In 2017 we created a new community theatre and history project aimed at using performance techniques to learn more about the lives of soldier’s serving during the First World War. The six-month project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the First World War Engagement Centre. At the end of the project, we produced a devised piece of theatre and performed to a sell-out audience in the main house of the Oxford House Arts Theatre, London and received positive recognition and feedback for what we had achieved.

The story of the crew of the Fray Bentos:

The Fray Bentos was a First World War tank which came under siege during the battle of Passchendaele. Trapped in their overturned tank, just metres from the German trenches, Captain Donald Richardson and his crew already faced an impossible situation. But, after three days of attack from their enemies, the brave men in charge of the Mark IV tank were plunged into even greater danger when their British allies started bombarding them as well, to destroy the tank before the Germans could get it. Astonishingly, though, all but one of the soldiers survived the impossible odds, armed with just pistols and a single rifle, managing to escape the death trap to become the First World War's most decorated tank crew.

 

The heroes aboard the tank nicknamed Fray Bentos made scattered headlines months after the struggle in July 1917, but their story then languished untold for decades. But it has now been revealed by family historians at findmypast.co.uk, who dredged up records of the heroic struggle. They were able to uncover Captain Donald Richardson, Second Lieutenant George Hill and the rest of their crew had rushed towards the enemy lines when their tank got stuck in a bomb crater and fell on its side.

The fall rendered the tank's on-board guns useless, and the injured men were trapped inside while the tank's metal armour endured constant assault from machine guns, sniper rifles, grenades, heavy artillery and even dynamite.

 

In one particularly deadly moment, a German soldier managed to climb on the overturned tank and drop a grenade inside, but a crew member managed to hurl it back out before it exploded. The men survived by sharing their meagre rations and drinking water from the tank's radiator. They were also faced with extremes of temperature ranging from 30 degrees Celsius in the day to below freezing point at night.

 

After their first night under fire, a flare sent up by British forces showed the men that they were surrounded by German soldiers, eager to take over the stranded tank. Realising they had little chance of survival if they stayed inside, the men managed to make their escape by crawling through the mud one-by-one to make it back to their own lines. A report on the battle from the Nottingham Evening Post in January 1918 said: 'For three days and nights, Captain Richardson along with another officer and the crew, continued to hold the enemy at bay.

 

'They were heavily sniped, and the Germans actually got on top of the tank, but could not get inside, nor did the bringing up of a machine gun subdue the defenders, one of whom was killed and all the rest wounded.'

 

Debra Chatfield, a family historian from findmypast.co.uk said: “At this point in the First World War, tank technology and warfare was incredibly new. Captain Richardson and Second Lieutenant Hill led a charge of eight tanks and theirs was the only one that survived attack by German artillery.

'It is astonishing that they managed to survive the initial attack, let alone 72 hours of attacks from German troops, especially when you consider that they only had basic weapons to defend themselves.

'The tank crew became the most decorated of the whole First World War.

Project Aims:

  1. Become more aware of generating questions whilst inquiring about the past, using archives and investigating artifacts.

  2. To investigate what life was like serving on the front line and at home during the First World War.

  3. Create a community group working on a combined history project under a common theme and which celebrates and pays respect to those who fought during the First World War as we mark the 100th Anniversary of the First World War.

  4. Use theatre and performance skills to bring to life a true story from the First World War which captures the courage and survival demonstrated by a nation at war.

  5. Develop historical enquiry skills using a range of different resources e.g. both primary and secondary sources.

  6. Inspire others to learn about the past.

  7. Discuss what we have learnt from the Great War as a society and the impact which the War has had upon our way of life in today’s world.

Our introduction film made and shown at the beginning of our performances

1. POSSIBLE CAUSES OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR

The first session was used exploring the possible causes of the First world war. We researched archives and watched a series of different short films which gave us an insight into what was going on politically at the time and how tensions were rising. We knew that it was important to include several key elements include the assassination if Franz Ferdinand and his wife, as well as the movement of the German army along the belgium border. 

 

We also wanted to explore the feelings of the general public towards the possible outbreak of war. We mapped out possible thoughts of fear, anger, apprehension and duty. We researched real life accounts and diary entries from people who were living during the time before then applying this to our production. 

