Showing posts with label Between Battles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Between Battles. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Special Collections Fossickings 48: The golden virgin of Picardy.

Many posts on the subject of World War 1 and North Queenslanders’ involvement in the conflict have appeared here in the last 12 months. But with the approach of Remembrance Day it is timely to include one more, albeit on a quirky subject.

Watching an episode of the BBC-TV program, Antiques Roadshow, on a lazy Sunday afternoon I was startled by a wartime photograph of a damaged French church. Where had I seen that image before?

La basilique de Notre-Dame de Brebières rises above the small town of Albert in Picardy. Built at the end of the 19th century, the church’s tower and dome are crowned by a golden statue of virgin and child, designed by sculptor Albert Rozé.  In January 1915, at the height of the First World War, a German shell badly damaged the basilica and dislodged the statue. Secured by French engineers, it continued to hang from the tower at a precarious angle for the next three years, giving rise to several superstitions. One held that whichever side, Germans or Allies, caused the statue to fall would ultimately lose the war; another claimed that the war would end only when it did fall. The “leaning virgin” became a familiar, if bizarre, sight to the thousands of soldiers, who passed through on their way to the Somme since the town was only three miles from the front.
Caption: "Albert"  Photographer: Astley James Bromfield, Bromfield Album, NQ Photographic Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.
Many of these troops were Australian who, with characteristic irreverence, dubbed the statue “Fanny” after the then famous Australian swimmer, Fanny Durack - presumably because the dangling figure resembled a swimmer diving from the blocks. The statue was a popular subject for photographers, one of whom was Australia’s official war photographer Frank Hurley. Attempting to get a moonlight shot the explosion of his flashlight startled local residents who feared another bombardment. But it was not Frank Hurley’s photograph that I had seen. Rather it was the son of an Atherton farmer, Sgt Astley Bromfield who either photographed the ruined tower himself or acquired it while serving in France. We have already met Astley, and his younger brother Jack, in earlier posts this year. Only Astley returned from the war, bringing with him a remarkable collection of wartime images, many of which are held in the Special Collections.
Caption: Studio portrait of Astley James Bromfield
But back to the statue. In 1918 the town of Albert was recaptured by German forces and the statue eventually fell when British troops fired through the ruined basilica in April that year. By August the British had regained control of the town and within three months the war was over. The basilica was rebuilt by Louis Duthoit (son of the original architect, Edmond Duthoit) between 1927-1931. The fallen statue was never recovered but was replaced by an exact replica of the original design.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Special Collections Fossickings 46: Brothers in arms

Caption:  Portrait of  three brothers (L to R) - Jack, Davenport and Astley James Bromfield.    Photographer unknown.
Many stories have emerged from the World War 1 centenary commemorations of families which sent, and sometimes lost, several of their members to this conflict. Fathers enlisted with their sons, sisters became nurses and followed their brothers to Gallipoli or Europe and parents farewelled one son after another as they set off for the Front in a spirit of adventure, patriotism or simple family loyalty.
Caption: "Atherton Boys"    Photographer: Astley James Bromfield, Bromfield Album, NQ Photographic Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.
Caption:  Studio Portrait of Astley James Bromfield     Photographer unknown.
Charles and Mary Bromfield were one couple who saw two of their sons enlist within fourteen months of each other.  Originally from New South Wales the couple had brought their family to north Queensland in the 1890s and when war began to tear Europe apart they were dairy-farming outside Malanda.  The conflict must have seemed very far away from such a remote, rural community but as news of Australian casualties filled the headlines, young men found the call to arms hard to resist.
Caption:  AJ Bromfield (on right) engaged in recreational play on board a Defence force ship.    Photographer unknown, Bromfield Album, NQ Photographic Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.
Astley Bromfield’s war began with enlistment in the 25th battalion in September 1915 followed by embarkation from Brisbane at the end of the year. There was plenty of fun to be had on the long voyage and his photos show on-board “pillow fights” and boxing matches and sight-seeing in Egypt. But it was not all plain sailing and severe paratyphoid landed him in hospital for many weeks. By June 1916 he was in France on his way to the front with the 7th Machine Gun Company, later absorbed into the 2nd Machine Gun battalion. By November younger brother Jack had enlisted with the 15th battalion in Cairns and was soon training in Brisbane.  After his own sea-voyage Jack disembarked in south-west England in April 1917 before marching to one of the Wiltshire military camps.
Caption:  Studio portrait of Jack Bromfield    Photographer: The Talma Studios, Sydney.  Bromfield Album, NQ Photographic Collection, JCU Library Special Collections. 
The pride that Charles and Mary surely felt in their sons must have gone hand-in-hand with anxiety as cables brought news of illness and injury. In September 1917 Astley was badly wounded in the leg on the first day of the Battle of Menin Road, at Ypres. This required prolonged hospitalization. In the same month Jack came down with an unknown fever in France and was again reported sick in December. In February 1918 Astley was wounded a second time and a few weeks later Jack received wounds which put him out of action for eight weeks.  This was a period of intense fighting as the Allies struggled against the onslaught of the German spring offensive. In July came the worst news of all. Jack, only recently recovered from his wounds, was killed in action at the Battle of Hamel. He was 24.
Caption: "Blighties"     Photo credit: Astley James Bromfield, Bromfield Album, NQ Photographic Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.
Happily Astley survived and before returning to Australia made a valiant effort to find his brother’s remains in the wastelands of battle. He eventually returned to North Queensland where he married, raised a daughter and lived a long and productive life. Brother Jack rests forever in the Crucifix Corner cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Between Battles 16: Angus & Robertson Pocket Editions

