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Leslie Henson in Lille`

The following text is taken from L. J. Collins' book "Theatre at War 1914-18" (Jade Publishing Ltd. Oldham, Lancashire, 2004. © L. J. Collins 2004) a comprehensive study of British Theatre during the First World War, and its relationship with the conflict. The text is reproduced here by kind permission of the author. These paragraphs deal specifically with Leslie Henson, and the refurbishment and rehabilitation of the Lille Theatre, which would be re-opened with an Anglo-French revue and subsequently used to stage shows for troops. At the end of the quote you'll find a couple of explanatory notes, plus a bibliography about the subject and some related links. I am most grateful to Ms. Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Mr. A. Langley and the Imperial War Museum for kindly allowing us to link to their most informative websites, and also to , and to Mr. Andy Pay for the use of the autograph book image. (G. Porta)

"Until 1918 all personnel involved in producing shows for the British Army in France and Belgium were fighting men; their entertainment duties were in addition to their main function, that of soldiering. The proliferation of concert parties  and the effort put in by soldiers involved underlined the importance of theatre entertainment, and there was a growing realization by those in authority that recreation was a necessary and integral part of the convalescent process, both for the physically injured and the battle wary serviceman. As mentioned, the maintenance of a theatre company was a constant problem; the next logical step, therefore, was to form a concert party consisting of soldiers whose specific task was to entertain the fighting troops. In 1918 Leslie Henson-the musical comedy artiste- was employed to form such a company."

"General Sir Hubert Gough , the Commander of the Fifth Army, had read in a paper that Henson was to be posted to France, and thought Henson would be ideally suited for the role of Entertainments Officer. And subsequently, on the order of General Gough, in march 1918
(1), Henson was commissioned and posted to Nestlé with the given purpose of forming the required theatre company. He called his troupe The Gaieties (2). It numbered twelve in total, and included Bert Errol, the noted female impersonator, and two other professional artistes: Tolly Brightman, then serving with the Artists Rifles, and Rob Currie. The remainder were selected amateurs. They acted, like most of the other concert parties. Unlike divisional troupes, however, the gaieties was a touring unit; it was thus given the luxury of a permanent mean of transport to convey themselves, the props and the lighting set from venue to venue. Many of the shows were for one night only. The company performed in any available space, but on one occasion they had the rare distinction of having a theatre built for them. The Chinese Labour Battalion, under the direction of the Tank Corps, constructed an entire theatre in twenty-four hours. The Chinese workmen "even provided stalls, made of wood and canvas, perfectly fitted and finished, in which one sank back at ease" (Henson)"

"Following the German evacuation of Lille on 17 October, 1918, the allies, accompanied by Henson’s concert party, re-entered the town. Henson's first objective was to locate the theatre. It was sited in the main square and was by far the grandest venue the company had played in. The theatre was larger that the London Opera House, being built just prior to the war, but not completed due to its seizure by the Germans in 1914. the occupying forces finished the job of construction and made use of the facilities. The indigenous inhabitants of the town had not been inside the building for four years, vowing not to use the place until the Germans had left. Henson's troupe discovered that upon withdrawal the Germans had smashed the entire electrical plant, and the lighting board was broken beyond repair. The problem was overcome by the acquisition of two Australian lorries carrying a complete lighting plant; the vehicles were parked in a narrow street outside and cables were run, via the rear windows, up two floors to the stage. The lifts, which carried the artistes to the stage, were obviously out of order and the scenery "appeared very over-powering... since it was chiefly Wagnerian stuff  and none of it stood less than 40 feet in height"

"The backstage crew worked day and night ensuring that the theatre was operational within a week. Footlights, battens and side lights were fixed, and in the absence of limes, searchlights were installed. The Germans had erected a Royal Box, with its drapes of purple and black with gold stripes, appeared rather kitsch. Nevertheless, it was put to good use when His Majesty King George V, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York visited Lille theatre later in that year"

Larry J. Collins

General Gough was at this point ignorant of what lay in store for him: in a short time, his mind would be far from any theatrical thought: on March 21st, 1918, the German Army was to launch a massive attack on the front covered by the 5th Army under his command.
(2) Henson had worked in the Gaiety Theatre, so this is most likely the origin of the troupe's name.

This sheet from a soldier's autograph book seems to indicate that "Aladdin" was performed during January 1919 as well. Whether Private Leslie H. Norman's humorous note is an actual quote from the show or a pun inspired by it we cannot tell. However, this makes evident that the show was quite enjoyed by those who had the chance of watching it.
Image reproduced by courtesy of Mr. Andy Pay. (photo © Andy Pay)

Further Reading:

Theatre at war 1914-18 revised version in paperback at £14.95 by L. J. Collins.

Jade Publishing Ltd. Oldham, Lancashire, 2004 (first published by Macmillan in 1998) [L. J. Collins mentions in the bibliography two books of memoirs by Leslie Henson, which can be checked for further information].

Contact Details ///  = =

My laugh story. London Hodder and Staunton, 1926

Yours Faithfully. London: Long, 1948.


The data on this page has very kindly been provided by Gloria Porta - many thanks to her and to all those mentioned for permission to use their information and research.  Where possible all credit has been given to them and the original source quoted.