I have just come down from my loft and discovered loads of old 78 records and newspapers relating to my my Great-Granddad, Corporal Arthur Bates.
Arthur was a musician and performed various concerts to soldiers in the First World War. He was a sort of comedy folk singer songwriter and he entertained the troops with his own witty songs. I have found about 20 such 78’s in my loft.*
* (for younger readers, 78’s came before 45’s which came before 8-track, which came before tapes which were before mini-disks which were before CD’s which were before Ipods – I hope this helped).
Great-Granddads songs were quite risky for the times. Titles include “Hey Tommy, that’s a big gun in your hand”, and “Is that a 5 pounder shell in your trousers or are you just pleased to see me?”. Granddad didn’t do subtle, but people in those days were so naive no one complained anyway.
According to the newspapers I found; one of Great-Grampy’s concert tours was in France at the time of the 1st battle of the Somme. Here he sang his songs to soldiers in the trenches. His make-shift P.A. system was rigged up along the front and some reports claimed that it was even louder than the incoming bombs.
According to the diaries I found in the loft, the Germans would deliberately shell him and the troops around him whenever he was performing.
Apparently one German General complained to the Allied top brass that his singing should have been banned according to the codes of the Geneva convention and on one occasion a German Regiment actually surrendered as a direct result of his singing.
Although his entertainment was supposed to lighten the mood of the soldiers Great-Granddad swore that his own artillery shelled him on more than one occasion.
He admitted in his diary that he was a rubbish singer and troops often went away from his concerts more depressed, which was quite an achievement considering the squalor in the trenches. He said soldiers from his own side often threw things at him including the odd live grenade.
Great-Granddad volunteered to join up in 1914 but was never cut out to be a soldier. One problem was that his right leg was much shorter than his left, which made marching particularly difficult, unless the route had a slight right hand curve to the right. He caused chaos on the parade ground and in route-marches he often ended up miles (to the right) from where he was supposed to be heading.
The top brass then began to send him out on various suicide missions but, as luck would have it, he kept returning, often as the lone survivor. In 1917 he was captured and held in Stulag XXI where he started his own Folk Club that was based on an open mike night (without a mike).
The club was not a success and the only regular visitors were those who were drove mad by the gas and 2 French soldiers who had gone deaf because of the shelling. He escaped one Sunday afternoon in broad day light when the Germans left the gates open and he walked back to his lines without a shot being fired.
Great-Granddad was eventually allowed to leave the army when a tank went out of control in the middle of a concert and it almost ran over him. Despite having 120 men at the concert there were no witnesses. Great Granddad eventually agreed never again to sing in public and began to record his own songs at home – which was one of the first Home Studios in the country.