Bullets and Bandsmen
A book by Daphne Jones
For Channel 4
Just before Christmas 1950, a Londoner suffered a stroke. He died a few weeks later in St. James’ Hospital, Balham. His name was Erskine Williams and he was nearly 70.
In the room that had been Erskine’s final home, his daughter Daphne sadly gathered his few effects. Among them, unexpectedly, were diaries and boxes of faded papers. Daphne took them across London on war-worn tube trains and stored them, unread, in her digs.
Thirty years later, the diaries and boxes were finally opened. Their contents astounded Daphne. Her father had been a child celebrity in the late Victorian music hall. Yellowed cuttings and sepia photos recorded his stage days as Little Erskine, a lightning cartoonist. From the age of eight he had topped the bill, sketching the celebrities of the day. Somehow, his showbiz career had died in the early 20th century.
Erskine’s papers yielded another secret he had kept from his daughter. He had served on the Western Front. Two pocket diaries for 1917 and 1918 recorded, in his familiar hand, a soldier’s life. Intriguingly, they came with a cuttings book filled with letters home to his father in London – and a collection of sketches in which he had drawn army life.
What made these pictures unusual was their content. Rather than scenes of carnage, they showed bandsmen and billets, pierrots and troop entertainments. A sergeant’s letter held a clue. It advised Erskine to bring an oboe with him to the Somme: the 11th Divisional Band was a player short. The sergeant added that Erskine would find bandwork a ‘very nice occupation’
As Daphne matched the diaries to sketches, a somewhat different war emerged to the hell normally depicted in memoirs and poetry. In the hinterland of the Western Front, Erskine’s artistic skills had enabled him to carve his own niche. At night he might share a billet with rats, like any Tommy. By day he played in the band, designed scenery for concert parties, painted insignia on helmets and drew his pals.
On scraps of paper and old envelopes he created his own genre of war art and unconsciously left us a new angle on the Great War – the life it generated between the fighting.
In 1992 Daphne turned Erskine’s diaries and pictures into a popular book about his unusual war, called Bullets and Bandsmen.
In 1998 Quanta adapted this book into a series of four short films for Channel 4, titled Armistice Diary. We filmed between Cambrai and the Belgian border. Andrew Mackintosh – DS Greig in The Bill – played Bandsman Erskine Williams. Khaki Devil expertly kitted Andrew out in a uniform, making him look every inch a bandsman.
To mark the centenary of the Great War in 1914, Quanta will reprint Bullets and Bandsmen and sell it together with a new DVD of Armistice Diary. This combined book and film project will tell the true story of a soldier’s life in the Great War in both print and audiovisual formats, and offer history enthusiasts a unique product.