Ways and By-Ways of a Singing Kiwi with the N.Z. Divisional Entertainers in France
Chapter VIII. — England
However, the recuperative powers of the human body are extraordinary, and all our miseries were over as soon as we stepped ashore in good old Blighty.
We were met by the landing officer for N.Z. troops, in the person of Major Stewart, whom I recognised as having seen riding through Green Dump at the Somme, every day during our sojourn there in 1916.
We were soon fixed up with hot food, being made to feel that life was still worth living, and our sincerest gratitude is due to the kindly women-workers at the Army and Navy Canteen for what they did for us, after our awful journey. What—organisation!-—real carriages, and good food, with no hours of waiting round at stations in the cold. Everything went like clockwork, and after passing through Stratford-on-Avon, Bath, Birmingham, and Stafford, we reached the Rifle Brigade camp at Broctdn, where we were to be in absolute clover.
Hot meals, a bunk with a mattress and five blankets, these were some of the comforts we enjoyed, and all our thanks went out to Lt. Norman Parker, the quartermaster, who did everything in his power to see that we were comfortable. The whole world looked different to us now that we were able to live decently; and, on looking back, one wonders why it was neces-page 138sary for us to have undergone such an ordeal after the Allies were supposed to have won the war.
Surely some of the excellent German or French trains we had seen lying idle could have been commandeered for us, instead of those insanitary and unsuitable horseboxes. As for those tents at Rouen, under snow, words fail me. I know that three New Zealanders died on that terrible journey, and many others of us underwent illnesses that have left their traces to this day.
From Brocton I was transferred to Horn-church camp in Essex, there to await a decision on my application for a course of study at the London Guildhall School of Music.
As part of the Educational Scheme, the N.2. Government had agreed to allow all approved students to attend classes in London before returning to the Dominion. My application was granted and, along with some 80 others, we were installed in two adjoining houses in Torrington Square, where we ate and slept for the next three months.
My tutor at the Guildhall was Mr. Mewburn Levien, and it was while I was there that I first had the opportunity of meeting Dame Nellie Melba.
The Principal of the school, Sir Landon Ronald, had been the Diva's friend, counsellor, and accompanist for many years; and on May 19th, 1919, he gave her a big birthday party in honour of her J8th birthday. With three Australian soldier students, also in uniform, I formed part of a guard of honour, and, standing close page 139beside Melba, I caught many of her asides that were not meant for other ears.
It was a most distinguished gathering of England's best known musicians, and each guest was announced in turn: Sir Fredric Cowen; Sir Frederick Bridge; etc., etc. There were hundreds present, and Melba got very tired of it all and whispered to me, "How many more of them are there, Digger? Fm about fed up of all this," and other like remarks. However, it was a thrill to see so many of England's elite at such close hand, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Not being required to attend our classes every day, there was ample time for sight-seeing, which was as well, for those were memorable days just following the war, and almost every day there seemed to be something special to see.
The brilliant re-opening of Covent Garden with Melba and Tom Burke in "Boheme," was a night to be remembered quite apart from the opera performed, for the glittering show of the many Royal personage and nobles who attended.
Of the many inspiring processions, two were of a very sad nature indeed, when first Nurse Edith CavelPs body, and later that of Capt. Fryatt, was brought across from Belgium, where they both had died in their country's service.
Among other memorable marches was that of the Colonial Troops, when companies representing each of the Dominions' fighting men paraded through the hub of the Empire. Another was the march of London's famous Guards Regiments, with the Prince of Wales leading the way through the great city's crowded streets.page 140
The greatest of all was the wonderful Peace or Victory March on July 19th, when all the allied troops were represented, with a specially picked and splendidly tailored company of American troops leading the way. There they were, all the famous men who had led for us during the war: Foch, Haig, Jellicoe, Beatty, Pershing, and all the other great generals and admirals whose names will go down to history as having played the principal parts in the Great War, 1914-1918.
It was an unforgettable day, ending with a marvellous fireworks display that night in Hyde Park, when so many hundreds of thousands of people congregated that many were carried, as I was, from Marble Arch, away along Oxford St. to past Selfridges, with their feet only touching the ground at rare intervals.
A great surge of people congregated in front of Buckingham Palace, and in response to the repeated calls of the whole populace shouting "We want our King," "We want our King," His Majesty and all the Royal Family appeared on the balcony again and again.
