Monthly Archives: December 2014

Well-Remembered Voices: Exploring First World War theatre at The Marlowe, Canterbury

On Tuesday 11 November 2014, Gateways held a study day on First World War theatre at The Marlowe, Canterbury. The day included workshops on primary sources, talks from leading researchers, discussion of key historical themes, and rehearsed readings of little-known wartime plays, as well as the launch of Gateways’ new travelling exhibition on theatre and performance in the First World War. Organiser Dr Helen Brooks reflects on a successful event:

“It is easy to get bogged down (excuse the pun) in the Battles of Trench Warfare, but now I see that plays of the time are an insight into the culture of the time, which to me is equally as important in understanding the reasoning behind the Great War. This new insight has opened up a whole new perspective”. Lindsay Kennett, who wrote these words in an email to me last week, was just one of the 30 plus participants who took part in our public study day on First World War theatre, on Tuesday, 11 November at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. The aim of the day was to raise public awareness about how looking at theatre can shed new light on ideas about, and responses to the war: for Lindsay and the many other participants who echoed her sentiments in their feedback, it was clearly a great success.


Over the course of the day we got stuck into a diverse range of activities, all of which were facilitated ably by a team of fantastic student, and ex-student helpers from the Drama Department in the University of Kent’s School of Arts – Rebecca O’Brien, Rebecca Sharp, Kinga Krol, and Charlotte Merrikin. Beginning with a brilliant workshop run by Jane Gallagher, the Special Collections archivist at the Templeman Library, participants had a chance to get ‘hands on’ with sources from Special Collection’s archives (including newspaper clippings, scripts, programs and playbills) and to interrogate them in order to answer questions such as ‘how did the theatre “do its bit” for the war effort?’, ‘what impact did the war have on the theatre industry?’, ‘in what different ways was the theme of war treated in performance?’, and ‘how did audiences change during the war?’. This last question then led us into Professor Viv Gardner’s (University of Manchester) stimulating talk about audiences during the war. Reminding us that audiences were made up of diverse groups and that their responses changed depending on the context of the performance, Viv also drew on some moving stories about individual spectators which brought to life the experience of theatre-going during the war.


After a delicious lunch, courtesy of the Marlowe, and an opportunity to chat to each other about our diverse interests and backgrounds (participants included students from the Langtons schools, members of the Western Front Association, and local historians, to name but a few) the afternoon began with rehearsed readings of three First World War one-act plays: The Devil’s Business by J. Fenner Brockway (1914); God’s Outcasts by J. Hartley Manners (1919); and A Well Remembered Voice by J.M. Barrie (1918). It was quite something to see these plays brought to life, the first two quite probably for the first time ever. The actors, including three University of Kent Drama students, Zach Wilson (PhD), Alexander Sullivan, and Louise Hoare, all did an excellent job, especially as the plays were quite distinct in tone and style, and as the actors had only had two and a half days rehearsal in total. After a stimulating discussion about the plays, with some excellent insights from audience members, the day was then rounded off nicely with a thoughtful talk by Dr Andrew Maunder (Reader at University of Hertfordshire) about his own experience of staging ‘lost’ WW1 plays, and in particular A Well Remembered Voice.

This wasn’t the end though! After just a few hours break – during which it was exciting to see our pop-up exhibition on WW1 theatre in the Foyer attracting a lot of attention from audiences waiting to see the RSC – many of us were back at the Marlowe for the evening rehearsed readings. It was great to see an almost entirely new audience for this. As well as a number of Kent students people came from as far as Dover to join us for this exciting performance. Three of the one-act plays we shared were the same as in the afternoon (although the performances were quite different in energy, something the actors reflected on in the questions afterwards) and we also added an unpublished short play about the Belgian experience during the war entitled There was a King in Flanders (1915) by John G. Brandon. With these four pieces we therefore covered not only the chronological breadth of the war but also a number of different responses to this world event. From The Devil’s Business (1914), a biting satire on the arms trade and its place in fuelling conflict, which was banned in London during the war; to There was a King in Flanders (1915) with its focus on a dying Belgian soldier; and finally to God’s Outcasts (1919) and A Well Remembered Voice (1918) both of which offer sharply different responses towards grief, the plays as a whole offered new insights into the diverse ways in which theatre treated the war between 1914 and 1918. And with insightful comments and an enthusiastic response from the audience, it seems there’s certainly potential to hold similar events in the future.


If you’d like to find out more about Theatre of the First World War, contact Dr Helen Brooks at Our pop-up exhibition on Theatre of the First World War is available for free loan to theatres, schools and other public institutions. If you would like to host this exhibition simply get in touch with There is no charge for hosting or delivery.

This study day was one of a series of events being run by Gateways to the First World War. To find out more visit our events page.


All photographs courtesy of Leila Sangtabi, University of Kent.

The Christmas Truce

In our latest blogpost Gateways’ Dr Emma Hanna reflects on the myths and realities of the 1914 Christmas Truce.

© Harold Robson/IWM (Q 50719). British and German troops meeting in No-Man's Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector).

© Harold Robson/IWM (Q 50719). British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector).