Photo Credit: Jane Ryder
Anzac soldiers were voracious readers. Books, magazines and newspapers from home (as well as trench journals produced at the front) were in high demand, and soldiers’ letters to their families frequently featured requests for reading material to ease the boredom of static trench warfare. The Salvation Army, Red Cross and YMCA collected books and periodicals for the troops, and patriotic organizations like the local Comforts Funds regularly stockpiled and posted books along with the usual parcels of tobacco, chocolate and socks.
Items donated to the Townsville Soldiers’ Sock and Comforts Fund.
Townsville Daily Bulletin, 20 December 1915, 7.
Commercial publishers also recognized the demand for literary entertainment, and in 1915 Angus & Robertson published a reduced-size “pocket edition” of C.J. Dennis’s Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, designed to be carried in the pocket of a military tunic and marketed as the ideal gift for a son or husband at the front. Angus & Robertson continued to release pocket editions throughout the war, several of which were featured in the “Between Battles” displays in the JCU Eddie Koiki Mabo Library and CityLibraries - Flinders St Branch, Townsville.  C.J. Dennis was by far the most popular author, but other writers such as the Scottish-Australian Will H. Ogilvy also featured, with his pastoral visions of the Australian bush and romantic appeals to a sense of duty to the “Mother Country” contrasting with Dennis’s irreverent and ironic portrayals of loveable larrikin characters.
Advertisement featuring pocket editions, “suitable for the trenches.”
Tribune (Melbourne), 21 December 1916, 8.
Pocket Editions marketed as Christmas gifts for soldiers.
Geelong Advertiser, 11 October 1916, 2.
These books represent more than an opportunistic marketing campaign by Angus & Robertson. The experiences of Anzac soldiers abroad fueled a nascent desire for an Australian literary identity, and works like The Moods of Ginger Mick were uniquely antipodean responses to the emerging modernism of European literary culture.  The Moods of Ginger Mick even included a glossary of Anzac-influenced Aussie slang, reinforcing the development of a distinct cultural identity. Dennis worked with one eye on the unfolding war, providing a darkly comic and identifiably Australian interpretation of combat and life on the home front. This topicality sometimes caused problems, and his poetic response to Anzac rioting in Egypt was excised from Ginger Mick by military censors and not published until 1918. 
Caption:  Various titles from Angus & Robertson's pocket editions held in the JCU Library Special Collections     Photo credit: Jane Ryder
Angus & Robertson’s pocket editions for the trenches provided more than a diversion from the harsh realities of war. They mark the emergence of a distinct Australian literary culture, intertwined with and indebted to its British origins but confident of its own unique audience and perspective. While often jingoistic and sentimental, these works were complex and ironic statements on the state of Australasian cultural life, and their nuanced and affectionate portrayals of Anzacs at war and at home resonated with a generation in the process of establishing a distinctive national identity.

