‘A Call to Arms’ – Theatre & Recruitment

By the end of 1914, more than one million men had enlisted into the armed services to do their bit in the war.

The response was in part the result of a recruitment drive by Lord Kitchener, who realised very quickly that in order to fight Germany, Britain would need a larger army. Posters were printed and put up across the country with the words ‘Your Country Needs You’.  Only men aged between 18 and 41 were allowed to enlist, though some boys lied about their age in order to join. Men queued outside recruitment stations for a chance to be part of the action, and they often joined the army alongside their friends and neighbours.

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Keep the Home Fires Burning  Music Sheet. No Known Copyright

Theatre and music hall in Richmond was a useful way of recruiting men for the armed services, particularly after the initial enthusiasm fell away after 1914. Many songs performed in music halls at the time were very patriotic and encouraged men to enlist: such as “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, “Pack up Your Troubles” and “We Don’t Want to Lose You (But We Think You Ought to Go)”. Vesta Tilley, an English music hall performer, was nicknamed ‘Britain’s best recruiting sergeant’. During her shows, featuring patriotic songs, men were asked to come up on stage in order to enlist. In some theatres, men of military age were able to join the army straight after the performance ended. In the play A Call to Arms, an army recruitment officer travels to a village to encourage the local men there to enlist. At the end of the performance, a real recruitment officer in the army would stand up and encourage men in the audience to also join and do their bit for the war effort.

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Male impersonator, Vesta Tilley, in a traditional ‘Tommy’ unifrom. Image Courtesy of Jon Brusby

Plays performed across Britain showed characters trying to decide whether to join the war. Often female characters – such as the wives and mothers –encouraged their ‘boys’ to enlist. These storylines echoed the popular recruitment posters of the time, such as ‘Women of Britain – Say GO!”