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce, there has been a lot of interest in the story of that particular wartime event. But for me, planning for the commemoration of the Truce started a year ago. I was approached by the British Council to advise on their education pack ‘Football Remembers’, a resource for schools that was sponsored by the Premier League and the Football Association, which also ran a competition for children aged 8-14 to design a memorial to the Truce at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire. Clearly the idea of a football match being played in no-man’s land remains strong in our collective memory of the Christmas Truce, and it was a key feature in an event run by the National Children’s Football Alliance in April when British school children from schools in Kent played sport with students from a school in Germany at Maidstone Football Club. The students had a lot of questions about the Truce and the football match, and I felt rather like a party-pooper in telling them that the Christmas Truce is really a myth – there was no one all-encompassing Truce and neither was there one single England v. Germany fixture in Plugstreet Wood. It is something I have to explain many times over – that there was no one wholesale truce but a series of lots of little events of fraternisation at Christmas 1914, some of which we know included football matches and other rather unexpected events. In Britain the ‘two world wars and one world cup’ mentality remains strong, and Andrew Murrison, a member of the government’s centenary committee, has underlined that perhaps football is the best way to get people interested in not only the Truce but the history of the war more generally. This has upset quite a few military historians, but I see this as the best time to get in there and explain the real history behind the Christmas Truce myth.

Last week I gave a talk about it to the British Legion, and yesterday I was interviewed for a BBC radio programme on the subject where I was asked many questions about ‘what really happened’.  Yes, the beleaguered Pope, Benedict XV, called for a Truce of God in the first week of December 1914, but Britain was incredulous about it, even before two German battleships had shelled the coastal towns of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough causing the deaths of 122 and injuring over 450 residents. What I find really fascinating is that General Sir Horace Smith Dorrien, commander of II Corps of the BEF in the Ypres Salient, issued orders in the first week of December that he was concerned about the lack of ‘offensive spirit’. He was an experienced soldier and he realised that as weather conditions worsened the men might  be tempted to permit unofficial ceasefires in the run up to Christmas. He was adamant that under no circumstances any ‘intercourse with the enemy’ should be allowed. However, the day after a particularly costly offensive at Ploegsteert Wood on 18th December 1914 British and German troops agreed to permit one another to rise out of their trenches in order to bury their respective dead and collect the wounded. This was not particularly unusual, it had happened before, but further events would follow during that first Christmas of the war – a war that was supposed to be over by then, as the British newspapers claimed in the heady days of August 1914. Neither side was going anywhere. And as it happens, a number of British soldiers and their German counterparts did not follow their orders, much to Smith Dorrien’s frustration. Many of the German High Command found out about the truce after seeing some of the photos in The Times! However, no disciplinary action was ever taken on either side; they probably knew that any reprisals would have been extremely unpopular and that it was best to let the matter lie, which it did pretty much for over 60 years.

While some historians have tried to play down the Christmas Truce, or even deny that anything like it really happened, there is an enormous amount of evidence from soldier’s letters and diaries – including Belgian, French, German and Indian soldiers – that truces of various durations occurred, that they met to bury their dead, had joint burial and carol services, exchanged gifts including food and tobacco, played football, and chatted about their pre-war lives and the war in which they were currently fighting. Incredibly there is even evidence – as shown in the Sainsbury’s advert – that soldiers who had been barbers before the war even offered their services to other side. Even I didn’t believe that until I found the evidence. It is rather bizarre, until you remember that there were hundreds of thousands of German businessmen in London when war broke out, many of whom were barbers, and that their skills would have been put to good use in their wartime lives, too. I also thought the old story about British officers bumping into the German chef of the Trocadero, a high society London nightclub, was a fallacy until I saw the evidence. But not all soldiers approved or took part. The Belgians and the French thought that the British soldiers who did fraternise were at best mad and at worst traitors, and there were many British soldiers, particularly those who had been at the Battle of the Aisne, who refused to fraternise because they did not trust the Germans.

This shows that historians shouldn’t be afraid of the sometimes yawning gap between history and myth. Sometimes, bizarrely, the gap isn’t as wide as we might think, and as the Sainsbury’s advert is just short of 14 million views since it was launched 3 weeks ago, we as historians should engage with the conversation about what the history and memory of the truce means to us in the history of 1914-1918. As is often the case, history can tell us more about the times in which it is being written than the period it purports to recount. The Christmas Truce was an anomaly,  an event which received only a little attention in Britain in January 1915, and I certainly think it is no coincidence that the main representations of the truce – eg Paul McCartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’ and the first history Peace in No Man’s Land by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton – date back to the early 1980s, a time when Britain was at war in the Falklands. We need to remember the more humane parts of the First World War because the conflict itself was so horrific, and that’s the appeal of the Truce – it makes the history of the war more palatable in some ways to see that at one point long-term foes became temporary friends. As with the sea of Poppies at the Tower of London, the Sainsbury’s advert has caught the popular imagination, and anything that increases the interest in the First World War gives us an ideal opportunity to engage in the conversation. Reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, and that is what makes History so interesting.

Emma Hanna is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Greenwich. She is one of the expert speakers at ‘Representations of the Christmas Truce’, a symposium organized by Gateways to the First World War on Friday 12 December 2014. For more information please visit our website.