This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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Theatrical Ladies

18 July 2014





It's an old army joke.

"Who was that woman I saw you with last night at the canteen," asked one soldier of another.

"That was no woman," exclaimed the other soldier.   "That was my Feldwebel {Sergeant} !!!"

Maybe it was funnier in the trenches of 1916 when this postcard of José ??? was printed for the Wandertheater of Armee-Abt. A. or the Traveling Theater of Armee-Abteilung A.  also known as the Division Falkenhausen of the German Army. It was named after its general, Ludwig von Falkenhausen, (1844 – 1936), who was in command of the southern part of the Western Front in Alsace-Lorraine and evidently thought soldiers deserved high class entertainment to improve their morale.

I told the story of the Wandertheater back in April 2013, and José ??? was a performer of questionable gender that I spotted in the lineup of the cast and orchestra.




 <<  >>




In this detail of the postcard, she\he stands in the front line and is the only "woman" in the ensemble of music hall players. On the left side with his dog is the comic Paul Pilz whose story I  wrote about in 2012. Clearly Paul and José ??? were headliners and popular enough with the troops to justify printing a promotional postcard for each of them. I feel certain that she\he sang cabaret songs accompanied by the orchestra and no doubt flirted with the manly acrobats and clowns in the group. The Wandertheater seems to have had a mixture of professional civilian  and army musicians that was not unlike the U.S.O. shows that performed for allied troops during the Second World War. Nothing serious, just a good lighthearted fun entertainment.  

The card was sent by Feldpost - soldiers post - from the Gebirgs - Batterie Nr. 14 to Herrn Konrad Linz. There is no date but similar postcards were mailed from 1916 and 1917.




UPDATE:
Thanks to Susanna Rosalie (see comments below)  for her translation of the postcard's message.

The sender was:
Abs.[short for Absender= sender]
Kan. [Kanonier= cannoneer] Huber Karl
Geb. Battr. 14 (K) 3.Zug

The soldier Karl Huber sent it to
Herrn[= Mr.] Konrad Sinz
Metzger [=butcher]
Owingen [town]
Hohenzollern [province]

Would like to write to you once again. I am always doing fine and I am healthy. Hope the same with you. At the moment we have visitors here. It is very funny. The picture shows a 'Feldgrauen' from our visitors. With many greetings, hoping for an early answer.
Yours sincerely Karl Huber



Will Euch nun auch
mal wieder schreiben.es
geht mir immer gut und bin
gesund hoffe bei Euch das
selbe. Wir haben zur Zeit Besuch
hier geht es sehr lustig zu. Das
Bild zeigt einen Feldgrauen
von unserem Besuch. Hoffe
mit vielen Grüßen auf baldige [?]
Baldige Antwort.
Der Ihre Karl Huber


A 'Feldgrauer' is a synonym for a soldier, based on the color of the uniforms (field grey).



<<<  >>>






There was more musical theater behind the German lines in World War One but German soldiers were not always the intended audience. In this case a musical was put on for French, Belgian, British, and Russian servicemen held in a Kriegsgefangenenlager or Prisoner of War Camp. This photo postcard shows the stage and orchestra at the Königsbrück camp. Five actors appear to be in a French restaurant and three of them are men dressed as women. The orchestra, which seems engrossed in the action, has 10 musicians with flute, clarinet, and violins. The musician on the left has a box shaped violin that was probably made in the camp.

The stage set, though quite small, has table and chairs, fancy drapes, and a painted scene flat. The signs on the left and right – Pièce {Room} and Défense de fumer {No Smoking} help create the illusion of a hotel restaurant. Judging by the makeup on the cook in the center, this was a farce where the two officers complain to the proprietress about the poor food and surly service .







This second photo shows another production in the Königsbrück camp but this one was for Russian prisoners as the postcard caption reads Gefangenenlager Königsbrück Russen Theater. There are 9 musicians in the orchestra with two violins, two guitars, and possibly 5 mandolins. The classic Russian string instrument is the balalaika which has a triangular shape and 4 strings, but the instruments here look like mandolins which have 8 strings and a pear shape body like a lute. The leader stands in the center wearing a white tunic and with his violin resting on his hip.