I well remember the laugh that went up from the crowd when, as the King and Queen retired, followed by the Royal Family in order, one of the younger Princes—it must have been Prince George—gave a very good imitation of the then very well-known Charlie Chaplain hop, and side-turn, on one leg. The King must surely have wondered at the laugh that burst forth and, no doubt, caused inquiries to be put in train, when they got inside.page 141
Yes, they were great days alright, when the universe was relaxaing into that carefree spirit, which, eventuallly, a few years later, brought on the period of jazz-mania; and when women's efforts to achieve sex-equality, with their cigarettes and knee-length skirts, only succeeded in bringing about a lowering of standards all round.
But I am getting out of my depth here, so, to go back to London of 1919. I remember having great hopes of becoming rich on the dividends predicted by Horatio Bottomley, on my five Victory £1 Bonds purchased at that time.
Alas! it was just another "after the war" delusion, and poor Bottomley, a staunch patriot, as his popular production "John Bull" proved, died in prison while' serving a swindler's sentence.
After the Guildhall, I went for private tuition to that very famous singing teacher, Harry Plunket Greene, whose speciality was interpretation in song, and benefited much from my term with that great gentleman; but, unfortunately, my chest condition was a great hindrance, and after a consultation with Dr. Atkinson, a Harley St. specialist, I underwent an operation at Walton-on-Thames, where New Zealand ran a war hospital.
In convalescence I enjoyed many lovely evenings on the river, which at that particular spot is very beautiful indeed.
There is so much one could write about London, and I feel that any account of that war period would be incomplete without some reference to the many exceptional shows offering at that time.page 142
It must be remembered that there were some 200,000 men arriving in the big metropolis every day, including Sunday, all certified as having their pay-books in a sound healthy condition, and all ready to lap up as much entertainment as possible, before returning again to France.
Apart from opera, their choice was practically unlimited, and among the many extra choice shows was Oscar Asche's "Chu Chin Chow," that colourful extravaganza at His Majesty's which ran for over five years.
At its height, it was necessary to book up months ahead; but if you couldn't get in there, you could try "The Maid of the Mountains" at Daly's.
This was another most spectacular show with a wealth of beautiful musical numbers, and with such artists as Jose Collins, Thorpe Bates, Lauri de Freece, and Mark Lester, all tastes in singing and humour were amply cared for.
Early in the war, the "Bing Boys" had a wonderful run at the Alhambra, with the inimitable George Robey, Violet Lorraine and the late Alfred Lester as the stars. To mention only a few of the many other popular shows, there were "The Lilac Domino," "Going Up," "Yes Uncle," "Arlette," "Fairer and Warmer," "The Boy," etc., all of which were assured of capacity audiences practically throughout the whole course of their run. What a feast for the entertainment-starved troops to choose from, and it page 143was no wonder that many a Digger felt sad at the idea of parting with wonderful London and all that it had come to mean to us.
Anyway, I for one appreciated to the full all that the old town had to offer us, especially as time drew near for our departure, when there still seemed to be so much more we had not seen.
Being now quite familiar with the general layout of the city, and more especially of the West End, it was much easier to dash about by tube and bus to wherever we desired to go; and one cannot speak too highly of the kindly consideration of London's people at all times, and especially of the much extolled London "Bobby," who really is an institution in the old town.
I only remember one instance of being told we weren't wanted in England, and it is too amusing not to be recalled here.
Green and I were strolling down Southampton Row one day when an old hag approached us with: "Buy a box of matches, kind sir?" but on being informed that neither of us smoked, she turned suddenly nasty and reviled us with "Ar you —, I'll be glad when you're out of the country."
We both roared laughing, because we had often heard of just such a happening, but never dreamed it would be applied to us personally.
However, all roads led to Sling Camp, where I eventually landed, and from whence there was scarcely any return in those days, unless it was to New Zealand.
All travellers near Sling will remember the famous white horse which can be seen for miles page 144thereabouts; and in commemoration of our sojourn there, our authorities had a huge kiwi engraved in a like manner on the chalky hillside.
Some engineer experts, including Norman, a member of the well-known Dunedin Chinese family of Lo Keong, drew the bird to scale from an exhibit in London Museum, but of course it was greatly enlarged, so that the smallest square that could be placed round it would have measured four acres, which will give some idea of its immense size as a landmark. Some wags went to the trouble of carving a huge egg beneath the bird's tail, but that was filled in, and now the Kiwi Boot Polish Company have taken over the site as an advertisement for their product, and have promised to maintain it in good order and condition; surely a lasting reminder of the many men of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who passed that way in 1914-1919.
Should the boot polish company continue to keep the surrounding grass well cut, it will be an everlasting job: so perhaps in time the spot may come to be known as the land of the "mower."
