Monday, May 18, 2015

Between Battles 7: Feathers Fly - Shipboard Entertainment

Whether setting off for the Great War or homeward bound, voyages on troop-ship were long and monotonous and soldiers often become bored and frustrated.  However, clever thinking and resourcefulness on the part of soldiers themselves resulted in a huge variety of on-board entertainments and activities that mitigated the cramped conditions and boosted morale.

Personal photographs (such as those taken by Astley James Bromfield) and troop-ship publications hint at the types of activities soldiers participated in to pass the time.  Impromptu activities such as weight guessing or poetry reciting were easily organized, however on special occasions, for instance at New Year, Christmas, or birthdays, much more elaborate programs were organized. 

Proceedings might include sporting activities such as tugs-of-war, potato races, orange eating competitions, cock-fighting, pillow fighting on the cross bar and a game called ‘recovering coin from electric tub’, as well as musical performances and pantomimes. These activities varied enormously from ship to ship depending on the resources available to the men while at sea; but they were always a welcome distraction.
Photo credit: Jane Ryder,  Caption: “Pillow Fight” The image features a photo taken by A J Bromfield in the Bromfield Album of the North Queensland Photographic Collection, JCU Library Special Collections.
 Bromfield's photo (above) depicts one of the most common sporting activities on-board troopships- the pillow fight on spar. A tarpaulin was set up to act as a shallow swimming pool when filled with water, while two participants attempted to maintain their balance while they beat each other with pillows. The pole was often covered in grease to make it far more difficult for participants to maintain their balance, to the amusement of onlookers. The man on the right wearing the white shorts has been identified as A. J. Bromfield.

An excerpt from the troopship publication The Final Objective, December 1918-February 1919 (cited in Trench and Troopship, p. 191) records the activities men participated in for a New Year Celebration homeward bound aboard the transport ship the Aeneas:

January 1st (New Year’s Day) was celebrated on board with a programme of sports. The weather being ideal, and everyone by this time having well passed calling forth “Europe” over the side of the boat, entered into the day’s events in a true sporting manner… As one walked along the deck, passing from one group which seemed to be interested in the ordeal of trying to pick up a collar stud by standing on their eyebrows or elevating their front teeth, to another group who ere enjoying themselves at the expense of one, who, blindfolded, was trying to place a pig on a tail, and so on. I think the most interesting event in the sports- one which caused the most amusement- was the pillow fighting competition on the cross-bar. It was a case of “He that thinks himself most secure, take heed lest he fall”. The tug-of-war competitions were thoroughly enjoyed, and to crown the events of the day, we were entertained with a good concert to bring to a grand finale the close of a very pleasant day…

Photograph: AWM Collection  Caption: Skipping competition aboard the Aeneas, June 1919
Photograph:  AWM Collection  Caption: A version of tug-of-war played aboard the Aeneas, June 1919, to help solders pass the time.
Further Reading/References:
Kent, David. From Trench and Troopship: the experience of the Australian Imperial Forces 1914-1919. Victoria,  Melbourne, Australia: Southwood Press, 1999.

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