There is only a single performer on stage, a "woman" who bears a resemblance to José ???. She\he seems about ready to sing as the musicians play. The camera has captured a clear image of the sheet music on the violinist's  stand and it looks quite challenging. The stage set presents a drawing room that is much more elaborate than the French restaurant. The painted proscenium even gives a foreshortened perspective and the furniture is quite elegant. Was it borrowed from the camp commandant's residence?
   






The postcard was mailed by Feldpost on 21.12.16 or 21 December 1916 to Frau Rosa Ulbricht (?)f Armsdorf. The writer was a German soldier so perhaps he saw this musical. 


UPDATE:
Thanks again to Susanna Rosalie (see comments below)  for a translation of this postcard's message.


The second card showing the Russian Theater at the prison camp Königsbrück has a stamp saying 'Übungsplatz' =drill ground or military training ground. So you are right, the card was sent by a German soldier apparently stationed at the garrison Königsbrück.

Abs.[= sender] P. Ulbricht. Ers.[tes or atz ?? first or substitute ??] Masch.[inen] Gew.[ehr] Battl. [= Maschinegun Battalion]
I. Komp.[anie= company]
Feld Abtlg Härtel [Field Division Härtel]
Königsbrück Neues Lager [New Camp]

It is addressed to his mother
Mrs. Rośa Ulbricht
Arnsdorf i/Sa [=in Sachsen/Saxony]
Bahnhofstr. 77c

Thursday evening
My dear Muttel!
May God bless and protect you!
Today, our lieutenant told us that we are once again allowed to visit home.
I will likely come tomorrow evening or early Shabbat. In any case you can order your carp. I think everything is taking its course as wished. Our guns are here, but not all of the wagons yet.
They say that we are not going into the field before January, 5.
I send you my love, until we'll meet again
Yours Seppel 





Donnerstag abend
Mein liebes Muttel!
Der Herr segne und beschütze Dich!
Heute teilte uns unser
Leutnant mit, daß wir nochmals auf
Urlaub fahren dürfen. Ich komme
voraussichtlich morgen abend oder Sabbat
früh. Jedenfalls darst Du Deinen Karpfen
bestellen. Ich denke das alles nach Wunsch
geht. Unsere Gewehre sind da, aber noch
nicht alle Wagen. Es heißt wir kommen
nicht vor 5. Januar ins Feld.
Es grüßt Dich herzlichst
auf baldiges Wiedersehen Dein Seppel



When deciphering all the words of the handwriting I was deeply moved as the fate behind it became clear. A Jewish German soldier of WWI.









This last photo shows another French production from the Königsbrück P.O.W. camp theater where the photographer was closer to the stage. The cast of 11 men includes three dressed in drag as women.  The caption reads La Roulotte {the caravan} — Mlle. Culot. Though I can't be certain, the title may refer to an 1898 French comic operetta entitled Mamzelle Culot written by Maurice T'ar Nemo with music by Ch. Gerin.

The one reference was found on Google Books in the Journal général de l'imprimerie et de la librairie, Issue 87, Parts 1-2, page 456.







The back of this postcard has printed instructions more formal than what I have seen on other P.O.W. cards from 1914-1918. It has the location of Königsbrück (Sachsen) which was a small town in Saxony on the eastern side of Germany. That would explain the presence of Russian soldiers captured on the Eastern Front.

These postcards of captured servicemen indulging in recreation were obviously used to convey the supposed humane conditions of the German P.O.W. camps. They also had a propaganda purpose to convince the enemy to surrender. What soldier would not want to trade the horrors of trench warfare for a chance to put their feet up and enjoy a musical show? In fact there were over 15,000 POWs confined to the camp in Königsbrück, and it was just one of hundreds of camps. Many were harsh labor camps where enlisted men were compelled to join German work details. The millions of allied prisoners were also last on the German government's lists to receive food rations and health services. A POW camp should never be mistaken for a holiday resort.