 

From an the outset we wanted to develop a story around one if the crew members and retell the story through their eyes. With this in mind we decided to give an insight into these feelings and people's understanding if the causes of the war by creating a speech to be performed by one if the participants playing the role as Morrey's father. 

Downloadable Educational Resources:

Private Morrey's Fathers speech about the outbreak of war 

The Possible Causes of the First World War: An Information pack 

Time-line of Events

Prologue

A story forgotten and almost untold

Of a crew of men courageous and bold

Like millions called up for the fight

To build an army of strength and might

 

Brought together in a small tin-can tank

Crashing, into the mud they sank

Under siege, battered, refusing to fall

Thoughts of home kept them standing tall

 

Rations were low, emotions were high

The spectre of death was constantly nigh

Surrender would be the thought for most

But for seventy-two hours they stood to their post

 

This story, almost forgotten without trace

Of the Fray Bentos crew that you will surely embrace

Inspirational courage about which should be spoken’

And of the human spirit that remained unbroken.

ACTIVITY IDEAS:

-Become a BBC Radio reporter and create a news report about the outbreak of war.

-Devise a scene between two neighbours living in London speaking about the outbreak of War.

2. YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU!

“Six months should see the end of it.” The Observer reported in 1914. They had to create a volunteer army called the Kitchener Army after Lord Kitchener. Kitchener himself made a direct and personal appeal to all men in Britain. Posters were printed showing him pointing his finger at passers-by with the words “Your country needs you!”

 

Thousands lined up the streets to enlist, but after time people began to realise the true horrors of the War and the government too realised that more needed to be done. In 1916, a new law was passed declaring that all men had to join the army whether they wanted to or not.

 

Training was often tough and extremely gruelling. Its intention was to prepare the men to fight on the battlefield and to turn these boys into men. Training lasted on an average of 13 weeks. It included physical training and exercise, Bayonet training and rife drill practice.

 

We used a variety of techniques including role-play, writing in role, performing diaries and letters as well as trying on costumes and having a go at some of the training activities in order to build a clear impression of what it was like to train as a soldier.

3. Life in the Trenches 

Downloadable Educational Resources:

A collection of Recruitment posters 

Letters home from trainee soldiers 

Letter home from Private Morrey 

Training Activities 

Letter Home

Private Morrey writing home during his training

 

My Dearest Emily,

 

I was so pleased to receive your letters. I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to write back as much as I’d liked. We’ve been worked quite solidly since the moment that we arrived. Yes, I’ve got used to the puttees, as they have shaped to my legs now. I’ve been dished out a rifle and a bayonet and so now when I go out on parade I have got to wear my belt, bayonet and cartridge pouch and to take my rifle.

 

They have been teaching us bayonet fighting and I can tell you it makes your arms ache, when you make a point that is, when you lunge out at imaginary enemy, with the rifle at arm’s length. They’re exercising us a lot to and I’m getting slowly better at my aim during rifle drill practice. The Corporal in charge seems to think that he’ll make a great marksman out of me. I think that all this hard training will either make a man out of me or kill me! You ought to see me in my shrapnel helmet and Gas mask. It would really make you laugh. Especially as the helmet wobbles from side to side every time that I walk. I look like a right picture.

 

I don’t see much of Budd or Arthur now as they’ve been training under a different Officer to form a different regiment. I know that they’ve been kept together which I’m pleased about. We still sometimes see each other in the Mess hall at the end of the day. They haven’t changed one bit. I’m glad that the War hasn’t dampened their humour.

 

Thank you for the food that you sent me, but I hope that you’re not doing without. I know how much you like to take care of me. I’m eating well and with all the training; I’m sleeping well too.

 

There isn’t a single day that I don’t think about you. I miss you with all my heart and cannot wait until the day when I can get to see you again. Please take care of yourself and try not to worry. Time will go quickly I’m sure and soon we’ll be together again.

The Battle of Passchendaele. The ground was like one long river of mud of sludge. The soldiers spent much of their time knee length in water and the gross weather didn’t help either. The trenches were long dug outs built using sandbags with a small gap between and the ground had a wooden platform. But because of the weather and dampness the walls of the trench were often in need of repair so it was one continues slog. Hours were long and dreary with few breaks and your nerves were constantly shattered by explosions and the constant fear of attack.

