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Spotlight: Christmas in wartime

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21/12/2015

By | From the Collections

A fresh-faced young woman stares out from the pages of an old pantomime programme. Her cheeks are lightly rouged and her auburn hair is gathered into a flowing pigtail falling over her left shoulder. If there is something rather too prominent about the brow and a telltale blue-grey tinge to the jawline, it is  because this is none other than Corporal Edward Joseph Dillon RAMC. He took the lead female part of  “Alice” in the 85th Field Ambulance’s Christmas production of Dick Whittington in 1915.

A page from the programme for “Dick Whittington, A Pantomime” performed by the 85th Field Ambulance

Pages from the programme for Dick Whittington, A Pantomime, written and produced by members of the 85th Field Ambulance. Wellcome Library reference: RAMC/661.

This production, cobbled together amongst the tents and beds of the unit’s camp in Macedonia, with ambulance headlamps for lighting and sandbags for seating, became something of a sensation with British forces stationed on the Balkan front. Its fame led to the publication of this souvenir programme in 1916 (RAMC Muniment Collection 661). The production proved to be the first of a series of Christmas pantomimes put on by the unit.

Sadly, Corporal Dillon’s acting career was short-lived. Presumably eager for action after years of treading the boards with the Medical Corps, he joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and was killed in a flying accident on 12 April 1918, aged 23.

Richard Aspin

Richard Aspin

Dr Richard Aspin is Head of Research in the Wellcome Library. An archivist and manuscripts curator by training, he has spent many years working with the Library’s collections, as both custodian and researcher. His main motivation for studying the past is to help rescue forgotten lives from the enormous condescension of posterity.

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