What intrigues me about these postcards of POW theatrical productions and orchestra concerts is that they offered the men a chance to restore everyone's humanity, both captives and captors alike. The universal cruelty shared by all in the camps was unvaried boredom. Musical theater was a natural creative outlet for men faced with imprisonment for an indefinite period. That they were able to mount such a variety of costumed entertainments is a testimony to the tenacious human desire to tell stories and sing songs.

And as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein would say 30 years later —
"There Is Nothing Like a Dame"! 




This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where guys are always in step, even in a tutu.


16 comments:

Joan said...

Your post card history is always interesting and entertaining. Not being a post card sleuth, I would miss this bit of history save fore Sepians of this bent. I was surprised at the rather good staging of these productions. Far more sophisticated and complete than I would have thought possible in the camps. Thanks.

Jo Featherston said...

How true. I have a book on the RAAF POWs at Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf, where my father-in-law was held for two years.and here are a couple of extracts: "Perhaps mindful that 'Satan finds mischief for idle hands', the Germans encouraged stage shows, music and education. Bob Lawrence, the compound's stores officer, had music posted from britain, inveigled volunteers and moulded and polished his raw materials to a pitch that won more than passing praise. ... It was astonishing how bandy, bearded blokes could be transformed into Betty Grables..."

Alex Daw said...

I always learn so much from your posts....who knew that there were productions like this in POW camps? Certainly not me.

Postcardy said...

Fascinating postcards. The fact that they were made shows how important postcards were at that time.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

I'd guess the entertainment was a way for the men to let off steam. Dressing like a woman would be so completely opposite to the every day stresses and horrors they had to face. I loved the ending of your post...you found the perfect quote. And it's so true.

B. Rogers, Living in Black Mountain said...

The players and musicians were most probably prisoners. I wonder if German POW's got to put on musicals in their camps. I recently read a novel based upon a WWI German POW camp in Hot Springs, NC, where the prisoners built a scale size German village in their spare time. (Book is "So Little Time to Stay Here.")

B. Rogers, Living in Black Mountain said...

Sorry, the book I mentioned was "So Short a Time to Stay Here."

Susanna Rosalie said...

Found your great post so interesting that I looked a bit deeper into that topic and came across news about an exhibition to be launched on Sept.,4, 2014 in Berlin:
'MY COMERADE - THE DIVA. Theatre of the front and the internment camps of World War I.' ('MEIN KAMERAD - DIE DIVA')

Here are the links (in English):

http://www.schwulesmuseum.de/en/exhibitions/view/my-comrade-the-diva-theatre-of-the-front-and-the-internment-camps-of-world-war-i/

http://www.kamerad-diva.de/en

Alan Burnett said...

Yet another fabulous piece of research, yet another fascinating and interesting story. You really do this kind of thing so well. A perfect balance of research and good writing, setting off wonderful old images.

Sharon said...

Very well done on matching the theme so closely. An interesting post.

Also thank you for reminding me about Google Books!

Little Nell said...

Fascinating insights, especially to the POW camps. The boredom must have been dreadful and these entertainments would certainly have offered some relief.

Wendy said...

I appreciate your comments about the purpose of such POW shows, especially for their power as propaganda.

Susanna Rosalie said...

Here are the texts of the postcards in English (to my best knowledge) and in German.

I start with the one of José??? and will do the other one in a new post.

The sender was:
Abs.[short for Absender= sender]
Kan. [Kanonier= cannoneer] Huber Karl
Geb. Battr. 14 (K) 3.Zug

The soldier Karl Huber sent it to
Herrn[= Mr.] Konrad Sinz
Metzger [=butcher]
Owingen [town]
Hohenzollern [province]

Would like to write to you once again. I am always doing fine and I am healthy. Hope the same with you. At the moment we have visitors here. It is very funny. The picture shows a 'Feldgrauen' from our visitors. With many greetings, hoping for an early answer.
Yours sincerely Karl Huber


Will Euch nun auch
mal wieder schreiben.es
geht mir immer gut und bin
gesund hoffe bei Euch das
selbe. Wir haben zur Zeit Besuch
hier geht es sehr lustig zu. Das
Bild zeigt einen Feldgrauen
von unserem Besuch. Hoffe
mit vielen Grüßen auf baldige [?]
Baldige Antwort.
Der Ihre Karl Huber

A 'Feldgrauer' is a synonym for a soldier, based on the color of the uniforms (field grey).

