On Anzac Day, the 25th of April, we remember Australians at war.
Although the ukulele was introduced to Australia before 1915, there is little evidence that it was played during World War One by Australian troops at Gallipoli or on the Western Front in Europe. It was not until after 1918 that the huge popularity of the ukulele in America ensured it spread to the rest of the world Ref. 1 . By World War Two Australian soldiers adopted the ukulele as part of their unofficial kit, as they tried to bring some cheer to their lives at camp and at the front.
In America during the 1920s and 1930s, Buster Keaton (and his ukulele), was an established star of silent movies and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards was famous as a singer and ukulele player in Vaudeville. Both starred in the film “Doughboys” (1930), that loosely depicts Keaton’s wartime experiences during his service in France during WWI Ref 2. One great scene shows Buster and Cliff playing the same ukulele while Cliff sings and Buster scats.
In Australia the ukulele gained popularity during the interwar period. It was appreciated as an entertainment by soldiers in a hospital for war veterans. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic, 25 May 1932, p.6) newspaper reported that Lady Chaytor entertained the patients with her ukulele at the Caulfield Military Hospital. Lady Chaytor was from County Durham, England and had flown to Australia as a passenger in a two seater Gypsy Moth to commence a series of lectures on fashion. Her only luggage was one small suitcase and her ukulele. She visited Caulfield Hospital saying “she felt that she was of the A.I.F., for her brother, who at an early age ran away from home, had enlisted from Queensland”. She visited each of the wards, sat on the piano and sang many songs playing her ukulele and accompanied by the singing of the men.
Lady Chaytor with her ukulele in Sydney, Australia, 1932
During World War II George Formby is well-documented entertaining British and allied troops at the front with his banjo ukulele. It is much harder to find photographs and videos of Australian troops being entertained by Australian ukulele performers. Unlike Britain and America, Australia had only a small contingent of entertainers for the diggers during World War Two. The ukulele appears to have been a more private instrument that men could take with them to the battlefield.
Sheet music for the ukulele became prolific and patriotic during World War Two.
The ukulele and music were very important to many American soldiers during their time in Australia. Jack Earle an American gunner, was recovering in Perth from shell-shock. For him music was “half his life”and he appealed for an instrument in the newspaper after losing two while on active duty. It was quickly replaced the next day by an anonymous female donor (Daily News, Perth W.A. Tues. 16 Sept. 1941, pg. 16) which was only possible due to the popularity of the ukulele in Australia.
U. S. Marines with ukulele, Ballarat, circa. 1943, Charles Edward Boyles (National Library of Australia).
World War 2 Australian Soldier
P.O.W. Whittling Starts WA Ukulele Industry.
Boredom-killing whittling in Changi prisoner of war camp has started up an in-dustry in Western Australia that might become a dollar-earner. Partner in JMG Industries at Jolimont Les O’Connell, filled in his spare time at Changi using a knife on coconut shells and pieces of tea chests to make a ukulele. Heartened by his success he made a carved top ukulele which musicians in the camp hailed as a topline instrument. O’Connell decided to go into the business on his liberation. This story was told today by his partner Jack Maskiell who was with O’Connell in Changi. He said that it took six months to produce the first local ukulele. From then on the ukuleles were marketed throughout Australia with great success. ‘We got a bit cheeky,’ said Maskiell. ‘We sent them to Singapore and Ceylon and now dollar-earning samples are in the U.S.. ‘We also have them in Britain.’ The firm has now produced 3000 ukuleles and 700 guitars…… Maskiell lost a leg in Changi. (The Daily News, Perth, 16 May 1950, pg. 9)
Rats of Tobruk ukulele 1943
After the siege of the Garrison at the Libyan port of Tobruk in 1941 Ref. 3, this ukulele (pictured above) was adopted as a permanent record of the West Australian Battalion known as The Rats of Tobruk. It was owned by a Corporal Smith and played before and during the siege, but became a memento of the event. Pictures of rats were scratched at the headstock with the word Tobruk, then 200 signatures were scratched on the front and back of the ukulele by the men of the unit. It was returned to Western Australia after Corporal Smith was taken prisoner (Daily News, Perth, W.A. Wed, 21 April 1943, pg. 7).
More ukulele stories, photographs and artwork of Australian soldiers can be found in the Australian War Memorial.
Bayside Ukes member.