Further Reading:

- Butterss, Philip. An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis. Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press, 2014.
- Laugesen, Amanda. ‘Boredom is the Enemy’: The Intellectual and Imaginative Lives of Australian Soldiers in the Great War and Beyond. Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Between Battles 15: Decorative Coal Scuttle

Caption:  Decorative Coal Scuttle from the 4RAA Museum Collection     Photo credit: Jane Ryder
This intriguing item is an example of World War One trench art held in the collection of the 4th Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery (4RAA) Museum at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville.

Caption:  Detail (view 1) of the Decorative Coal Scuttle from the 4RAA Museum Collection     Photo Credit: Jane Ryder
Caption:  Detail (view 2) of the Decorative Coal Scuttle from the 4RAA Museum Collection     Photo Credit: Jane Ryder
Hand made from an 18-pounder brass ammunition shell, and decorated with an Australian rising sun badge, this piece of trench art is a replica coal scuttle- a common and highly recognizable household item of the period. Smaller versions of this same design are sometimes called sugar scoops; similar-looking household items that also featured a short stand and a handle.

Unfortunately nothing is known about the creator of this object although this particular example is indicative of a common theme within trench art.  Soldiers often crafted household items that served to remind them of home.

This precious object formed part of the Between Battles exhibition and was recently displayed at the Townsville CityLibraries -Flinders Street Branch.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Between Battles 14: One man’s trash is another man’s Trench Art

Photograph:  AWM Collection     Caption: Western Front c. 1916. A large quantity of empty shell casings and ammunition boxes representing a minute fraction of the ammunition used by the British Army in the bombardment of Fricourt. (Donor British Official Photograph A111)
The landscape in conflict zones on the Western Front had been drastically transformed by the onset of the world’s first industrial war. In addition to the direct changes wrought by bombardment with high explosives the landscape was littered with spent ammunition casings, abandoned weapons and machinery, and various other battlefield debris. However for some resourceful soldiers the wreckage of war represented potential, and they repurposed that wreckage into both practical and decorative items.  Such items are today collectively termed ‘trench art’.
Photograph: AWM Collection     Caption: Trench art kitchen scoop : Sapper S K Pearl, 5 Field Company Engineers, AIF
Materials such as bone, wood, cloth, metal and spent ammunition shells were made into ashtrays, decorative maps, picture frames, broaches, letter openers, vases, cigarette lighters, miniature airplanes and tanks, and keepsakes known as ‘sweetheart jewelry’ intended as gifts for loved ones back home. Artworks ranged from practical items with simple inscriptions, to elaborate decorative pieces, intended as works of art that highlighted the skill and expertise of the maker.

While the name may imply that these items were being made within the trenches during battle, the majority of items were actually produced during soldiers’ ‘off time’, either between battles or recovering from serious wounds in hospitals.
Photograph:  AWM Collection     Caption: Trench art photograph frame : Lieutenant W C Thompson, 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps
Our interest in these soldier made items is not simply in what was being made, but rather why items were being made and what this can tell us about the cultural lives of soldiers between battles. These items reflect an important cultural activity by soldiers that had a number of purposes and outcomes including:

1. The Alleviation of Boredom:  creating trench art was a good distraction from the discomforts of war and it helped many soldiers to pass the time and occupy their minds and hands.

2. Relaxation: creating something often helped soldiers to ‘switch off’ from their fighting role and it was often implemented as a therapeutic activity for wounded soldiers recovering in hospitals. It also provided wounded soldiers with a positive way to contribute to the war effort with many of their handmade items being sold for fundraising.

3. The Creation of trophies and talismans: artworks were often created with specially chosen materials that held particular value or symbolised a military victory or success.  Other items might also serve this purpose and British anthropologist Nicholas J. Saunders has studied the production of talismanic bullets engraved with a soldier’s name in the belief that it would protect him (Saunders 34).

4. Identification: Within the battlefield itself signs and ‘mascots’ were sometimes produced that stood as a symbol for a particular group or unit. For example, at the entrance to the Catacombs, Hill 63 (an extensive underground dugout) Australian troops erected a Kangaroo ‘mascot’. 
Photograph:  AWM Collection     Caption: A group of 7th Field Company of Australian Engineers at the entrance to the Catacombs - a system of tunnels built into Hill 63, in the Messines Sector. Note the cut out kangaroo silhouette at the top of the tunnel.
5. Reminders of loved ones: items were often intended as gifts to be sent home to loved ones, evidenced by the countless examples of ‘sweetheart jewellery’. Art historians Joe Bageant and Lisa Slade have suggested that soldiers created artworks to project themselves into the world.  For some soldiers, faced with the possibility of death, creating something of themselves to send back to their loved ones was particularly important.