Susanna Rosalie said...

The second card showing the Russian Theater at the prison camp Königsbrück has a stamp saying 'Übungsplatz' =drill ground or military training ground. So you are right, the card was sent by a German soldier apparently stationed at the garrison Königsbrück.

Abs.[= sender] P. Ulbricht. Ers.[tes or atz ?? first or substitute ??] Masch.[inen] Gew.[ehr] Battl. [= Maschinegun Battalion]
I. Komp.[anie= company]
Feld Abtlg Härtel [Field Division Härtel]
Königsbrück Neues Lager [New Camp]

It is addressed to his mother
Mrs. Rośa Ulbricht
Arnsdorf i/Sa [=in Sachsen/Saxony]
Bahnhofstr. 77c

Thursday evening
My dear Muttel!
May God bless and protect you!
Today, our lieutenant told us that we are once again allowed to visit home.
I will likely come tomorrow evening or early Shabbat. In any case you can order your carp. I think everything is taking its course as wished. Our guns are here, but not all of the wagons yet.
They say that we are not going into the field before January, 5.
I send you my love, until we'll meet again
Yours Seppel

Donnerstag abend
Mein liebes Muttel!
Der Herr segne und beschütze Dich!
Heute teilte uns unser
Leutnant mit, daß wir nochmals auf
Urlaub fahren dürfen. Ich komme
voraussichtlich morgen abend oder Sabbat
früh. Jedenfalls darst Du Deinen Karpfen
bestellen. Ich denke das alles nach Wunsch
geht. Unsere Gewehre sind da, aber noch
nicht alle Wagen. Es heißt wir kommen
nicht vor 5. Januar ins Feld.
Es grüßt Dich herzlichst
auf baldiges Wiedersehen Dein Seppel

When deciphering all the words of the handwriting I was deeply moved as the fate behind it became clear. A Jewish German soldier of WWI.

Mike Brubaker said...

Vielen Dank! Thank you, Susanna Rosalie! Your translation has added real history to these postcards. I especially prize postcards like José??? which have a message about the music or performers. But I am stunned by the second message which innocently gives us a rare glimpse into the tragedy of both WW1 and WW2. Thank you for giving Soldier Seppel a voice.

I also followed your other link to the Schwules Museum and sent them an email. After looking over the nature of the museum, I am not sure I can agree with their premise that these POW soldiers dressed in drag were gay. The circumstances of their imprisonment and their desire to produce theater shows would necessitate this kind of cross dressing, but I can not jump to a conclusion that it reveals a sexual orientation too.

Likewise there was (and still is) a popular tradition of comic actors performing as women, or the reverse - women playing as men, in the music halls of this era. They deliberately promoted a strong risqué element of suggestive intrigue because that is what sold tickets to their shows. But again I don't think we can read such intimate personal details from a postcard image anymore than we can judge the truth in videos and images on the internet of the 21st century.

Susanna Rosalie said...

I totally agree. I am curious about the upcoming exhibition. Wonder what emphasis it will have on this topic. Great that you contacted them!

Are you aware that tere is a German Historic Society about the military training ground Königsbrück (Geschichtsverein Truppenübungsplatz Königsbrück e.V.)? They have a website, only in German though, including old pictures. In the part about the long history (Geschichte)they also talk about the prison camp. But I could not find info on the topic of the theaters. Maybe of interest to you and to them?! (Well, I know, it goes a bit further than music, thought just to share it.)

Here is the link:

http://www.geschichtsverein-tuep-kb.de/index.html

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