By Alex Jones
REMARKABLE shots from the First World War show how brave British soldiers relaxed when they weren’t on the Front Line – with some troops CROSS-DRESSING to entertain their war-weary comrades.
Incredible images, captured over a century ago, show three seductive ‘belles’ teasing a bashful officer, an actor wearing a lavish dress and riding side saddle at a military air field, and two entertainers having the time of their lives during the death scene of Othello.
The striking pictures are part of the National Library of Scotland’s online collection and give a taste of life outside the trenches for Tommies in the Great War. A series of fascinating photographs display how British soldiers would dress up in women’s clothing and put on cross-dressing shows on the front line.
Cross dressing during times of war was not isolated to the UK forces, and was particularly prevalent during the protracted conflict of World War One.
It is thought it served as a way to lighten the mood of soldier life, and to provide entertainment to tired and bored soldiers, a large majority of them heterosexual men starved of female company. Similar shows were very common in prisoner of war camps of all nationalities.
The British Army understood the need for maintaining morale, especially during the dismal conditions of front line trenches, and organised concerts from as early as December 1914. By comparison, the French Army authorised the first theatrical performance given by civilians in February 1916.
According to historian Emmanuelle Loubat, amusements for Tommies were organised according to a two-tier system: improvised entertainment was the rule at brigade and regimental level, while sophisticated shows prevailed at the divisional level. By 1917, each division (of about 10,000 men) had at least one military theatre company. In 1918, the British Army decided to entrust a few professionals and amateurs with full-time theatre duties. As a result, the division troupe gave way to a touring unit. Concurrently, there were twenty-five civilian concert parties touring the war zones, most of them performing at base camps.
Female impersonators were the key cast members in troop shows during the Great War, but eventually fell out of favour in the last years of WWII after women were recruited in large numbers into the Canadian military and thus the Allied forces entertainment infrastructure. With women then on the military stage, men who persisted in female impersonation were decreasingly popular with audiences, ultimately under growing suspicion of being homosexuals and gradually removed from the productions.