 

Our research into the life of soldiers living in the trenches took us through reading real-life soldier stories, diary entries and historians reports. We used archives and artefacts including pictures and photographs to learn more about the conditions which the soldiers faced on a diary basis. By including a few scenes about the life in the trenches, we hoped to provide a useful insight for the participants taking part so that they could build their characters. The scenes would also help to educate our audience members of what life was like serving in the battlefield.

 

As part of our workshops, we created a short film using a collection of images and facts which we had learnt. This film was then included as part of our production. We also recorded several audio recordings of real stories and recounts written by soldiers whom had served in Passchendaele.

CREATING THE  DUG-OUT SCENE: 

Today’s workshop was used to develop a scene inspired by one of the recounts found written by an ex-soldier when speaking about his first night in the trenches. He described how he was woken by the sound of a huge explosion. It turned out to be a near-by dud-out which had been hit by fire and had been completely crushed. The soldier described how he had desperately tried to claw at the mud to free the buried soldiers trapped underneath with little success. The story really engaged and caught our attention and described quickly the horrors of war which the soldiers faced. We decided to use this as a stimulus to devise a scene between two of the characters and this was then included in our play.

Ricardo Reis

ACTIVITY IDEAS:

-Design your own recruitment poster.

-Have a go at devising and filming your own Recruitment ad and film it.

-Create your own fly on the wall documentary about the soldiers training. 

Creating the "Over the top" scene 

Our purpose of the workshop today was to create improvised scenes to explore the emotions of going over the top. We started off highlighted simple key statements from soldier’s recounts and historian facts such as “One soldier standing next to me was violently sick.” And “Nobody made a sound. It was a dead like atmosphere all around us.” We then worked at creating a collection of freeze frame montages before adding in simple lines which were then given further narration by one of the characters. We decided to finish this scene with the naming of soldier’s names taken by the research found whom had fallen during the battle of Passchendaele.

 

Another scene which we created was the scene between Private Morrey, Private Brady and Binley. Very little dialogue is used in the scene and this was intentional as it highlighted the shock and emotions felt by the soldiers after experiencing the horrors of surviving a battle.

Downloadable Educational Resources:

"Going over the top" scene from The play 

Recounts from real-life soldiers 

Pictures from the trenches 

Battle of Passchendaele

Below is our short film which we created using images and research from our workshops exploring life living in the trenches. 

ACTIVITY IDEAS:

-Imagine yourself as a soldier and write your own Trench Diary. 

-Develop your own drama scene showing a conversation between two soldiers.

-Try on the army soldiers uniform to get an idea of what it was like.

-Try out some of the soldiers rations to learn more about their way of life in the trenches.

4. War poetry  

Roughly 10 million soldiers lost their lives in World War I, along with seven million civilians. The horror of the war and its aftermath altered the world for decades, and poets responded to the brutalities and losses in new ways. Just months before his death in 1918, English poet Wilfred Owen famously wrote, “This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War.”

 

As part of our research into how the lives of soldiers serving during the First World War we explored the use of poetry which some of the soldiers wrote about their experiences. We quickly realised how valuable poetry was as a tool in giving us an insight into the soldier’s lives and what they had to face whilst serving. We quickly found that more poems in 1914 and 1915 extoll the old virtues of honor, duty, heroism, and glory, while many later poems after 1915 approach these lofty abstractions with far greater skepticism and moral subtlety, through realism and bitter irony. Though horrific depictions of battle in poetry date back to Homer’s Iliad, the later poems of WWI mark a substantial shift in how we view war and sacrifice. 

 

As well as focusing and researching in depth two specific poets: Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon whom we pay reference to in our performance; we also decided to learn and film a selection of poems written during the First World War.

Recordings of War Poems

"Suicide in the Trenches" by Siegfried Sassoon

"In times of peace" by John Agard

"The last post" by Carol Ann Duffy

In flanders fields by John McCrae

A poem by Siegfried Sassoon

"How to kill" by Keith Douglas

Downloadable Educational Resources:

Wilfred Owen Research Sheet  

Siegfried Sassoon Research Sheet 

Examples of First World War Poems 

5. First World War Tanks  

The development of tanks in World War I was a response to the stalemate that had developed on the Western Front. Although vehicles that incorporated the basic principles of the tank (armour, firepower, and all-terrain mobility) had been projected in the decade or so before the War, it was the alarmingly heavy casualties of the start of its trench warfare that stimulated development. Research took place in both Great Britain and France, with Germany only belatedly following the Allies' lead.

