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Wartime entertainment

The 2nd Pioneer Battalion band, from the Thuillier collection of glass plate negatives. Taken by Louis and Antoinette Thuillier in Vignacourt, France, during 1916 to 1918 (AWM P10550.003).


Posted on 10 February 2018

On the Western Front, soldiers had to stand in trenches for hours on end, ever vigilant for an attack, not allowed to sleep, and doing a daily routine of chores.

Boredom was a common ailment and when men had spare time they played cards and bingo, read whatever was on hand, and wrote letters to family and friends at home.

Entertainment was important in breaking the monotony and maintaining morale.

The Australian Government even employed bandsmen to rally troops into battle, mark solemn occasions and offer entertainment during rest times.

It was not uncommon to hear soldiers singing in the trenches.

The most common songs were ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag’ (1915), ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ (1912), and ‘Keep the Home-Fires Burning’ (1914), which evoked home and lifted spirits.

‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ is best remembered for its chorus:

What’s the use of worrying?

It never was worthwhile, so

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,

And smile, smile, smile.

Many of these songs became popular music hall tunes, which were mixed with comedy, specialty acts and variety entertainment, to the delight audiences both on the home front and abroad.

The First World War was the peak of music halls, variety shows and theatres, which tapped into popular sentiment and mobilised support for the war effort.

Some songs promoted enlistment, such as ‘All the Boys in Khaki get the Nice Girls’ (1915), while others satirised the experience of war, the most notorious being ‘Oh! It’s a lovely war’ (1918).

Cinema had begun in the decade before the war, and soldiers on R&R – like those at home – queued up to watch ‘picture shows’.

Britain’s first cinema opened in 1907 and by the start of the war there were more than 5,000.

The new medium was quickly adopted by governments to promote the war effort, with films such as The Battle of the Somme (1916) and The Retreat of the Germans at the Battle of Arras (1918).

Popular actors such as Charlie Chaplin produced and starred in many propaganda films for the Allies, including Zepped (1916), which featured real scenes of a Zeppelin bomb raid over London.

Wartime audiences adored Chaplin and his slapstick gags as the antidote to the concerns of their daily lives.

Not surprisingly, when soldiers organised their own concert parties, Chaplin’s character of ‘the little Tramp’ was a popular choice for dress-ups.

In costume, soldiers temporarily forgot physical and emotional traumas, and put aside their inhibitions to lift each other’s spirits.


Fuller, J. G. Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

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