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Ways and By-Ways of a Singing Kiwi with the N.Z. Divisional Entertainers in France

War-Time in Theatreland. — "A Digger Looks Back"

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War-Time in Theatreland.

[Extract from Our Empire Magazine, August, 1937.]

"A Digger Looks Back"

After a review of London's war-time shows, the author goes on to say:—

…. "But the cities and the provinces did not exhaust the beneficent work of War-time Theatreland. Its area was much more extensive; it went into the Line. Can you be so fortunate as to recapture the laughter and pleasantry of a night in the big marquee at the Divisional Theatre at Dickebusch? Perhaps your memory flies more readily to the old French barn at Bihucourt down on the Somme! One's own recollection of a visit to both of these places is that a "rubber-neck" landed in a nearby field with a piece going through the canvas roof of the Dickebusch marquee, and at Bihucourt one saw only half the show; Fritz had "hopped over" against the 42nd Division, and the Brigadier, one General Robert Young, told us in a most unwelcome first appearance on the stage to go home and "stand-to." We happened to be in the Corps Reserve. Unfortunately, we did not see the full show at Bihu-court. Very fortunately there was no "show" up the line. We were for that evening very much like Mahomet's coffin—suspended in mid-air.

For purposes of entertaining the troops, the N.Z. Division in France had at various times certain Divisional Troupes, as they were called. The first was "The Kiwis," who operated at alleged theatres at Nieppe and Dickebusch. Then there were "The Tuis." Of them it has been said that they were always willing to produce a concert for the boys anywhere on the slightest provocation. Then came the famous "N.Z. Pierrots." They were formed in the latter stages of the War and were fostered by the generosity of Padre Walls, of the Salvation Army.

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The Author.

The Author.

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(Note.—The writer is astray here, for the "Pierrots was one of the first N.Z. shows formed in France.—E. McK.)

Commencing on December 26th, 1917, the Divisional Theatre, at Dickebusch was the scene of a Christmas Pantomime, "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, including the Orchestra." One has already referred to the unrehearsed effect provided by Fritz.There was another amusing, if unrehearsed incident.Dave Kenny, of heavy build and a fine stamp of New Zealander, took the part of Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and came tripping on to the stage with the cue of "I'll fly! I'll fly!" meantime flapping a pair of gossamer wings. To see one of Dave Kenny's build threatening to fly was too much for a quick-witted Digger in the audience, who promptly ejaculated, "Like hell you will, Dave." No civilian theatre could provide such a diverting incident with its full proportion of unrehearsed comedy.

One cannot pass from this production without referring to the kindly co-operation of the legitimate stage in England with that of the soldier entertainers. This production was largely dressed by costumes presented by Mr. Oscar Asche and Miss Lily Brayton.

Later, the Divisional Troupe staged an even more ambitious production called "Y Go Crook?" or as they put it in French, "Pourquoi s'en faire." This was so worth while an effort that it was actually staged in Paris after production to the soldiers. One cannot be sure now whether this was played for the troops in the natural open-air amphitheatre in the wood at Authie on the Somme, or a little later in the barn at Bihucourt after the great and final advance had opened. But at both these soldier theatres the Digger marvelled at the stage effects that these erst-while actors established for themselves under manifest handicaps. Electric lighting, drop scenes, wings, footlights, stage properties and effects—all were there. As the Diggers sat in these impromptu theatres during a respite from line duties, they must page 10have found it hard to realise that there was a war on, just up the way.

"Forty Thieves" and "Y Go Crook" were ambitious efforts in all respects when the circumstances were taken into consideration. Before these, the Kiwis put on performances which had pictures for the first half and a pierrot entertaiment for the second.

It must be conceded that when one single Digger seeks to recapture the pleasant memories of War-time Theatreland his effort must be a circumscribed one at best. Much more could be referred to, and much more be brought back from the limbo of the past in praise of those who helped to maintain the morale of the troops.

But without saying anything more, this at least can be done. We can "up and doff our chapeaux" as the song asked us to do for the grimy old stoker, for. those who strutted the boards of War-time Theatreland—soldier and civilian alike—male and female too.

And the lingering memory to those of us who saw these fellows within sound of the guns is this. What a great transformation it all was—soldiers in the morning, actors and "actresses" in the evening; members of a working party in the morning at Polygon Butte, members of a theatre audience in the evening at Dickebusch or such like place."

So there is one Digger who still retains happy memories of our show, and doubtless there are a good many more at home in New Zealand who will find pleasure in recalling some of those nights spent at our entertainments, at a time when some diversion from the strenuous affairs of active service was badly wanted, and when we of the concert party did what we could to supply the need.

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I consider there has been enough and to spare of the "blood and guts" type of war book, so those who prefer their war stories stark, messy and profane, will doubtless be disappointed with this effort.

To all ex-Diggers, greetings; and should you find any pleasure in a perusal of these lines, I shall feel amply repaid.

Ernest McKinlay.
(Late No. 3/1741, N.Z.E.F.)

Sydney, 1938.