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Monday, 23 April 2012

12.Dick Whittington in Salonika

sketch from souvenir program.
If some stranger, during the week before Christmas 1915, had paid a visit to the Camp of the 85th Field Ambulance, his first impression, as he looked round the five large hospital marquees in which the sick were being tended, would have been that here, at least “business as usual” was the order of the day.
But if he had manifested sufficient curiosity to glance into some of the bell-tents in order to see how the men occupied their spare time, he would have been, doubtless, rather surprised, and not a little puzzled, for in one tent he might have seen a man busily engaged in painting bright red stripes on Army pants, and the occupants of the next assiduously scrubbing the labels off the outside of jam tins and polishing their interiors. Elsewhere he might have observed other men...converting oat-sacks into baggy trousers... In short, he might have looked into several other tents and seen men busying themselves in sundry other ways equally extraordinary for soldiers on active service.[1]


On Christmas night, 1915, the 85th Field Ambulance Brigade, under the direction of one of its members, Private Frank Kenchington, staged a performance of Dick Whittington, a Pantomime in Three Acts for the troops in Salonika , believed to be the first – but not the last - such divisional pantomime . Frank Kenchington, who in civilian life worked in the London life department of the North British Mercantile insurance company, wrote the script in less than two weeks, on the march or in the communal tent at night. Private Norman Hadfield wrote the words to the numerous songs and Private Jaques wrote original music for two of these. Pte Norman King choreographed the solo dances.
The First Act is set in Alderman Fitzwarren’s Store in Chelsea, the Second Act on board the Good Ship Passover , and the Third Act outside Alderman Fitzwarren’s Canteen –“ in the mists on the mountains, somewhere in Greece” – providing ample opportunity for jokes about Army food, profiteering and  local conditions.
With the script completed three days before the Christmas performance, Private Milford Cottam, the producer, organised two tents in the shape of a T, with the audience in the long arm, stage and wings/dressing rooms on the crossbar. As timber was scarce and needed for trenches, the stage was constructed by digging out the auditorium floor and using the soil to raise the stage.  Officers got chairs made of sandbags filled with straw, everyone else sat on the floor.  The stage was lit by three acetylene operating lamps and four ambulance headlights acted as limelights. Footlights were provided by candles placed in twenty five jam tins, painted black on the outside and highly polished on the inside.
Army blankets were put to good use to create scenery and clothing.

Two of the most effective costumes were those of the villains, Maconochie and Paxton. The former wore a kilt made out of a blanket, with a plaid of the same material fastened by a brooch fashioned out to the time-fuse of a shell. The wing of a Christmas turkey made an excellent sporran, and white roller bandages bound round the boots were used in place of spats. He wore a genuine German belt – a trophy of Vermelles.(p.xvii)

The costumes of Alice, Dick and Mrs. Whittington were practically the only ones which were any expense at all, and although the materials for these had to be purchased, they were actually made by members of the Corps, as also was the becoming wig which Alice wore. (pxvi)

The greatest challenge was music – which meant to the panto purists of the 85th Field Ambulance, a piano.

Finally however, an instrument of sorts, reputed to have been at one time the property of the Serbian Minister, and seemingly the only piano in Macedonia, was secured at an extortionate rate of hire from a rascal who had already sold it to somebody else. (p.xvii)
The piano was played by the versatile Pte Jaques and supplemented by a piccolo and a violin that had survived Ypres .

The Commander of the 28th Division, Major-General Briggs, saw the Christmas performance, and, to his great credit, asked the Company to tour it to the troops in Salonika during the rest of December 1915 and January 1916.

24 battalions saw the pantomime in Salonika that Christmas.  It was later performed in other battlefields and on board ships. 

For the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, arriving from France just before Christmas it must have seemed extraordinary.

Kenchington wrote:
Pte Jaques' illustration
Every night an audience some five hundred strong used to come tramping over the hills, sometimes through the deep snow, to the little temporary theatre nestling in some sheltered hollow, and every night the “house” was crowded to its utmost capacity, while numbers of men who had been unable to secure admission endeavoured to obtain a glimpse of the show through any opening they could discover in the sides of the marquees. (p.xix)

No effort seems to have been spared.
The transport of the marquees and stage properties from place to place was an undertaking in itself,and the precious piano was always more or less of an anxiety on the rough and steep tracks over which it had to be carried. (p.xix)

The impact on the troops was no doubt significant. The script was adapted each night to include references pertinent to the particular audience.
After a day or two... one could hear all round the countryside, in dug-outs and trenches, Pantomime songs being sung and Pantomime jests being exchanged. (p.xix)

The British occupation and development of this part of the world has necessitated the giving of names to certain places of military significance, such as new roads, and now upon the official military maps of Salonika one can read such names as “Fitzwarren’s Corner”, “ Alice Lane” and “Ahnyah Valley”. (p.xix)

In February 1915 Kenchington responded to requests from the troops to have the script printed, with illustrations and a photograph.  He produced it in book form. Bert purchased one and later that year sent it to Nell. All photos and quotes are from his copy.

For Christmas 1916 Kenchington and the 85th Field Ambulance produced Aladdin in Macedonia which Bert no doubt saw. He does not seem to have acquired a souvenir copy of Aladdin, perhaps because, by the time it was printed, he had left Salonika.

After the War, Kenchington returned to his job at North British Mercantile, retiring in 1952. His Dick Whittington and Aladdin were both performed in London in the early 1920s and for the Company reunion in 1935.
Corporal Eddie Dillon, who played Alice, and also Kitty in Aladdin, was accepted for training in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917. After a spell on the Western Front, he became an instructor at 7th Training Depot Station at Feltwell in Norfolk. He died in a flying accident aged 23 on 12 April 1918, and is buried in St Mary's Roman Catholic section of Kensal Green Cemetery.

They had succeeded in doing their share, in their small way, to enliven the dull and uninspiring monotony of a winter in the mountains of Greece. (p. ix)

[1] Kenchington, Frank, Dick Whittington: a pantomime, a souvenir of Salonika, Christmas 1915. P. xv All quotations and illustrations in this post are from this publication.

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