To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the National Fairground and Circus Archive, at the University of Sheffield, have mounted an exhibition on the role of popular entertainment during the Great War. Arantza Barrutia, Collections Manager, tells us more in this month’s post…
In 1914 escalating political tensions and power struggles in Europe culminated in World War I, a conflict that claimed 17 million lives across the globe and changed the world’s political order and the face of Europe forever.

The popular entertainment community, like the rest of society, was thrown into disarray as thousands of men from the sector enlisted and vital equipment and animals were requisitioned by the government. And yet, in spite of the hardship, and however frivolous it seemed, entertainment had an important role to play in the conflict both at home and on the battle field.

At home it was used throughout the war, to raise support to the government and incite optimism amongst the civilian population. On the front line it played an important role raising morale amongst troops and in the recovery process of wounded soldiers. At a more practical level it helped raise funds for the war and gain allies at an international level.

In the fairgrounds, rides and show fronts were decorated with patriotic images of the King and Queen, British tanks and the figure of John Bull, while the enemy was ridiculed and vilified. The showmen also embarked on fundraising work for a variety of charities including; the Tank Bank, The Red Cross and The Prince of Wales Fund.

‘The Kaiser’s Ass’ throwing game was launched in 1914 by the showman and cinema proprietor Edwin Lawrence to ridicule the enemy. Created by Orton and Spooner, the game consisted of a German fort with a mechanical figure of the Kaiser riding a donkey while being chased by John Bull on the front. The aim was to hit the bull’s eye, to make John Bull kick the Kaiser’s ass and the ass buck causing much hilarity amongst the crowds.

In music halls and theatres, performers sung patriotic songs, promoted the sale of war bonds and mocked the enemy. A common denominator to both sectors was the use of films featuring updates from the front.

Moving pictures were a very effective way to spread news and deliver information. Coverage of the war was controlled by the government; it had to support the British troops, be anti-German and generally optimistic. Newsreels were also used to spread practical messages such as promoting economy in consumption, encouraging the growing of vegetables and warning against “careless talk”. Performers and theatres also contributed by giving free shows to wounded soldiers and visiting hospitals.

Vesta Tilley (1864-1952) was one such performer. Vesta was a male impersonator, who portrayed well-known characters of her time. Her performances were a mixture of comedy and social critique, accompanied by songs and lightning fast costume changes.

Before conscription Vesta used her shows to recruit men for the armed forces. The impact of her work was such that she was nicknamed ‘Britain’s greatest recruiting sergeant’.

On the front line, Pierrot troupes formed by soldiers became a popular form of entertainment and a way to collect funds for whatever comforts could be sent to their compatriots on the front line. Their main purpose was to distract the minds of soldiers from the horrors of the battlefield.

Many of the troupes were managed by professional entertainers, whose careers were disrupted by the war. Performance troupes proliferated across several divisions mimicking the British music hall and seaside pier entertainment and the standard dress of ruffles and skull cap soon became common place in military concert parties.

The popularity of the shows highlighted the importance of entertainment as a way of helping soldiers recover from the trauma of warfare. This triggered an increasing awareness by the authorities of the importance of recreation for the physical and mental health of troops and the civilian population in times of hardship.

All images are from the National Fairground and Circus Archive Collections, at the University of Sheffield.

The exhibition runs until 14th January 2019 at Western Bank Library, Level 5, and entry is free (proof of ID is required for external visitors).

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