#VimyRidgeHeroes: J.W. McLaren

#VimyRidgeHeroes: J.W. McLaren

Posted on April 3 by Ted Barris in Non-fiction
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Jack McLaren almost went to war without his most vital weapon. As it was, when he enlisted in 1914, the army recruiting office in Toronto had no uniforms, no rifles, and few training facilities. A fine arts graduate and amateur playwright, J.W. (as he was known) dashed to join Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in September 1915. In his kit he carried his personal effects, foolscap for his diary, a few sketch boards, water colour paints and brushes. And because he thought they just might come in handy, he also packed some writing paper and theatrical makeup.

“On being paraded before my company commander, Major Agar Adamson,” McLaren wrote, “he [showed] me a letter … informing him that I would soon be joining the battalion and that I had certain abilities as a painter, a writer, and actor.”

J.W. immediately expected a special assignment documenting his impressions of life on the Western Front or at least calling upon some of his unique skills. He was assigned to the PPCLI sniper section. Under the command of a short, tough sergeant, McLaren found himself out in No Man’s Land secretly pounding luminous-paint-covered, flat stakes in front of German positions. The plan was that when unsuspecting enemy troops passed in front of the stakes reflecting moonlight, McLaren and his fellow snipers could pick them off from the Canadian front lines.

“I was then assigned to draw maps of the local terrain, No Man’s Land and Fritz’s trenches,” J.W. wrote. “And when we had finished a tour in the trenches and we went back into the reserve area, I was asked to organize little impromptu concerts and entertainments.”

By this time, the winter of 1916—17, the Canadian Corps had begun its elaborate preparations for an Easter offensive against German positions atop Vimy Ridge in north-central France. Unlike previous battles, at Vimy nearly 100,000 members received battle maps, tactical information and special training. They choreographed their assault with units of Canadian artillery who would be laying down a creeping barrage of protective fire ahead of the advancing Canadian troops. They reorganized their units into self-sufficient, 50-man fighting forces of riflemen, machine gunners, bombers, scouts and stretcher bearers. And they conducted dry runs of the assault on a replicas of German defensive positions well back behind the lines. Then, to keep the troops entertained after hours, J.W. McLaren was asked to concoct something.

“Of course we had to have ladies in the show,” he wrote, “which meant we had to have wigs…and where there’s a will there’s a wig. In the back garden of what had been a cosy little cottage, there were two chairs in a tangle of tall grass and weeds. Both chairs were stuffed with thick black hair.”

With the liberated chair stuffing and patches of coloured bovine hair, McLaren and his mates fashioned wigs, moustaches, and beards for their first “girly beauty chorus” also known as the PPCLI Comedy Company. With battalion comrades T.J. Lilly, Percy Ham and N.J. Nicholson Pembroke, J.W. dreamed up a host of entertainment, including comedy sketches, monologues, sing-alongs and stunts. One of the Comedy Company’s most popular routines, called The High Dive Act, featured T.J. Lilly as “Miss Vera Skinny” supposedly diving from a platform 80 feet above the stage into a tank of water at centre-stage in front of an audience of soldiers.

“After much stage business, accompanied by circus music, Vera Skinny went up the ladder and disappeared in the flys (above the stage), allowing enough time for Vera to come down backstage unseen by the audience and get around into the tank…

“A dummy girl diver, dressed like Vera plunged down and splashed into the tank. A can full of rice was thrown in the air to simulate the splash…And Vera, with her mouth full of water, leapt out of the tank onto the stage bowing profusely, to the accompaniment of loud sustained musical chords and drum rolls.”

Not all routines delivered slapstick or Vaudevillian humour. One scene created by the Princess Patricia’s Comedy Company took place in a front-line dugout, where members of the quartet began by singing one of the most popular tunes of the times — “Oh, It’s A Lovely War”. Impressions and accounts of front-line life were exchanged. At the conclusion of the scene, the sound effect of a large artillery shell was heard, as well as a violent explosion. The dugout disappeared in a cloud of smoke and debris, to the final strains of “Oh, It’s A Lovely War”.

Indoors, outdoors, wherever they could erect their makeshift stages, once the Comedy Company members had fulfilled their daytime duties, they got into costume after hours and gave their comrades respite. Some of their performances occurred within a couple of hours of attacks, when men in their audiences wore heads bandages, had their arms in slings or were still suffering from shell shock. A colonel in a nearby medical dressing station once complimented McLaren and company.

“You boys are doing more for the troops than I can do with all the medicine I have. You’re a god-send,” he said.

So popular were the Comedy Company players that early in 1918 they received a telegram from England. They were to report to London immediately for a royal command performance. Soon after, the foursome was invited to join the Dumbells (named for the crossed red dumbbells insignia that members of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division wore on their uniforms in the Great War). The enlarged Canadian entertainment troupe completed a four-week run in London, a stint on Broadway in New York. And when they arrived home in Canada, they gave twelve cross-country tours in 1919.

J.W. McLaren later commented on his role entertaining Canadian soldiers behind the lines at Vimy. “We held a mirror up to those boys,” he said, “and showed them what they were accomplishing.”

 

Ted Barris is the author of Victory At Vimy, Canada Comes of Age: April 9-12, 1917, published by Dundurn.

Ted Barris

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014
Ted Barris photo

Ted Barris

Ted Barris is an award-winning author, journalist, and broadcaster. For more than forty years his writing has appeared in the national press, as well as in history, news, and arts magazines, and he has authored seventeen non-fiction books. In 2014, his book The Great Escape received the national Libris Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award. He lives in Uxbridge, Ontario.