 

In Great Britain, an initial vehicle, nicknamed Little Willie, was constructed at William Foster & Co., during August and September 1915. The prototype of a new design that became the Mark I tank was demonstrated to the British Army on 2 February 1916. Although initially termed "Landships" by the Landships Committee, production vehicles were named "tanks", to preserve secrecy. The term was chosen when it became known that the factory workers at William Foster referred to the first prototype as "the tank" because of its resemblance to a steel water tank.

 

The first tanks were mechanically unreliable. There were problems that caused considerable attrition rates during combat deployment and transit. The heavily shelled terrain was impassable to conventional vehicles, and only highly mobile tanks such as the Mark and FTs performed reasonably well. The Mark I's rhomboid shape, caterpillar tracks, and 26-foot (8 m) length meant that it could negotiate obstacles, especially wide trenches, that wheeled vehicles could not. Along with the tank, the first self-propelled gun (the British Gun Carrier Mk I) and the first armoured personnel carrier (the British Mk IX) were also constructed in World War I.

 

As part of our workshops we researched into how tanks were made and the role which they played during the First World War. Whilst researching we found a poem by AA Milne which described tanks. We also found some eye-witness statements describing the tanks in action. These were really helpful and featured in our performance.

Below is a copy of the short film which we created about the First World War Tanks: 

ACTIVITY IDEAS:

-Learn one of the WW1 poems for yourself and film it.

-Create a website of your own about the poems of the First World War.

-Have a go at writing your own poem based on the First World War.

-Research one of the other famous WW1 Poets and create a character profile. 

Downloadable Educational Resources:

First World War Tanks: Information sheet

Eye-witness recount description 

Poem by AA Milne about the WW1 Tanks

ACTIVITY IDEAS:

-Become a BBC Radio reporter and create a news report about the tanks being commissioned.

-Research the designs of different tanks being developed. 

-Explore the recounts from real life soldiers who served in the tanks. 

6. The Fray Bentos story  

The Fray Bentos is the story of:

 

Incredible bravery of WWI tank crew who survived 72 hours being bombarded by both Germans and their own side

  • The crew of the Fray Bentos were trapped after their tank fell on its side

  • They were attacked constantly by German machine guns and explosives

  • Even British guns tried to destroy the tank to keep it from enemy hands

  • But all but one of the men miraculously escaped the deadly situation



Trapped in their overturned tank, just metres from the German trenches, Captain Donald Richardson and his crew already faced an impossible situation.

But, after three days of attack from their enemies, the brave men in charge of the Mark IV tank were plunged into even greater danger when their British allies started bombarding them as well, to destroy the tank before the Germans could get it.

Astonishingly, though, all but two of the soldiers survived the impossible odds, armed with just pistols and a single rifle, managing to escape the death trap to become the First World War's most decorated tank crew.

The heroes aboard the tank nicknamed Fray Bentos made scattered headlines months after the struggle in July 1917, but their story then languished untold for decades.

But it has now been revealed by family historians at findmypast.co.uk, who dredged up records of the heroic struggle.


They were able to uncover Captain Donald Richardson, Second Lieutenant George Hill and the rest of their crew had rushed towards the enemy lines when their tank got stuck in a bomb crater and fell on its side.

The fall rendered the tank's on-board guns useless, and the injured men were trapped inside while the tank's metal armour endured constant assault from machine guns, sniper rifles, grenades, heavy artillery and even dynamite.

In one particularly deadly moment, a German soldier managed to climb on the overturned tank and drop a grenade inside, but a crew member managed to hurl it back out before it exploded.

The men survived by sharing their meagre rations and drinking water from the tank's radiator. They were also faced with extremes of temperature ranging from 30 degrees Celsius in the day to below freezing point at night.


After their first night under fire, a flare sent up by British forces showed the men that they were surrounded by German soldiers, eager to take over the stranded tank.

Realising they had little chance of survival if they stayed inside, the men managed to make their escape by crawling through the mud one-by-one to make it back to their own lines.

A report on the battle from the Nottingham Evening Post in January 1918 said: 'For three days and nights, Captain Richardson along with another officer and the crew, continued to hold the enemy at bay.