Some of the Tommies were mystified by the bird, and one was heard inquiring of another: "Say, choom, 'ave thee seent yon Kaiwai dook?"
After being listed to sail on one troopship, a rumour spread that the rowing crew, who had done so well at the Inter-Allied regatta on the Seine, were to be rewarded with a trip home through New York; so, nothing would do but I must get on that boat with the oarsmen.
On Stage. Kalk, Germany, 1919
All that was left of "The Kiwis"
See Page 132
During our four-day stay at Norfolk, we were the guests of The Red Circle Camp Community, a wartime institution, financed by an American millionairess, who entertained, fed, and generally looked after all New Zealand soldiers returning home by way of the Panama Canal.
Everything we required was given to us freely, including post-cards and even the stamps to put on them; so it may be imagined we all keenly appreciated the generous hospitality of our American cousins.
However, what the Yankee orderly must have thought, on the morning of our departure, when his raucously nasal call of "Five a-cla-a-ark" was greeted with such a shower of epithets and boots as it received, had better also be imagined rather than that any attempt should be made to put it on record.
Since the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the Digger had not been used to such an early call.
Apart from the marvellous engineering feat of the actual canal itself, there is not a great deal of interest to see on that particular route from the Old Country to New Zealand; and now that I have been fortunate enough to have travelled by every other way excepting Cape Horn, page 146which, heaven forbid! I should say that the trip via Panama Canal is the least interesting of all.
The voyage of almost three weeks on either side of its torrid zone can be very monotonous, and apart from a stay of an hour or so at Pit-cairn Island, where the mail was dropped and a few cases of fruit taken aboard, there was absolutely nothing to see except salt water, all the way to Wellington. However, we had a very lively crowd on the old Tainui, and the rowing crew, at whose table I sat, never allowed things to get too dull.
I had come down in the train to Plymouth, from whence the Tainui had sailed, with another well-known footballer, George Owles, who later, as "Sassanoff" was to win so much fame in Otago football circles, and whose grave I stumbled on in 1931, in far-off Nairobi (Kenya), whither he had gone to join the motor police, sometime.in the late 1920's.
Bert Green and I had been visiting the grave of our old friend Percy Dimery, who had been leader of our Kiwi Orchestra in France, and who too is buried almost on the equator at Nairobi.
It was George Owles who first initiated me into the mysteries of auction bridge, a game I have made good use of since, but which, on those wet days at the mess tables on the Tainui, was a never-ending puzzle to me. A few lectures and concerts, together with the usual sports programme, served to while away the time on that page 147return voyage, which was made brighter for me by my old friend, Sgt. Major Claude Davie, who, on rough days, always looked after me like a guardian angel.
We were nearing our homeland, and soon all would doff the old uniform and seek to take up the old threads of life as before.
Unfortunately, many were to learn that things had altered considerably, and that their old positions were now occupied by women workers, who were just beginning to seek that freedom so evident since the war.
Some had been lucky in their choice of employers, who had not only kept their jobs open, but, in not a few instances, paid them some part of their wages during the time they had been on active service.
But whatever the circumstances obtaining on their return home, or since, there is no doubt that the years spent abroad with the troops have left abiding memories to the great majority of those who were privileged to be there.
I can well recall the time when, as year after year went by, and we seemed to be making little progress, the army routine became so stabilised that it never occurred to me that we should ever wear "civies" again. The whole thing seemed so futile, for after months of slugging, with no tactics to speak of other than the intensely heavy bombardments, to advance a few miles, the whole gains would be lost—aye, and ten times more—in a few days.
The re-reading of all the letters I wrote home during the war, makes it possible for me to recall something of the spirit, and of the conditions page 148under which they were penned; and on looking back from this distance, it is tolerably certain that without the comradeship of all those splendid chaps with whom it was my privilege to be associated, life would have been a very much harder proposition during those war years.
That we were well looked after, as far as possible, by the Government of the day, and by all those good folk at home who worked so hard to send us such wonderful parcels of comforts, I'm sure all returned men will readily admit.
I know we were especially fortunate in our General commanding the Division, and General Sir Andrew Russell can be assured of a lasting place in the kindly remembrances of all ex-Diggers.
The oft-abused Y.M.C.A. really did wonderful things, and I can recall many instances of Jimmy Hay's indefatigable efforts to serve the troops at all times; and, assisted by an untiring staff, he certainly did a great job.
