanted me back badly. On my discharge I left the hospital for Dickebusche, near Ypres, where I found the boys busy camouflaging the huge tent, which had been erected close by a cemetery, and near an ambulance station, and I could not help thinking how appropriate a spot it was as, in all that dreary waste, that huge marquee must have been easily detected by enemy 'planes and balloons.