Picturing Conflict: the Arts of War
The 'Gustrow Bings Boys'

1st Battalion
Royal Berkshire Regiment Artists and committee members of the 'Gustrow Bing Boys' entertainment troupe at Gustrow POW camp, Germany
© The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum

ENQUIRIES:

  • What kinds of entertainment were popular during the First World War? Look at how the Gustrow Bing Boys are dressed - what kind of shows did they perform?

  • How important were entertainment troupes like the Gustrow Bing Boys? Why? Why was the Red Cross so important to POWs?

  • What can we learn about life in a POW camp from this photograph? Why do the men look relaxed and cheerful here - and how might their feelings have been very different?

Why was entertainment so important to the troops?

Like all the objects included in National Memory – Local Stories, this snapshot of a group of grinning and relaxed-looking men – some in Pierrot costumes, and two dressed up as women – is connected in a fundamental way to the wider narratives of the First World War.

It may not be obvious at first sight, but the men in the photograph were in fact soldiers who were now prisoners of war (POW), interned at a camp at Gustrow, in Germany. They were members of an entertainment troupe and took their name – 'The Gustrow Bing Boys' – from a London musical that was very popular at the time, called The Bing Boys Are Here.

The troupe's role was to put on regular live entertainments for their fellow prisoners – including music concerts, dances and comedy reviews – to boost morale, and provide a much-needed escape from the hardships and frustrations of life as a prisoner of war.

Conditions in German camps varied a great deal. Some prisoners of war were set to work on farms and in local forests, mines and factories. Whilst other camps even had a theatre, cinema, and sports facilities. But the following request was typical of many sent to the Red Cross – an international aid organisation.

'British prisoners of war in Doebritz Camp, Germany are sorely in need of indoor and outdoor games. Cricket and tennis are not allowed, but gifts of rope and rubber quoits would be welcomed, also books for the library and music for the string orchestra which the prisoners have started.'

Entertainment – both in prison camps and at fighting fronts all over the world – was regarded by the authorities as a necessary part of soldiering. Laughter, singing and opportunities for dressing up provided an outlet for pent-up emotions. They helped mask anxiety and fear, relieved boredom and monotony, and revived the flagging spirits of war-weary men.

Concerts and performances – including visits from famous comedians and singers – were organised on troop ships and in hospitals, as well as field theatres and recreation huts behind the lines.

One of the 'Gustrow Bing Boys' (Private H.J. F. Checketts, Royal Berkshire Regiment – back row, far left was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal – as recognition of the importance of the work he carried out while a prisoner of war.

FOLLOW UP ACTIVITIES:

  • Investigate prisoner of war camps in Britain in the First World War. Who was held here and why? How did this change? What was the experience of prisoners in this country? Find out if there was a POW camp in your local area.

    British Library: First World War Prisoners of War

  • Look at this photograph of soldiers from the Wiltshire Regiment, in France entitled 'The Trophies of War'. What do you think this refers to? Look closely at their helmets. Are they all the same? How are the men behaving here? Who is the man in the foreground impersonating and why? Why was the photograph taken?

  • Men also made their own forms of entertainment. Listen to some recordings of men who served in the First World War talking about how they filled their leisure time.

    Compare this with the kinds of things [a] the Gustrow Bing Boys did, and [b] you and your friends do, for entertainment. How different, or similar, are they?

  • Did the war make everyone miserable? Does the evidence here, and in Lucie’s Letter, help to answer this question? What else would you need to know to really discover the answer to that question? Can you find it?

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