6. The Maintenance of humanity: The desire to scribble and decorate things and to interpret the outside world through forms of art is part of human nature. Perhaps during times of war- a potentially dehumanizing activity- maintaining something innately human becomes increasingly important and as such trench art may be seen to represent an expression of humanity in extreme circumstances.

Photograph: AWM Collection     Caption: Trench art paper knife : Private A J Hinchley, 1 Battalion, AIF
The sheer number of trinkets and trench art items produced by soldiers during the First World War is indicative of the cultural role arts and craft played within the environment of war. Made from battlefield debris trench art items are quite literally the creations of war.

References/ Further reading:
- Saunders, Nicholas, J. “Trench Art”. History Studies 53, 11 (2003): 32-37.
- Slade, Lisa. “Trench Art: Sappers and Shrapnel”. Artlink, 35, 1 (2015): 21-25
- Bageant, Joe. “The Trench Art of World War I”. Military History, 21, 5(2004): 62-68

Monday, June 22, 2015

Between Battles 13: Small Box Camera

Caption:  Soldier of the Great War - Astley James Bromfield on leave in Colombo on a rickshaw, Image from the Bromfield Album, NQ Photographic Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.   Photographer: unknown   
Recreational photography became popular around 1900 when Kodak released the first inexpensive camera, the ‘Box Brownie’. While available, cameras would still have been a luxury item for many soldiers during the First World War.

 The A.J. Bromfield Album (from the North Queensland Photographic Collection, JCU Library Special Collections) is a good example of armature soldier photography, and many of the photos were probably captured using a small portable box camera, similar in style to this slightly later model which was recently loaned to the Between Battles team by the 4th Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery (4RAA) Museum at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville.

Caption:  Box Camera from 4RAA Museum Collection     Photo Credit: Jane Ryder
Caption: A rare photograph of World War One soldiers in the field with a bellows-style camera.  Source: 4RAA Museum Collection

Monday, June 15, 2015

Between Battles 12: World War One Bugle

Caption: Bugle from 4RAA Museum Collection (View 1)   Photographer: Jane Ryder
Caption: Bugle from 4RAA Museum Collection (View 2)   Photographer: Jane Ryder
The bugle presented in the images above is held by the 4th Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery (4RAA) Museum at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville and is typical of the type used during the First World War.  It was recently displayed at the Townsville City Libraries - Flinders Street Branch as part of the Between Battles ANZAC exhibition. 

The bugle is arguably one of Australia’s most iconic Anzac symbols and many people today associate it with the playing of the last post at dawn services. Bugles were used in ceremonial military activities during the First World War and they were also an important symbol of military service that were used for recruitment purposes. The most iconic poster of the First World War which features a bugler.
‘The Trumpet Calls’ by artist Norman Lindsay (

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Between Battles 11: 4RAA Historical Collection

 The 4th Field Regiment Royal Australian Artillery (4RAA) has one of the longest historical lineages of any regiment in the Australian Army. The origins of the unit can be traced back to the Victorian Volunteer Artillery in the 1850s, however it was officially raised as the 4th Field Artillery Brigade (4FAB AIF) on 23 September 1915, when it was established as an artillery support to Australian units and allied forced based in Egypt during the First World War. 

Throughout two world wars and conflicts in Vietnam, East Timor and Bougainville, 4RAA has retained strong ties to its origins during World War One. Most importantly the spirit and the legacy of such a rich history continues to impact upon those involved with contemporary conflicts and peacekeeping activities today.   

This year the unit celebrates 100 years of service, making Anzac commemorations in 2015 enormously significant for the unit, as well as a perfect starting point for our own research.

4RAA maintains a unit museum and historical collection at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville where the unit is now stationed. The museum’s curator, retired Warrant Officer Class Two (WO2) Paddy Durnford, provides ongoing historical support to the unit with assistance from two highly dedicated volunteers, Kevin and Toby. 

