The Tommy who wore a frock
Like most young British men of the Great War generation, Tommy Keele served his country on the Western Front. Unlike the others, however, he did it dressed as a woman. As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of war approaches, the story of one of the British Army’s least typical soldiers is important for its reminder that the conflict wasn’t fought by sepia-toned emotional strangers, but by people just like us with a capacity for anger, cynicism, prejudice and pride.
Tommy was interviewed by the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive in 1991 at the age of 98. The interview tapes, which are now available online, reveal a man speaking with surprising frankness. For the first three years of the war, Tommy was an ordinary lance corporal in the Middlesex Regiment. At the start of 1917, he joined the Ace of Spades concert party as “First Girl”. Under the stage name Dot Keele, he took female parts in theatres behind the lines for the entertainment of sex-starved soldiers. “The audience never imagined,” he says, “that during the war years, in France, they would see variety acts like us.”
Tommy had acted professionally before the war (including a role riding a horse at a Drury Lane theatre), and he relished the chance to return to the stage. “People didn’t always know I was a man dressed up as a woman,” he boasts, recalling how a colonel was invited to place a bet on which of the two Spades “girls” was genuinely female. After carefully studying the candidates – Tommy and Dolly Clair (whom Tommy describes as “a fat little man”) – the colonel confidently placed £50 on Tommy. “I was wearing a very low-cut evening dress. I used to put a dark red line half way down my chest, and then shade it off, so the side was a little pink. It looked like a cleavage.” The colonel was fooled – and completely refused to accept that Tommy was a man. “So I had to go along to his barracks to prove I was a little lance corporal in the Middlesex Regiment. He was disgusted.”
Occasional disgust was balanced by the adoration of Tommy’s fans, the soldiers. He happily remembers their requests for signed photos which brought him “a nice little income”. His roles ranged from song-and-dance routines to serious dramatic parts. In a long-forgotten melodrama, The White Man, he played a young Indian girl: “I had to be glamorous and walk across the stage looking after this little boy who was going to become a lord. The idea was that they were taking my charge to England, and I was so heartbroken that I went behind a rock, fired a revolver and killed myself.”
As he was being carried offstage one evening, Tommy was “tickled pink” to see a party of nurses all crying into their handkerchiefs. But his Indian make-up was hard to remove. After one show, standing at an estaminet bar, Tommy noticed a soldier gesturing towards him: “He ain’t bad looking, is he, for a halfcaste?” he said.
“I could be such a nasty little man,” Tommy admits, recalling how he once urinated into a wine bottle in his dressing room to deter a thief. “The wine never went down again!” he says, triumphantly.
The tapes reveal Tommy to be a lively storyteller representing an age that is at once far removed – sexism, racism and homophobia were rife – and yet strikingly contemporary. For an oral historian such as myself, they are gold dust. His temper can suddenly flash as he remembers some perceived slight or other – but he is at his fiercest when describing a great personal fear. “When we were playing at Arras in the evening,” he says, “the theatre would show films in the afternoon. In these films, girls would be slightly I was good enough, I didn’t want to be!”
He may not have wanted to be good enough for the sergeant, but Tommy’s success depended on being good enough for the ordinary soldiers. Wartime France, with all of its stress and danger, was a makeshift world in which men lived in denial and the next best thing was often good enough. He might not have acknowledged it, but Tommy Keele owed his popularity and success to the same sexual confusion which made him so resentful.
After the war Tommy tried his hand at a variety of jobs. He opened a music shop, ran a tiling business, and worked as a steward on a cruise ship. During the Second World War, he joined the Stars in Battledress concert party, whose members included Benny Hill and Tommy Cooper. In his later years, he became a clown and children’s entertainer. But none of these ventures could match his two remarkable years playing First Girl on the Western Front.
For most young men these were years of misery, endurance and fear. For Tommy Keele, a man who had already seen the brutal side of the war, they represented opportunity, excitement, and the fear of being mistaken for something once heavily frowned upon by society. Attitudes have thankfully changed since the First World War, but people, it is very clear, have not.
Joshua Levine’s two books, Forgotten Voices of the Somme and Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle for Britain (Ebury, RRP £7.99 each) are available to order from Telegraph Books at £7.99 + £1.10 p&p each. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk