From 1939 many of Britain’s best known entertainers joined ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association, which organised trips around the world to entertain the troops with live performances.
Amongst them was Joyce Grenfell who was to become a highly celebrated comic actress and singer after the war, frequently appearing on the BBC and in films such as ‘St. Trinians’. She kept a diary of her experiences while travelling around the Middle East and Italy. None of the shows she put on seem to have affected her as much as the one she was now engaged to do – in hospitals in Italy:
20th March 1944
Oh, God, the sights I’ve seen today. We haven’t touched the war till today.
Bed after bed filled with mutilated men, heads, faces, bodies. It’s the most inhuman, ghastly, bloody, hellish thing in the world. I couldn’t think or work or even feel in the end. It was quite numbing.
The first ward (it was at 65) was a huge surgical [ward] full of casts, pulleys, and very sick men. All the time we were playing there were sisters doing dressings, patients feeding from tubes, orderlies bringing people in from the theatres and newly arrived from the line.
About half the room was too ill to listen or care; the others lay and took it in with their eyes. It was no fun to see the suffering going on in there. I struggled to get a clear mind and do the job and eventually I think I did. But it was an experience I don’t often wish to witness.
By far the illest people I’ve seen as yet. The nurses are at it every minute and seem so calm and encouraging. I take my hat off to them. It’s a terric job and they are doing it beautifully here. There is a head and face surgery team at this hospital which means they get the full burden of all such cases.
We did three shows, three of the most extraordinary I ever hope to do.
A blinded Scotch boy called Dan — still dazed by his wounds and in a sort of awful gaiety. Their tenderness to each other is heartbreaking. In two wards patients were out of the minds and struggling, and in both cases there was a fellow patient, now convalescent, holding the sick man down gently and patiently, watching him all the time.
And a bad case who was also shell shocked had a friend to see him and he just sat and held his hand in silence. The warmth of human contact and the restoring condence of a friend must help at a time like this.
I must forget all this or I shan’t be any good – but in another way I must remember it for the effort I, as an individual, must make to see that there are never any more wars.
If the striking miners and factory workers could be in one of those wards for an hour and see those boys they’d never strike again.