Celebs at war

I recently finished Kate Adie's book 'Fighting on the Home Front' (Hodder and Stoughton 2013): The Legacy of Women in World War One. Having tried to put together a picture of what the inhabitants of our parish in Cambridge were doing in WWI, I had soon realised quite how difficult it is to research the lives of women. Not that comprehensive information about the menfolk is easy to find. There is considerable luck involved in collating information about those on active service. Although all surviving military records of those who survived the war are in theory available on-line, a significant proportion of this archive was destroyed in WWII. Surprisingly, virtually no official War Office records have been kept of those who were killed; information about these can only be gleaned from Commonwealth War Grave data, regimental records and the research of family and enthusiasts. Trawling through on-line newspapers, baptism and marriage registers brings up names not found elsewhere, even of those who died, but there is no guarantee of being able to create a complete record.


With women, the task has been even harder. Even though here in Cambridge we know there were several hospitals, large and small, where professional and volunteer nurses would certainly have been employed, until a few months ago, there was no easy on-line access to those records which have survived. Now at last the Red Cross has commenced the digitalising of its records of volunteers and this has brought to light the many women, and men, who volunteered to work in the hospitals as nurses, cooks or many other roles. Awards were made to those who by the end of the war had clocked up thousands of hours of volunteering, not just in Cambridge but sometimes further afield, even near the front-line in France.


Kate's book paints a vivid picture of all the roles that women found themselves in - factory work, administration, net-making, postal delivery, policing and entertaining. The last category, which is the one of the first which the book covers, intrigued me. Kate points out that one of the careers of 1914 in which a woman's role was accepted unquestioningly was that of entertainment - musical hall and acting. She goes on to describe how celebrities of the day such as Vesta Tilley, went on to use their fame and attraction to actively encourage recruitment. She even dressed herself in khaki and was allowed by the War Office to have soldiers in her acts. Other stars who helped in the recruitment drives included Australian Florrie Forde and Marie Lloyd.


Most of the names of these celebrities are forgotten; however their faces live on through the thousands of images that appeared on postcards of the period. A little research uncovers a variety of ways in celebrities of the period contributed to the war effort.


Many, such as Jean Aylwin, the Scottish actress and singer, Pauline Chase, an American who settled in London, Lily Elsie, star of The Merry Widow, and Ellen Terry, the foremost Shakespearean actress of her day, performed in benefit concerts throughout the war.


The Danish/British ballet dancer Adelina Genee who did much to raise the status of ballet in Edwardian England, went on a sixteen-week tour in 1916 of Australia. The Australian navy cheered wildly when she danced a hornpipe at a benefit show called "Navy Night." Ada Reeve, the pantomime and music hall star similarly toured extensively in Australia and South Africa. Ellaline Terriss, the singer, and her husband Seymour Hicks toured France after the outbreak of WWI to give concerts to British troops.


Zena Dare, a very well-known singer and music hall performer, had married the Hon. Maurice Brett, second son of Viscount Esher in 1911, when she was 23 and at the height of her career. Zena retired from the theatre to have a family. However, she then work for three years nursing injured soldiers at Mrs Vanderbilt's American Hospital in France.


Maxine Elliott was an American actress and business woman. During World War I she moved to Belgium and volunteered both her income and time to the cause of Belgian relief, for which she received the Order of the Crown (Belgium). She had planned to marry, but her husband-to-be was killed on May 9th 1915 at the Battle of Aubers Ridge.


Beatrice Forbes-Robertson was an actress from the age of 17 and a suffrage speaker in England before moving to New York in 1907. During WWI she was president of the British War Relief Association, raising funds in New York for military hospitals abroad. She also wrote several books including What Women Want: An Interpretation of the Feminist Movement, The Nest Builder (1916, novel), and Little Allies: A Story of Four Children (1918).


More information about these and other celebrities of the period can be found: