Leslie Henson was a London Comedian who signed up to the Royal Flying Corps. He was removed from active service, and ordered to form a concert party group; “The Gaieties” in the Fifth Army. After the advance in 1918 to Lille, they occupied a theatre which had been completed and used by the German army for similar purposes. On his return to England, Leslie wrote about his experiences in The Great War – I Was There! Extracts from this article are reprinted here.
… I was given a commission because General Sir Hubert Gough, commanding the Fifth Army, wanted me to organize and run shows for the troops. By that time (1918) entertainments had become recognized as being very necessary to the army behind the front line.
I got busy at once and in a week had a concert party of twelve in pierrot costume and make-up. Our theatre was a barn, and we had good lighting. I called the party “The Gaieties” for what then seemed old times to me.
General Gough came to see us, and we were much encouraged to hear he was pleased with the show.
My best friend at Fifth Army headquarters was Major Dennis Critchley-Salmonson, a tower of strength to “The Gaieties”. In two shows we did at Toutencourt, a peaceful sort of spot at the time, he joined us and sang very well several of Albert Chevalier’s songs, to the great delight of the troops.
After the second show we walked back together about midnight to our billet in a creepy, ghost-like farmhouse, and I remember him saying “Matey (“Matey” was his name for me), the big offensive starts this morning. So when at 4 a.m. or thereabouts we were awakened by a soul-shaking, terrifying sense of sound that vibrated and quivered through the night, I knew what Critchley-Salmonson meant when he said “Matey, here they are!”. The great German offensive of March 1918 had begun.
After breakfast we made our way back to Nesle, amid the sound of gunfire and resounding crashes, while ambulances came tearing down the road.
In Nesle market square a somewhat comic figure, dressed as a private of the Artists rifles, sprang to attention and gave a quaint salute. It was Tolly Brightman. I had heard he was in the neighbourhood and had asked if he could mange to come and see me. I told Critchley-Salmonson how valuable he would be to me to use as an assistant. Inside a week he was with us.
Meantime things were bad, and going from bad to worse. The Fifth Army was in retreat. We retired from Nesle, soon to be smashed up, and went from one uncomfortable spot to another. At last, in Amiens, we began to take root again, and I raced round trying to get hold of people to make up a show – never more needed than in those black days of retreat.
I found Bert Errol, the famous female impersonator, and with Tolly Brightman and Rob Currie there was the nucleus of a good party. We were given a lorry on which to carry our lighting set, and at shortest notice gave shows in barns, in schools, and in tents.The Tank corps built us a theatre in twenty-four hours with Chinese labour. It had comfortable stall seats of wood and canvas. Our life was a series of one night jumps, and we played to almost every branch of the forces.
At length, in mid-October, there came a performance in an improvised theatre, with General Birdwood sitting in the seat of honour in the middle of the front row and over a thousand officers and men present. His stall was a rather fine satinwood chair I had scrounged from the theatre at Bethune.
It was a very appreciative audience, and the performance ended with cheering and shouting. In the middle of this hullabaloo General Birdwood rose and faced the audience, and peremptory shouts of “Quiet, there!” brought about a startling silence. Standing beside the satinwood chair he first paid a handsome tribute to our show, then after a moment’s pause he announced that an armistice was definitely in sight. “And gentlemen, with the signing of that armistice not another shot will be fired in this war.” A thudding silence followed. A thousand men took one big breath – then pandemonium.
The Fifth Army entered Lille after the German evacuation on October 17th. The first thing I had to do when we got into the town was to find the theatre. It was now in the main square, a huge new building, quite as large as the London Opera house in Kingsway. When the Germans occupied Lille in 1914 it was still being built, and they finished it. When they left in October 1918, they smashed every bit of machinery in the city. The concierge, a charming soul, escorted me round the building by the light of two candles. On the desk in the prompt box, incidentally, lay the score of the last opera played there, less than a week previously, open at the last page.
My instructions were to get the theatre going and start giving shows as soon as possible. Working night and day we managed this in a week, for two Australian lorries, planted in the street at the back of the building, ran leads into the theatre and gave us light. For limes we had searchlights.
Scenery was a problem, for most of the stuff the Germans left was Wagnerian and not our style at all. Years afterwards I learned that Roland Harker, the scenic artist, and Oliver Bernard, the expert on stage decoration, were in Lille at this time. What a help they could have been if I had known! But we discovered the local Clarkson with his wigs and costumes, and he was delighted to find himself busy again. And Herman Finck had sent us out a lot of music.
We still called ourselves “The Gaieties” but this first show was an Allied revue. We included two French artists, a violinist and a singer, and billed them big, a move that delighted the Lilleois. And there was a grand finale to our usual concert party programme, worthy of Drury Lane.
It began with a series of tableaux. Number One was “The Angelus” – interrupted by the “Fall In!” bugle; the man looked up, the girl was terrified, and the band struck in with a distant military march. Then “black out.”
Number Two was “Au revoir” – a poilu saying goodbye to his girl, while mother sat by weeping.
Number Three was “The Enemy” – a German officer appeared, seized the girl, and put chains round her wrists and ankles: I was the German officer. I was very proud of that make-up. No laughs here. Hisses galore but no laughs – an artistic triumph.
Number Four was “Occupation” – a German sentry and the officer taunting the girl in chains.
Number Five was “Liberation” – the German officer explaining in dumb show that all was over, the sentry departing in haste, the return of the poilu, strains of “Tipperary” from the orchestra, and finally a Tommy rushing on to help take the chains off the girl.
Then the back cloth behind them went up, revealing the full stage set as a palace scene, wit ha hundred convent children (arvelously stage-managed by the nuns) grouped on stairs at the back. All they had to do was to open their round throats and sing “The Marseillaise”… the audience rose to their feet.
And that was not all. A Scottish pipe band was heard in the distance; they were in a scene dock three floors below the stage. Nearer and nearer they came until they appeared marching on to the stage, headed by their drum-major, to the shrill cheers of our convent children. Finally the curtains at the back of the stage parted, and slowly down the steps walked majestic Bert Errol, wearing an Amazonian helmet and draped in a gigantic French flag. On one side was a Tommy, on the other apoilu, who joined hands before the footlights, and the poilu duly embraced his sweetheart. Two hundred flags came fluttering down from the flies as we sang “God Save the King.”
The house was packed from floor to ceiling, with troops and civilians, and the army Commander and his Staff were in the Royal Box. It was the first time the Lille folk had seen the inside of their new opera house, for they would not enter it during the German occupation. The Mayor and Corporation honoured us by coming in full dress.
We gave this performance from then on to packed houses. The prices ranged from one to five francs “top” and we played to a regular 25, 000 francs a week (or, at the rate of exchange at the time, about £1000). Of this, £500 a week went to the Mayor of Lille for distribution to the poor, and £500 to the Army Recreation Fund. This ,I was informed, was spent on the purchase of footballs for the troops. How many footballs, I wonder – and if it comes to that – how many troops?