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Entertaining the troops, “The Kiwis” concert party

The campaigns of the Western Front saw men serving in frontline combat positions in the trenches usually for a few days to a week at a time. In between, units were rotated back to ‘reserve’ positions several kilometres away from the Front, where boredom was yet another enemy to contend with.

In an attempt to keep the troops entertained, concert parties were formed by the men, with names such as “The Pierrots”, “The Tuis” and “The Kiwis.”

Bill McKeon, who served in the Wellington Infantry and had been in a concert party himself, had fond memories of “The Kiwis” and the high-quality shows they put on at Nieppe, near Armentieres in 1917, which he recalled in a radio interview with Neville Webber.

Year:1917-1918 (Recorded 1965-1966)

Location:Nieppe, France

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Entertaining the troops, “The Kiwis” concert party

The campaigns of the Western Front saw men serving in frontline combat positions in the trenches usually for a few days to a week at a time. In between, units were rotated back to ‘reserve’ positions several kilometres away from the Front, where boredom was yet another enemy to contend with.

In an attempt to keep the troops entertained, concert parties were formed by the men, with names such as “The Pierrots”, “The Tuis” and “The Kiwis.”

Bill McKeon, who served in the Wellington Infantry and had been in a concert party himself, had fond memories of “The Kiwis” and the high-quality shows they put on at Nieppe, near Armentieres in 1917, which he recalled in a radio interview with Neville Webber.


Year: 1917-1918 (Recorded 1965-1966)

Length: 3:49

Production Company: Radio New Zealand

Source: Radio New Zealand Collection, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Catalogue Reference: 247152 [William McKeon recalls entertainment by The Kiwis concert party in France during World War I]


People: William McKeon, Neville Webber

Location: Nieppe, France


Image Title: “The Kiwis” at Nieppe in Pierrot costumes [including Ernest McKinlay, top left, Dave Kenny, centre and Theo Trezise, front centre]

Image Source: Courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum, https://api.aucklandmuseum.com/id/media/v/450448?rendering=original.jpg


Major General Andrew Russell of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force ordered a permanent concert party to be formed in late 1916, to try and boost morale among his men on the Western Front.   Such concert parties were an established feature of the British Army and the New Zealanders had put together some spontaneous shows, but this was the first time an official party of Divisional Entertainers was formed. Its key players were to be musical director and pianist Dave Kenny, tenor Ernest McKinlay and dancer and singer Theo Trezise.  All three men had been involved in the performing arts before the war.

“The Kiwis” took over a former church hall in Nieppe and renamed it “The Kapai Theatre.” For seven months they performed nearly every night to packed audiences of around 500 men.  Shows would involve comedy sketches, musical items, pantomimes, female impersonators and a variety of popular songs of the day, including waiata Māori and current hits from London musicals. Tenor Ernest McKinlay would go on to perform and record in London after the war, including several of the songs he sang during his time with The Kiwis.

After Nieppe, a large marquee was acquired, which meant audiences of around 1000 men could be accommodated and the entertainers were more mobile.  The Kiwis and other parties such as The Tuis performed in many locations and to soldiers from other allied forces, as well as the NZEF. As Bill McKeon recalls, their shows became quite professional, with costumes and props acquired from London theatres.

The soldier concert parties had a popularity which lasted well beyond the end of the war.  After the Armistice in November 1918, New Zealand entertainer and cartoonist Pat Hanna formed “The Digger Pierrots”, which contained many members of the wartime concert parties.  Initially they were required to entertain the New Zealand army of occupation in Germany, but when they returned to New Zealand in 1919, the group carried on for several decades as “The Diggers,” touring Australia and New Zealand and performing for audiences of returned men and their families.  In the early 1930s Hanna recorded a best-selling version of the wartime hit “Mademoiselle from Armentieres”, with lyrics about an Australian soldier falling in love with the famous mademoiselle.