Paddy is a very knowledgeable individual having held the position of curator for 16 years, and very kindly assisted our research team in identifying a number of cultural artefacts housed within the collection including musical instruments, examples of trench art and various soldiers’ personal possessions. 
Photographer:  Jane Ryder
The historical collection itself is quite broad comprising memorabilia from various engagements ranging from World War One through to Vietnam and all contemporary peace keeping objectives from Cambodia to Afghanistan.

The museum has a particular focus on regimental horses including heavy draft, light draft, riding horses and mules, as this was a unique aspect of 4RAA’s organisational structure since its inception prior to World War One, and an important aspect of the unit’s artillery history.  Artillery guns and ammunition are also included within the museums display. 

The collection is open by appointment only.  Members of the public may arrange to visit on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. If you would like to know more about the museum or you would like arrange a time to view the historical collection please contact Paddy via phone on (07) 4411 7252 or by email at

References/Further reading:
Australian Army, 4th Regiment, RAA, retrieved from (accessed 11/06/2015)

Burke, A.R. 4th Field Regiment: Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery Historical Guide. Goprint: Brisbane, 2003.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Between Battles 10: The Power of Music

Can you imagine an ANZAC day parade without a street march led by a military band, or the crisp call of a bugle? Odds are the answer is a resounding no! That’s because music and military bands have become embedded within our military culture to the point that such events would be unimaginable without them. Music is symbolic of its society, and during times of war and hardship, people like to be reminded that order and civility are still possible.

The power of music to convey emotions, to soothe unrest, or even to boost morale has been recognised by military forces around the world. In Australia, bands have been part of our military culture since Federation, though until the formation of the Australian Regular Army (ARA) in 1947, bands were unofficial in structure, drawing on part-time bandsmen whose roles as medics and stretcher-bearers were given priority. During the war years this often made music making on the front difficult as musicians were first and foremost fighting soldiers and as a result bands suffered many casualties. In some instances every single member of a battalion or regimental band was lost as a result of their stretcher-bearing roles, as was the experience of the 3rd Battalion Band at Pozieres.
Photograph:  AWM Collection  Caption: The Band of the 21st Battalion practicing beside a dump of salvaged farm implements at Cappy. No identification details were recorded for the men in this group.
During the First World War some 60 Australian military bands served overseas, practicing when they had time and often performing in the dark with audiences straining to hear them over the sound of gunfire. These bands brought much enjoyment to troops, raising their spirits, reminding them of home, and most importantly distracting them from the horrors and discomfort of war. Whilst each band would have been fondly remembered by the troops, it was arguably the 5th AIF Brigade Band that was most recognised by the allied audiences back home, thanks to a single photograph taken at the ruins of Bapaume on the Western Front in 1917.
Photograph: AWM Collection  Caption: The Band of the 5th Australian Infantry Brigade, led by Bandmaster Sergeant A Peagam of the 19th Battalion, passing through the Grande Place (Town Square) of Bapaume, playing the 'Victoria March' (19 March 1917)
This photograph, thought to have been captured by Lieutenant Herbert Baldwin (a British press photographer), circulated throughout the allied forces media both at the front and back home. Arguably one of the most iconic and well-known Australian war photos of its time; it depicted a dire scene.

After enduring one of France’s worst winters in almost twenty years, advances had been brought to a standstill and hope was being lost for any kind of victory to end the War. Capturing the town of Baupaume from German occupation had been a particular target for some time, as it would allow better access to road networks in use by the Allied forces, however progress had been painfully slow. Finally, after eight and a half months, the Germans began to withdraw on 24 February 1917, and by 17 March Australian forces had claimed the burning town. A media convoy attended the official celebration of the town’s occupation on 19 March 1917, during which time the band of the 5th AIF Brigade, led by bandmaster Sergeant Albert Peagam, marched with pride through the smoke.

The success at Baupaume, as illustrated by this single photograph, was heavily publicised. For audiences back home the photograph became a symbolic reminder of the Australian spirit and it instilled Australian national pride in getting the job done under any condition.  But above all the photo renewed hope in both civilians and soldiers alike that a civilized end to the War was possible.

The sad reality however was that the band that marched through the burning town hardly resembled the original 5th AIF Brigade Band. It was essentially a hastily formed new band comprising of members from the 17th, 18th 19th and 20th battalions, and although the photograph was a powerful reminder of national pride, it must also surely symbolize sacrifice.

