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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Women who "trouped" on the Western Front


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I've read Harry Lauder's A MINSTREL IN FRANCE, and Margaret Mayo's TROUPING FOR THE TROOPS, and I know all about Elsie Janis and her mother touring around the Western Front to enterain the American soldiers. I also spent a day in the Lincoln Center performing arts library reading the wartime journal of another American actress who did this.

But all of these leave me with a few questions:

1) Why did this "trouping" seem to happen mainly during the last year of the war, i.e., after the Americans entered it? Even Harry Lauder doesn't seem to have crossed the channel until June 1917.

2) Why is it that all the women who were involved with "trouping for the troops" seem to have been Americans? Were there no British women adventurous enough to do this? And if so, why not earlier in the war? Was it really just a matter of American naivete - they didn't know how bad things were, so they were willing to allow YMCA groups and others to go places where the BEF had long since prohibited civilian travel?

Do you know of any instances of British women who traveled down to France or Flanders to entertain the British and Commonwealth troops? (I already know more than I need to about those in England who did benefit concerts, recruiting drives, etc.) If so, what years did they do this in? And are there any books or other documents you can point me to that document their activities?

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Welcome to the Forum.

The first British civilian entertainers arrived in France in December 1914. They were led by the distinguished actor Seymour Hicks, and other parties soon followed, who included actors, musicians and various speciality acts. At about this time the actress and theatre manager Lena Ashwell had joined forces with Princess Helena Victoria to form Concerts at the Front, which sent out (under the aegis of the YMCA) its first touring concert party in February 1915, which played mainly at the base hospitals on the coast. Ashwell herself went out herself in March 1915 (in a party which included Ivor Novello, who had proved himself a better songwriter than RNAS pilot, and wowed everyone with Keep the Home Fires Burning).

Ashwell recruited over 600 artistes and send them out in concert parties of 6-8 performers throughout the war, mostly to the Western Front, but also to Egypt and Malta. She also worked tirelessly organising fundraising concerts and events at home to make the whole scheme possible.

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Brilliant! Thank you for the lead.

Can you suggest any books, etc. where I can read more about Lena Ashwell - or do I have to await yours? :P

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Amazing what a little Googling can do. Not only did I find two university theses on Lena Ashwell, but also an electronic copy of her book Modern Troubadour, plus a slew of other references (including several in a nurse's war diary). (I was also able to order a printed copy of her later autobiography.)

Interesting to discover that Elsie Griffin, who went on to become on of the most beloved of the D'Oyly Carte sopranos, made her stage debut in one of Lena's Concerts at the Front.

I was also delighted to learn about Novello's involvement with Miss Ashwell's endeavours. I'm a huge fan of his Ruritanian operettas - and, of course, of his big hit of 1914, which is one of the standards in my own repertoire.

Many thanks again for the initial "lead".

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  • 2 weeks later...

Thanks for this thread, I've just come across a mention of Ashwell in Siegfried Sassoon Diaries and wanted to find out more.

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A quick check through "The Times" archives, reveals a swag of contemporary snapshots. Such as the following article on September, 18, 1916...

Plays At The Front

Miss Lena Ashwell on her Latest Visit

Miss Lena Ashwell and her company have just completed another visit to the front lasting a month. There are two companies or concert parties engaged on different routes and in 19 months they have given 2,300 performances. The company which was headed by Miss Ashwell stayed a fortnight in Rouen and Havre, and at camps in the neighbourhood presented to enthusiastic audiences scenes from Macbeth and The School for Scandal. The one-act plays The Bath Room Door, In a Fog, and The Twelve Pound Look were given at all performances, of which there were 70 in the course of the month.

The first performance of The School for Scandal; said Miss Ashiwell to a representative of The Times at the camp about 50 miles north of one of the bases and it was given in a ward. "We had a little platform, and some Union Jacks formed the background. The furniture consisted of two chairs. and we dressed in little tents on each side of the platform. On another occasion we played the comedy in one of the big cinema huts erected by the Y.M.C.A., which held about 1,500 men, and here the scenery consisted ot some curtains, and a couple of chairs. In The Twelve Pound Look the scene is laid in a beautifuilly furnished room in a luxurious house, but no one laughed at the absence of furniture and the meagre scenery."

Performances were given three times a day to different audiences - one in the hospitals, and two later in the camps. "Every single point," added Miss Ashwell, "goes down far better than in any London West-end theatre. So keen are the men from the training grounds to see the entertainments, that they willingly give up their tea, which is the best meal of the day, in order to enjoy one hour of healthy laughter. I meet a clergyman, who told me he was a Puritan, and born prejudiced against the theatre, but the performances had changed his views and he was moved to tears by some of the scenes. Shakespeare is in great demand."

The concert parties are organized by Miss Lena Ashwell in conjunction with the Ladies' Auxiliary Committee of the Y.M.C.A.. of which Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein is president. Miss Ashwesll proposes to take out another company at Christmas; and in the menntime she wishes to remind the generous public that further financial assistance is necessary for the successful continuance of her work.

Thanks for bringing up the topic. A great coincidence as this was something, that only today, I was looking into myself.

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