Besides meeting George W. W. B. Hughes, and the elderly Mr. George, in Paris on one occasion, I retain kindly recollections also of many of the Y.M.'s stalwarts in Egypt, France, Belgium, Germany: some of whom are Messrs. McKenna, Lock, Bob Hill, Andy Gow, and Len Greenberg.
Two of the Y.M.'s high spots in London were the Shakespearean Hut, at the rear of the British Museum, and the Kiwi Club. This latter rendezvous, where Miss Ethel Stone, popularly known to the boys as "Stoney" held sway, has now reverted to its pre-war name, West Central Hotel, Southampton Row.page 149
Nor must the good work of the well-known Salvation Army Padres, Walls and Blaydon, be forgotten, for all their valued assistance to the "Pierrots" and the "Te Koas" respectively, both of which latter concert parties—the former produced by Tano Fama, and the latter by Jerry Pritchard—took their full share of the entertainment business at Etaples.
In this, what might be termed "wash-up" of general affairs of the Expeditionary Force, as they affected us, it is pleasing to be able to report that so much gold was shown in the returns covering the period of its operations.
It is true we had our quota of hard cases like everybody else, but generally speaking the men were an exceptionally well-behaved lot and, I feel sure, they left a name behind them, in the Old Land that, among other Dominion troops, would be hard to beat, both on the field and while on leave.
Our men won their fair share of battle honours, and from among the several gallant V.C.'s in our ranks, perhaps I may be permitted to single out one whose fame became almost a legend overseas, and whose utter disregard of all danger was probably unique even among the bravest V.C.'s of the whole British Army.
Dick Travis did not live to receive his posthumously conferred honour, but he won something far greater even than the much-coveted V.C. his family received, when he won, on the field, the esteem and regard of the admiring Division of civilian soldiers who were privileged to be his pals.page 150
It may be that some day, some time, in the exigency of similar circumstances, we, or those that come after us, shall be permitted to see his like.
Till then, we shall leave poor Dick on his throne, which, if only because it exists in our memories, as he does, can never be abdicated.
We had been a long way, and had seen all sorts of people, from Dick Travis to the conscientious objectors, though it is pleasing to note that the latter were few and far between; and while their mention brings up thoughts on the subject of conscription, I may say that I am entirely in favour of the ballot, when each man is called up in his turn and no indispensable wage-earner is allowed to go, and I hope that method will apply if and when another war should eventuate which, I say in all solemnity, "God forbid."
As regards the contentedness of the men of the Expeditionary Force, it might be as well to say while on the debit side of the ledger, that one hopes the Government has fallen into line with the present trend of things at Home, where a more sensible uniform has been approved for the army.
I know we could have wished something more distinctive in the manner that the Australians achieved, in preference to the Tommy-like turnout we were obliged to wear.
And while on the matter of clothes, Head-quarters could have saved themselves a lot of worry, not to mention paper and ink, in the issue of so many D.R.O.'s forbidding men other than Artillery and A.S.C. to wear riding-trousers.page 151
Whenever a man went on leave, he sought to acquire a sufficiently smart turnout to be able to swank it a bit in London, and when he went to see his people's relations.
Two things before all others were urgently required. A pair of decent riding-strides and, if at all possible, a British Warm, which looked much smarter than our sloppy-looking, though admittedly serviceable, overcoat.
The Warm did not really matter so much, but the strides were important, for who amongst us liked to admire himself in the railway station mirror, with those baggy slacks turned down over our calves in the stupid-looking Guards Officer manner?
It all seems so infernally silly: just like the nit-wit municipal council that sets out a beautiful park, and though everyone wishes to walk through it the shortest way to business, i.e., from corner to corner, they deliberately lay down lawns to bar progress and then set up signs for-bidding people, on pain of a fine, to walk on the grass. What mentality, and yet how true it is.
And so with Army orders: why, if you can possibly outfit a man so that he feels entitled to stick out his chest and look as though the army belonged to him instead of vice versa, wouldn't that be all to the good?
But no! officialdom round the world seems bent, as ever, on avoiding to do the obvious thing as, in taking the seeming path of least resistance, they might be thought to be lacking in authority.page 152
And so thoughts like these and thousands of others in a similarly jumbled-up fashion, came crowding in on us as the old Tainui, tearing along at the snail's pace of 12 knots an hour, bore down on Wellington.
The time seems to drag as all eyes scan the sky-line for a first sight of our homeland.
We felt we must be getting close, for the "long white clouds" of Aotea-rca were becoming more and more ominous. Soon they were to be changed to "all-black," and the deck began to show large wet spots, as the Irishman said, from the size of a shilling to eighteen-pence.