Australian War memorial, “Bapaume to Bullecourt: The fighting in France, 1917”,

Cartledge, Damon Neil. "Developing Professionals for a Changing World of Work: Identity and  Change in the Australian Army Band Corps " RMIT University, 2002.

Holden, Robert. And the Band Played On. Victoria, Australia: Hardie Grant Books, 2014.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Between Battles 9: Local History in Townsville’s City

During the “Between Battles” project, the Townsville City Library located at level 1, 280 Flinders Street hosted a number of James Cook University researchers as they surveyed not only the publically accessible local history collection, but also a significant portion of the library’s uncatalogued collection.
Caption: James Cook University researchers at the Flinders Street branch of CityLibraries.   Photo Credit: Jane Ryder
Caption: Researcher María Liliana Ortega Martinez with a photograph of Townsville’s old post office with a sign out in front urging men to enlist in the 1914 War. This photograph forms part of the uncatalogued local history collection held at the Flinders Street branch of CityLibraries.  Photo credit: Jane Ryder
This was a particularly exciting experience for all researchers involved, having been given access to an enormous variety of rare books, documents and photographs that were yet to be examined in great detail. The Between Battles research team came across numerous examples of World War One soldiers’ experiences, however it was undoubtedly the Library’s photographic collection that was most rewarding.

The only difficulty researchers faced was that many of the photographs were unidentifiable, and while they were fantastic images in their own right, it was difficult for the team to put them into a context.  This illustrates a need for people to correctly identify the contents of their personal collections.  Otherwise, they risk becoming “orphan works”, such as these beautiful photographs.

 The photograph above shows an example of one of the fascinating World War One portraits the Between Battles research team came across at the City library that lacked any identifying information.   Cataloguers are limited to information attributed by the copyright owner or discernible from the image. 

Specialised digitisation equipment available within the City Library made the process of scanning various documents and photographs significantly easier. The library has only recently acquired this technology and is very excited to put it to use digitising further entries to the already rich local history collection.   For more information, watch this video.

The "Between Battles" research team would like to thank the staff of CityLibraries, in particular Annette Burns and Barbara Mathiesen.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Between Battles 8: There’s no business like show business, especially on the front!

Caption: Anzac Concert Party, Photographer: A J Bromfield, North Queensland Photographic Collection.
Believe it or not the men depicted in this photograph are not professional performers. Rather they are fighting soldiers of the First World War who, in their time off, provided vital entertainment and comic relief for troops between battles.

The value of theatrical entertainment was recognized very early on during the First World War, and Australian and New Zealand soldiers had a particular knack for humorous comedy routines. Soldiers were often encouraged to audition for performance troupes run either by military units or by the YMCA, however entertainers were also sometimes hired externally in order to entertain the troops.

Concerts were usually put on at rest camps, some distance away from direct conflict, although the YMCA were known to hold shows within their own canteen huts significantly closer to the action. On special occasions and holidays ‘Division concert parties’ were put on for everyone’s enjoyment. These types of concerts included the ‘best of the best’ drawing performers from all the units that made up the division. These performances tended to be much better organized than individual unit’s impromptu gatherings, although audiences equally appreciated both. Senior officers clearly acknowledged the positive effect of theatre on the front because by the end of 1917 each military division had at least one military theatre company in operation.

Caption: A WWI Pierrot troupe poses in front of a tank. Pierrot performances were familiar to soldiers at the time and were effective ways of identify performers when costume resources were limited.  Source: Collins, Larry, J. “War Culture- WWI Theatre”.  Last modified December 13, 2012. Accessed May 9, 2015.
An enormous variety of material was performed for soldiers, from Shakespeare though to burlesque. Performances by Pierrot troupes were popular (these are easily recognized by ruffled costumes and skull caps often worn by performers), although it was most certainly the comedy routines that were most enjoyed. Comedies were a particular favourite not only because a good laugh lifted morale, but also because a significant amount of cross-dressing by the performing soldiers added to the amusement.

