Voices from the Past

Boosting Morale on the Western Front: The Digger Pierrots

The featured costume belonged to Sergeant Major Alick Donaldson, originally a bank clerk from Geraldine.

The featured costume belonged to Sergeant Major Alick Donaldson, originally a bank clerk from Geraldine.

Accounts of World War One understandably revolve around the drama of it’s fierce battles – soldiers emerging above the parapet, the relentless barrage of machine gun fire and thunder of exploding shells. Yet, not all times could be characterized by such intensity. Confrontation was often separated by long periods of stalemate, in which the morale of soldiers began to dwindle as the drudgery of everyday military service took hold. Performance troupes were established across several divisions as a means of providing entertainment and well-needed distraction for soldiers.

The curiously titled Digger Pierrots were a collection of like-minded soldiers from New Zealand who established themselves as a performance group in the northern French base camp of Etaples in 1917. Although they began as a motley collection of amateur performers, by the end of the war their shows had evolved into polished and highly entertaining revues. Their concerts included a mixture of popular songs from well-known musicals alongside dances, pantomimes, lightning sketches and comedic routines. At times, the performances boasted audiences of up to 1600 soldiers in large cinema theaters. As their reputation grew the troupe began to tour through camps and hospitals in Belgium, wider regions of France and England.

Although they disbanded when peace was declared in November of 1918, the role of the Digger Pierrots in the war effort had not quite finished. The group reformed in order to entertain impatient soldiers awaiting demobilisation in Europe before returning home. During this time they performed shows in Cologne, Koblenz, Paris, London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Organiser Lieutenant Pat Hanna recalled the nature of these improvised outdoor concerts, “…a stage built up in a forest in Picardy, with hessian and malthoid…and fitted with footlights. Real painted scenery, lighting from a big lorry – its engine chugging away behind the stage. 5000 diggers in the audience.”

By the time the troupe returned to New Zealand in late 1919 their reputation had preceded them. A national tour was organised to showcase the popular Digger Pierrots to the audiences at home. In 1920, the show was extended to include a commercial tour of Australia and the troupe were celebrated by both Kiwi and Australian audiences alike. The Digger Pierrots continued to tour Australasia through to the early 1930’s and the show went on to launch successful careers for many of its talented members.

The featured costume belonged to Sergeant Major Alick Rangi Gillespie Donaldson of the New Zealand Engineers. Alick Donaldson, originally a bank clerk from Geraldine, sailed for England aboard the Maunganui on 21 November 1917 and became a member of the Digger Pierrots towards the end of the war. It is quite possible that he took part in the Australasian tour once he returned home on 27 May 1919 aboard the Tahiti. Sergeant Alick Donaldon’s costume is on display as part of our exhibition Farewell Zealandia: Forgotten Kiwi Songs of WWI.

Why the ‘Digger Pierrots’?

‘Digger’ was a popular slang term used to describe ANZAC soldiers during World War One, particularly between Kiwis and Australians when referring to one another. The character of ‘Pierrot’ embodied not only in the title of the performing troupe but also in their costume, is derived from a traditional French pantomime personality. The main departure made by the New Zealand performers from Pierrot’s iconic costume would be the Kiwi symbol or sometimes fern emblem placed upon the breast.  The portrayal of Pierrot remained popular in France within amateur theaters during the early 20th century and would’ve made an obvious choice for costume-makers during the war.