The Showmen’s War

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The First World War engulfed every village, town and city, touching every section of the community. Today, there are memorials in almost every village honouring the war dead. However, one section of the community has until recently been largely forgotten, apart from by the CWGC, in acts of remembrance. This is the travelling showmen who fought on the frontline, contributed to the war effort at home and helped maintain morale at a time when entertainment was scarce.

  Showman engine 'Surprise' used by Mrs C. Bird of Watford with her Galloping Horses before the war,   commandeered    
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  for essential war work in Oxford in 1915

Showman engine 'Surprise' used by Mrs C. Bird of Watford with her Galloping Horses before the war, commandeered for essential war work in Oxford in 1915

Travelling showmen were, by nature, van-dwellers, itinerant professionals who provided entertainment to the working classes across the country. Their way of life was significantly disrupted by the outbreak of war in 1914, but by 1918 they could look back proudly at the contribution they had made to the war effort.

Almost 100 showmen died during the First World War, and are commemorated by the Commission, while many more volunteered to fight. This section of the community left behind families who would find life very difficult without the bread-winner - drivers, mechanics and labourers who moved their shows, built up the equipment and earnt their living - but their patriotism could never be questioned.

  Private William Culine (left) and Private Andrew Simons (right)

Private William Culine (left) and Private Andrew Simons (right)

One of those men is Andrew Simons who died on 6 November 1918 – just five days before the Armistice. The son of John and Ellen Simons who toured a Cinematograph Show around North Wales and the Midland Counties, he enlisted in May 1915 at the age of 18 and joined the 9th Battalion Welsh Regiment. On 28 April 1918, when posted near Kemmel, six miles from Ypres where the German batteries opened an offensive on the Allied artillery positions, he was left trapped under debris after a shell exploded in a nearby trench. He was later wounded in action and moved to a casualty clearing station where he died.

Another is William Culine, who was killed 100 years ago this month during the second attack of the German Spring Offensive in April 1918 and is commemorated by the CWGC on the Ploegsteert Memorial. William joined the Durham Light Infantry at the age of 18, and was posted to France in September 1917. On 12 April 1918 he was part of a platoon carrying out orders to blow up bridges at Merville, as part of Operation Georgette. The platoon came under heavy fire from the enemy and William and his company commander were shot.

His nephew, John Culine MBE, President of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, rather poignantly opened a new exhibition last month, commemorating the significant role played by travelling showmen in the Great War.

A long-held ambition of the Fairground Heritage Trust, the exhibition at The Fairground Heritage Centre in Lifton, West Devon, has come to fruition thanks to National Lottery funding. The grant of more than £9,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), has helped create a unique opportunity to celebrate the achievements of this distinct social group.

  A book produced by The Fairground Heritage Trust detailing the contribution made by showmen to the war effort

A book produced by The Fairground Heritage Trust detailing the contribution made by showmen to the war effort

The exhibition tells the full story of the travelling showmen of Great Britain between 1914 and 1918, and how they came out of it to a very different world. It gives individual accounts from some of the soldiers who fought away from home as well as the considerable work undertaken by the Showmen’s Guild to support the Government on the Home Front. Constrained by the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act, having to abide by blackout restrictions and depleted of their young men, the showmen adapted continuing to perform where possible throughout the war.

Exhibits includes showmen’s personal accounts of their experiences in the war, information about the work of the Showmen’s Guild and how they overcame what seemed insurmountable difficulties to keep their businesses running, a roll of honour to the showmen who lost their lives, and even a replica ‘tank’ car as fitted to John Green’s Switchback, built by Simon Harris of Shropshire, and a reconstruction of a fairground throwing game, called ‘The Kaiser’s Ass’.

When peace finally came to Europe in November 1918 it took time for the world to readjust to the new world order. George Colin Campbell, a showman, supporter of the Showmen's Guild and contributor to the World's Fair newspaper, thoughtfully wrote that year: "It will be many years before we see Merry England as we once knew it. For my part I am resigned to the fact that the old days will never confront me".

  An article from The World's Fair newspaper printed during the First World War

An article from The World's Fair newspaper printed during the First World War