Caption: A ‘female impersonator’ is assisted in getting ready for a WWI performance. Female impersonators were often the highlight of a show and received the most applause. Source: Collins, Larry, J. “War Culture- WWI Theatre”.  Last modified December 13, 2012. Accessed May 9, 2015.
It was difficult for military units to maintain regular performance groups because of casualty rates, and because of the high mobility of military units. A unit never stayed in one place for very long and a stage could not be transported. Performance venues were sometimes difficult to find although resourcefulness allowed performers to re-purpose old barns or ruins they came across.

According to Larry J Collins, in Theatre at War, concert parties fulfilled a number of roles for audiences and performers alike, including providing a ‘platform on which [soldiers’] grievances about food, conditions, sergeants and officers could be aired’. Theatre also played an important role in the recovery of wounded soldiers ‘according to military doctors’. But most importantly it reminded the troops of home and  of a future when the types of activities they now undertook between battles would simply be ordinary activities of enjoyment.

Further Reading/References:
- Collins, L. J. Theatre at War, 1914-18: Houndmills, Great Britain: Macmillan Press, 1998.
- Collins, Larry, J. “War Culture- WWI Theatre”.  Last modified December 13, 2012.
  Accessed May   9, 2015.
- Holden, Robert. And the Band Played On. Melbourne, Australia: Hardie Grant Books, 2014.
- Kent, David. From Trench and Troopship: the experience of the Australian Imperial Forces 1914-1919. Melbourne: Southwood Press, 1999.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Between Battles 7: Feathers Fly - Shipboard Entertainment

Whether setting off for the Great War or homeward bound, voyages on troop-ship were long and monotonous and soldiers often become bored and frustrated.  However, clever thinking and resourcefulness on the part of soldiers themselves resulted in a huge variety of on-board entertainments and activities that mitigated the cramped conditions and boosted morale.

Personal photographs (such as those taken by Astley James Bromfield) and troop-ship publications hint at the types of activities soldiers participated in to pass the time.  Impromptu activities such as weight guessing or poetry reciting were easily organized, however on special occasions, for instance at New Year, Christmas, or birthdays, much more elaborate programs were organized. 

Proceedings might include sporting activities such as tugs-of-war, potato races, orange eating competitions, cock-fighting, pillow fighting on the cross bar and a game called ‘recovering coin from electric tub’, as well as musical performances and pantomimes. These activities varied enormously from ship to ship depending on the resources available to the men while at sea; but they were always a welcome distraction.
Photo credit: Jane Ryder,  Caption: “Pillow Fight” The image features a photo taken by A J Bromfield in the Bromfield Album of the North Queensland Photographic Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.
 Bromfield's photo (above) depicts one of the most common sporting activities on-board troopships- the pillow fight on spar. A tarpaulin was set up to act as a shallow swimming pool when filled with water, while two participants attempted to maintain their balance while they beat each other with pillows. The pole was often covered in grease to make it far more difficult for participants to maintain their balance, to the amusement of onlookers. The man on the right wearing the white shorts has been identified as A. J. Bromfield.

An excerpt from the troopship publication The Final Objective, December 1918-February 1919 (cited in Trench and Troopship, p. 191) records the activities men participated in for a New Year Celebration homeward bound aboard the transport ship the Aeneas:

January 1st (New Year’s Day) was celebrated on board with a programme of sports. The weather being ideal, and everyone by this time having well passed calling forth “Europe” over the side of the boat, entered into the day’s events in a true sporting manner… As one walked along the deck, passing from one group which seemed to be interested in the ordeal of trying to pick up a collar stud by standing on their eyebrows or elevating their front teeth, to another group who ere enjoying themselves at the expense of one, who, blindfolded, was trying to place a pig on a tail, and so on. I think the most interesting event in the sports- one which caused the most amusement- was the pillow fighting competition on the cross-bar. It was a case of “He that thinks himself most secure, take heed lest he fall”. The tug-of-war competitions were thoroughly enjoyed, and to crown the events of the day, we were entertained with a good concert to bring to a grand finale the close of a very pleasant day…

Photograph: AWM Collection  Caption: Skipping competition aboard the Aeneas, June 1919
Photograph:  AWM Collection  Caption: A version of tug-of-war played aboard the Aeneas, June 1919, to help solders pass the time.
Further Reading/References:
Kent, David. From Trench and Troopship: the experience of the Australian Imperial Forces 1914-1919. Victoria,  Melbourne, Australia: Southwood Press, 1999.