Their physical and mental stress was so strong at times that it blocked out their minds, filling them with fear, grim reality, tension, strain and anxiety whenever they approached a battle zone. They would fall into silence, asking themselves if they could cope with the dangers they were about to face. They always dreaded snipers, shell shock, infections and injuries, or to be damaged with shrapnel. It could make their mind go completely numb, particularly if they suffered the loss of a friend. Some could be walking wounded, or could only sleep on a groundsheet against the cold.
Infantry soldiers often knew very little about where they were or what was going on elsewhere. They lacked the facility of maps, news and information, relying on gossip and rumour. Food in Blighty was very much a problem. They might be given bacon and liver, brawn and kidneys, bread and dripping, but not too much food was available. They might have porridge with a few smashed army biscuits boiling in a mess tin with some water and sugar. Sometimes they were given a small drink of beer, and they would take a sip of rum and roll it on their tongue. Soldiers were also expected to keep their boots, caps, badges and buckles well-polished, and would hide them at night in case one of the other chaps might pinch them. Life was not easy, and they very much depended upon friends and letters from their family. It was a relief for them to be given a short break from the frontline when they were feeling worn out, perhaps to walk through the streets unthreatened by locals. Or to enjoy a performance.
War might drain men of energy, but Cecily firmly believed that their minds and spirit needed nurturing. Her team gave regular performances in the camp and at local hospitals. It was not unusual for wounded men to be wheeled out of the wards and lie on stretchers in order to watch, having been treated or were simply waiting for the necessary care. They often happily accepted they could be soaked as rain beat down on them. Cecily would regularly sing and on one occasion, they performed a play. Because some couldn’t be moved, following a concert Cecily would visit the hospital and sing to patients in their beds, or to one alone if he was blind or dying. It was exhausting but moving, her team’s situation ripe with danger too. They performed popular songs, poetry, Shakespeare, comedy and gave a glimpse of ‘Blighty’ often to an audience of thousands. The soldiers were always overjoyed to be entertained.
Excerpt of Cecily’s first performance in Girls of the Great War.
There was no proper stage, no curtains, dressing rooms or footlights, but they did have acetylene gas lamps glimmering brightly around the boxes. They worked for hours rehearsing and enduring more instructions from Queenie on what and how they should perform. Cecily suffered a flutter of panic as she became aware of hundreds more men gathering in the audience. A few were seated on boxes or benches, the rest of the area packed with a solid mass standing shoulder to shoulder. Many had been patiently waiting hours for the concert to start. Looking at the state of them it was evident that many had come direct from the trenches where they’d probably been trapped in horrific conditions for months. Those unable to move from their tent pulled the flaps open so that they too could hear the concert.
Heart pounding and nerves jangling, Cecily felt the urge to turn and run as the moment for the concert to start came closer. Was her mother right and she couldn’t sing well at all? Would they roar and boo at her as they had that time at Queenie?
She steadied her breathing, smoothed down her skirt with sweaty fingers and when she walked on stage the men gave a loud cheer of welcome. The excitement in their faces filled her with hope and as she stepped forward to the front of the boxed stage the audience instantly fell silent, looking enthralled and spellbound. She exchanged a swift glance with Merryn, counted one, two, three, four . . . and her sister and Johnny both began to play, sounding most professional. Cecily started to sing:
There’s a Long, Long Trail A-winding.
Into the land of my dreams,
Where the nightingales are singing
And a white moon beams:
As she sang, her fears, depression and worries vanished in a surge of elation, soaring into a new life, and bringing these soldiers pleasure and relief from the war. When the song was over she received a tumultuous applause, cheers, whistles and roars of appreciation from them. Smiling broadly she went on to sing ‘Roses of Picardy’, followed by ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’ and many other popular favourites. Most of the Tommies would readily join in to sing the chorus whenever Cecily invited them to do so. Others would weep, as if fraught with emotion because they were homesick and felt greatly moved by this reminder of England. Then would again cheer and roar with happiness at the end, urging her to sing an encore.
‘You are doing quite well,’ her mother casually remarked during the short interval, a comment Cecily greatly appreciated. ‘Now sing some of those jolly music hall songs that I recommended.’
‘Right you are.’
Cecily went on to sing ‘Burlington Bertie From Bow’and ‘Fall In And Follow Me’. These brought bright smiles and laughter to all the Tommies’ faces. She finished with ‘Your King and Country Want You’, bringing forth loud cheers of agreement. How she loved singing to these soldiers. If she hadn’t been a star before, she certainly felt like one now.
Cecily Hanson longs to live life on her own terms—to leave the shadow of her overbearing mother and marry her childhood sweetheart once he returns from the Great War. But when her fiancé is lost at sea, this future is shattered. Looking for meaning again, she decides to perform for the troops in France.
Life on the front line is both rewarding and terrifying, and Cecily soon finds herself more involved—and more in danger—than she ever thought possible. And her family has followed her to France. Her sister, Merryn, has fallen for a young drummer whose charm hides a dark side, while their mother, Queenie—a faded star of the stage tormented by her own secret heartache—seems set on a path of self-destruction.
As the war draws to a close and their hopes turn once again to the future, Cecily and Merryn are more determined than ever to unravel the truth about their mother’s past: what has she been hiding from them—and why?