The Lena Ashwill Concert party entertains the boys at the front

Lena Ashwell (1862-1957), British actress, early 20th century.

The long days of being in the trenches and routine marches and drills were broken up on the 19th of February for Mark Wildon and the 4th Battalion. After most of the battalion were bathed, there was a visit by the Lena Ashwell concert which performed in the YMCA tent.

Canadian born Lena Ashwell had studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and found herself drawn to the pre-war suffrage movement.  She was a well respected actor in the world of theatre by the time the war broke out in Europe and her theatrical background led her to believe that with the help of a bit of art and culture, the men of the front lines could better weather the brutalisations of war. Initially the War Office were less than amused with such a frivolous idea, reasoning that the men were more than adequately entertained with cards, writing letters back home and sporting events that were held every so often. However, thanks to the patronage of the Princess Helena Victoria, the grand daughter of Queen Victoria through her daughter Princess Helena,  Lena eventually found extra support from the YWCA.

‘On one never-to-be-forgotten day, when I had quite lost hope of the drama and music of the country being regarded as anything but useless, Lady Rodney called on behalf of the Women’s Auxiliary Committee of the Y.M.C.A. She had returned from France, and came from Her Highness Princess Helena Victoria, Committee Chairman, to ask if it was possible for a concert party to go to Havre.’

-Lena Ashwell, taken from GUEST POST: Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer by Margaret Leask Posted on February 28, 2014 by Evangaline Holland

 

Despite the YWCA also having concerns about the modesty and suitability of “theatrical people” being sent over to entertain the troops, they eventually agreed to the scheme with a few guarantees including that artists were to be known to the Princess and screened carefully by Ashwell, both now personally responsible for the conduct by their artists during their engagements.

“There is a great prejudice among a section of the nation against artists, especially actors.” wrote Ashwell. “To them we are a class of terribly wicked people who drink champagne all day long, and lie on sofas, receiving bouquets from rows of admirers who patiently wait in queues to present these tokens of rather unsavoury regard. I think some expected us to land in France in tights, with peroxide hair, and altogether to be a difficult thing for a religious organisation to camouflage.”

-Kate Adie, Lena Ashwell: the woman who brought music to WW1 trenches, The Telegraph 11 April 1914

The first concerts began in France in the beginning months of 1915 and were an immediate success, despite a hectic schedule of 39 concerts in a fortnight in which they found themselves “…wading knee-deep in mud towards candlelit huts, barns or tents, lugging props and musical instruments and costumes only to find their stage was a pile of suitcases.”

Their discomfort was soon forgotten however when they finally arrived and began their acts.

“… their audience would be eagerly awaiting any kind of performance. There was considerable excitement that some of the leading lights of the London stage were willing to submit themselves to such conditions.

“Ashwell describes performances where the rapt faces and emotional response from the troops were well-nigh overwhelming. In the Harfleur valley she watched Novello, who had just written Keep the Home Fires Burning, singing in a smoke-filled room jam-packed with soldiers. “When he sang it, the men seemed to drink it in at once and instantly sang the chorus, and as we drove away at the end of the concert, in the dark and the rain and the mud, from all parts of the camp one could hear the refrain.”

“Violin solos, string quartets, operatic arias, all were delivered across the vast area behind the front lines. Three concerts a day were usually attempted in line with Ashwell’s view that culture should be available to everyone. Drama presented a particular challenge: contemporary comedies and romances were played with canteen furniture, and the scenery was often a backdrop of night sky. On one occasion, Shakespeare was declaimed at a horse hospital and on another Sheridan was performed on the dockside in a blowing gale. It was not unusual for the audience to be in their hospital beds, wheeled out of the wards, and happily soaked as the rain beat down on them and Lady Macbeth.”

-Kate Adie, Lena Ashwell: the woman who brought music to WW1 trenches, The Telegraph 11 April 1914

 

Once the main event had finished, many of the artists continued to provide comfort and relief to the servicemen, fraternising and entering into conversation with men who no doubt were desperate for news of home. Even the sick and wounded were often visited, sometimes even on an individual basis.

It was rapidly becoming obvious that the ‘frivolous’ performers were actually providing a vital morale boosting service to their countrymen. Demand increased for performers to not just entertain at the base camps but also to entertain the troops at the front lines in “firing-line parties”. The nuisance of trudging through muddy fields with their instruments and props, as well as the actual performance, would have the added danger of having to be carried out under artillery fire and explosions

“I found myself in a tent which seemed in the darkness to be far away from everything and everybody. I stood on a table and recited all the poems that I knew, but wished with all my heart that I had learnt many more, as the audience grew and grew, and they sat silently around like hungry children. It was a quaint, gentle, peaceful evening, and curious that on that night I should have been nearer the firing line than at any other moment.”

-Lena Ashwell Modern Troubadours: A Record of the Concerts at the Front (1922)

 

From the years 1915 until the end of the war in 1919, more than 600 artists – including nearly 350 women – travelled the battle fields, railway stations and even ships of Europe, the Mediterranean and Middle East in an effort to comfort those serving in a brutal war. They arrived often in parties of up to six singers, instrumentalists and entertainers and gave three concerts a day, performing to tens of thousands of servicemen. Over £100,000 was raised through donations, concerts back in England and other fundraising endeavours to pay for all this to happen. Although Ashwell’s entertainers were not exclusively women, by 1917, thanks largely to conscription, women only bands of entertainers were increasingly more common.

 

It is in such a fashion then, that Mark Wildon must have passed a very enjoyable evening, forgetting at least for the time being the harsh realities of war. On the next day, in view of recent attacks on their line, the men were ordered into close support and to put the reserve line in a state of defence. The progress in fixing the lines would have no doubt been hampered by the weather as it was reported that not only was the end of February cold, dry and frosty, but they endured a particularly snowy day on the 29th.

For the information used here on Lena Ashwell and more on her amazing accomplishments in furthering the arts and the lives of men and women in both pre and post war periods (and other entertainers on the front lines), you can start by visiting the following sites:

Ellaline Terriss & Lena Ashwell – Entertaining Troops On The Front Line: Stories From The Great War Part 12 on August 17, 2014

WW1 Lena Ashwell parties: Shining a light on the young women who brought music to the trenches By Dr Anna Farthing for the Telegraph

Lena Ashwell: the woman who brought music to WW1 trenches By Kate Adie for The Telegraph

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