“I tell you it is nothing but lice, rats, shells & bullets.”
That is how Alexander McLeod of Niagara Falls summed up life in a frontline trench during the First World War – the most destructive conflict the modern world had ever seen. The description was in a letter to his father written from France on December 16, 1916.
Canada, in support of Britain, played a major role in that terrible struggle, which saw a relatively new military tactic come into prominence – trench warfare. The trenches snaked across a drab and desolate countryside for nearly 1,000 kilometres along France’s border with Germany and the Flanders area of Belgium.
The Canadians, and others who were part of the Allied effort, led an existence of incredible misery and danger in those trenches. They stood against the wet clay walls staring through steel-protected slits in sandbags. What they saw, beyond the twisted barbwire barrier, was a dreary landscape rightly called “no man’s land” – there was no sign of life.
Yet, 200 or so metres away beyond more rusting barbwire coils, the Germans were staring back from their trenches.
In Alexander’s letter, which was published in The Niagara Falls Review on January 9, 1917, he described the conditions in his trench: “Talk about mud, yes, a creamy mud up to your waist and standing in it from 4 p.m. till the following morning and so very dark you cannot see your own barbwire entanglement.
“We look for tobacco coming as all our troubles go up in smoke. It’s about the only comfort we have in a wet trench. We have quite a time with the large rats that are always with us. We place a piece of cheese on the end of a bayonet and when the rat approaches we pull the trigger and goodbye rat.”
There’s a possibility Alexander McLeod knew (or knew of) another Niagara Falls resident who, while not taking part in the actual fighting, was, nevertheless, making an important and rather unique contribution to the war effort. Her name was Elizabeth (Pearson) Lundy. A widow, Elizabeth lived in the old Lundy homestead, a landmark residence (since demolished) on Lundy’s Lane, near Montrose Road.
Elizabeth was clever, energetic and very patriotic. She was also a skilled knitter. Accordingly, when, during the fall of 1914, the Canadian Red Cross publicized our soldiers’ need for woolen socks, Elizabeth realized that was a way she could help the war effort in Europe.
So it was, at the age of 87, she took up her knitting needles and over the next four years their clicking echoed through the old house many hours each day.
Word of her contribution quickly spread and soldiers based in training camps such as Niagara Camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake often came to her door asking Elizabeth to knit them a pair of her wonderful socks. She also received many letters of thanks from soldiers fighting in Europe.
By the time the war ended in November 1918, Elizabeth had knit over 400 pairs of woolen socks for Canadian soldiers and had become known as the “grandmother of the Canadian Army.”
Elizabeth Lundy outlasted the war by only a few months. She died in June 1919.
It is difficult to believe that men, like Alexander McLeod, who were in the midst of the horrors of war, enduring appalling conditions while never knowing from one day to the next if they would see another sunrise, could create something to laugh at.
Yet, it was during this war that a new form of entertainment developed that focused on the soldier bogged down in the trenches. It was entertainment for troops written and performed by soldiers themselves – soldiers who realized the importance of having some comic relief for men who were constantly living under severe tension.
The first such performers were members of the Canadian Forces. Capt. Merton Plunkett organized the company from frontline soldiers at Villiers Aux Bois, France, in August 1917. Named the Dumbells after the 3rd Division’s insignia, a red dumbell, it was a group destined to make Canadian show business history.
Using improvised props and stage sets, they performed by candlelight and gas-can spotlights. The shows featured skits about army life and popular songs.
Deciding his troop needed costumes, Capt. Plunkett wrote to a theatrical company in London. Among the costumes he received were several gowns. Dumbells Ross Hamilton and Alan Murray decided to wear the gowns as part of a performance. They were such a tremendous hit with the other soldiers that having one or more men dressed as girls became a standard and popular feature of all the Dumbells’ shows.
Following the war, other former army performers joined the Dumbells, which was then reorganized as a civilian act, still managed by Capt. Plunkett. Between 1919 and 1932, the Dumbells made 12 highly successful cross-Canada tours as a vaudeville revue. During those years, there were several appearances in Niagara, one of which was on September 14, 1927, when the troop appeared at the Queen Theatre (later known as the Capitol) in downtown Niagara Falls.
In an account of the show published the following day, The Niagara Falls Review noted: “The Queen Theatre was filled to capacity last night to hear the Dumbells. The revue was of the usual high Dumbell standard….great jollity ran all through the revue and the audience was kept very much on the alert by the quips and antics of the actors.”
The Dumbells became a happy legacy of what had otherwise been a stupendous tragedy for the world.
Alexander McLeod was one of the many victims of that tragedy. He never saw his Niagara home again.