'They were heavily sniped, and the Germans actually got on top of the tank, but could not get inside, nor did the bringing up of a machine gun subdue the defenders, one of whom was killed and all the rest wounded.'

Debra Chatfield, a family historian from findmypast.co.uk said: “At this point in the First World War, tank technology and warfare was incredibly new.

'Captain Richardson and Second Lieutenant Hill led a charge of eight tanks and theirs was the only one that survived attack by German artillery.

'It is astonishing that they managed to survive the initial attack, let alone 72 hours of attacks from German troops, especially when you consider that they only had basic weapons to defend themselves.

'The tank crew became the most decorated of the whole First World War, and it would seem, rightly so.

7. Devising the play  

Bringing the story to life on stage did pose a few problems as we wanted to remain completely true to the story itself. However, as our research workshops proved there wasn’t much of information other than the basic details available on the crew and story. After great consideration we decided to create a piece which was ‘inspired’ by the story rather than a direct re-telling of the story. This allowed us to bring the story to live in the best way that we could, whilst also allowing us to use what we had leant throughout the workshops to fill in the gaps.

 

We set out to devise a piece which included a group of characters which were human and real with the hope of paying respect to not just the crew members themselves, but to all of those who had served during the First World War. We also wanted to develop a piece which aimed to:

 

  • Include the outbreak of the war and how real people understood what it meant.

  • The recruitment and training process.

  • Gave an idea of the home front and how the loved ones left behind coped.

  • A soldier’s life in the trenches.

  • The story of the Fray Bentos crew.

 

We used poetry, improvisations, written scenes, short films, music, freeze frames and mime to create a piece of live theatre which retold the story in a sensitive manner.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE PLAY: 

8. Rehearsing the play  

Rehearsing the play was a great deal of fun. Mainly because we had such a wonderful team whom were passionate about what we were doing. We were also grateful to all the support given to us by the First World War Engagement Centre whom not only ran workshops supporting our research but attended rehearsals to advise us on the historical content of our performance.

 

We were also bowled over when we received a message from one of the crew members relatives thanking us for doing the project and for giving the memory alive. We also received messages from a gentleman who was building a real-life size replica of the Fray Bentos tank to share ideas.

 

Building a tank on stage was going to be impossible and so we decided to keep our production design simple and rely upon our storytelling and performance techniques as well as our developed audio and films.

After several weeks of rehearsals at the Oxford House Arts Theatre we were then ready to take to the stage.   

9. The performance 

“A remarkable story – sensitively written and brilliantly performed by all the cast” (Martha, Audience member)

 

“Every cast member brings to life an inspirational story of human courage and share what they have learnt throughout a worthwhile project” Mark

 

“A truly remarkable performance by all involved!”

 

“It explored the horrors and truths of war in a sensitive and thought-provoking way.” Wendy

 

“I laughed. I cried. I was inspired. A wonderful performance.” Paul Meadows

 

“An absolute pleasure working under Alfie’s insightful and creative direction. And always having a laugh along the way.” Bradley Peake

 

“All the cast had it in the bag from start to finish.” Len

 

“Well done to everyone. The play was amazing and the actors brilliant. One of the best Alfie James has written!” Josh Chapman

 

“A project which clearly brought together a group of people from diverse walks of life.” Valerie

 

 

“My grandfather was one of the crew members. I just wanted to say thank you for all of your hard work and for keeping the history alive.” Laurie Arthurs
A Special Thank you to everyone who took part including:
Bradley Peake, Benji Riggs, Jon Woodrow, Simon James, Kashiff Dottin, Nick McDuff, Luigi Ambrosio, Oscar Aleman, Ricardo Reis, Elizabeth Mannering, Elisa Nannucci, Kollyn Bailey, Rich Yori, Madeliene Ockendon, Barry Ockendon, The staff at The Oxford House Arts Theatre, The First World War Engagement Centre, The Heritage Lottery Fund, Khaki Devil Costume & Prop Hire
STOP THE PRESS....
We have recently been invited to attend a special event organised by the First World War Engagement Centre to share what we have learnt from the Fray Bentos Project. 

Development Plan 2017 

In 2017 we are aiming to develop our first History project focusing upon developing ways of inspiring others to learn more about the past and to develop skills as Historians as well as bringing stories of the past alive in exciting ways. 

Get in touch 

To contact us please email us at: alfiejamesproductions@gmail.com