The Cantabs Concert Party


In December 1915, shortly after the 1/1st arrived at the Third Army School, a group of men decided to form a Concert Party. Life at Flixecourt was fairly relaxed for the Battalion and the men had plenty of free time. During the day the men were kept busy with training and demonstrations but other than the occasional overnight route march they were mostly free in the evenings. The planned Concert Party Troupe could provide entertainment for the rest of the Battalion as well as other local units. The group was formed originally of Sgts Hilliam and Phillips, Cpl Place, Ptes King, Struggles, and Burns, and 2nd Lt Williams. They were later joined by Drummer Wilson and on several occasions Lt Formby.

From left to right - Cpl Place, Drummer Wilson, Sgt Phillips, Pte Struggles, Pte Burns, 2nd Lt Williams (standing at back), Pte King, & Sgt Hilliam.

The group chose to call themselves “The Cantabs”, playing off the Regiment’s connection with Cambridge. A 300 seat room in a Café in Flixecourt, close to the men’s billet, was chosen and performances quickly got underway. It is likely that the venue was the “Café du Chalet”, which was a popular place with the Cambs men during their stay at the Flixecourt.

Word quickly got round of how good the opening night’s performance was and after that they nearly always performed to a full house.  Their fame grew around the units in the area and on several occasions they did special performances for groups of officers and NCOs visiting the Third Army School.

The show was a typical mixture of acts for the time, ranging from serious sentimental songs to comedy skits. They performed versions of popular songs and acts from the music halls as well as more topical humour, sometimes at the expense of fellow NCOs and officers. The troupe was a big hit and a good moral boost for the Battalion.  As the show gained popularity the acts evolved and new sections were added in order to keep the show varied. At some stage they managed to obtain a collection of decrepit wind instruments that were used by the troupe in a parody of Sousa’s band.

The show and songs were popular with both officers and other ranks. Soon the Cambs men took to singing the songs, or “perverted” versions of them, whilst on the march. Sadly the Cantabs performances came to a stop at the end of February 1916 when the Battalion left the Third Army School and once again returned to the front. However the shows were remembered by those who saw them and served as a happy reminder of the days at Flixecourt.

Who Were The Cantabs?

Sergeant Anthony Hilliam

Known as “Tant” by his friends, he was born and lived in Whittlesey. He originally joined the Cambridgeshires in 1909, serving with F Coy. He left at the start of 1913 and moved briefly to Canada before returning to the UK and rejoining the Regiment in early 1914. In the early months of the war he was promoted quickly and in January 1915 was made Sergeant Cook for the battalion.

During his time in the Cantabs, Hilliam usually filled the role of “corner man”, as well as singing numerous comical ragtime songs. He also stared in a popular skit where he drilled a squad made up of the other performers and “poked merciless fun at every celebrity from the C.O. downwards”.

In 1916 he was promoted once again this time to CQMS for B Coy. During the fighting at Tower Hamlets in September 1917 he was Mentioned in Dispatches after leading a ration party out of danger when it became lost in No Man’s Land. He was discharged in March 1919 and returned home to Whittlesey. Tant died in 1990 aged 100.

Sergeant John William Phillips

Phillips, like Sgt Hilliam, was another of the pre-war members of the Whittlesey Coy. He was born and grew up in Whittlesey where he later worked as a merchant’s clerk. He was commonly known as Bill and joined the Cambs in 1913. After mobilization he was promoted quickly and soon given the position of Orderly Room Clerk and then Orderly Room Sergeant.

Bill became well known while performing with the Cantabs for his singing and vast repertoire of songs. He remained with the Cambs in France and Flanders all the way through to the Armistice. He stayed with the Cadre at Somain and was one of the few remaining “originals” that left with the Battalion on the 14th February 1915 and was with it when it returned to Cambridge on the 21st May 1919.

Corporal Johnnie Place

Johnnie was born in Cambridge but spent time before the war working as a grocer’s assistant in Littleport. He joined the Cambs in March 1915 during the big recruiting drive for the 3/1st Battalion. After enlisting he became part of the Recruiting Party that travelled around the county. He went overseas as part of one of the replacement drafts sent to the 1/1st in late September 1915 and was posted to B Coy.

When performing with the Cantabs, Place filled a variety of roles ranging from physical comedy roles like Charlie Chaplin to singing sentimental love songs. Shortly after the Cambs left Flixecourt and returned to the front line, Johnnie was wounded twice. After a period of time recovering in the UK it became apparent that he was suffering from a serious nervous condition. He was diagnosed with neurasthenia and was finally medically discharged in April 1918. He remained in the Cambridge area and died in 1953 at the age of 62.

Private Victor Thomas King

Born in Grantchester in 1898, Tom joined the Cambs in 1913 as a young bandsman. He was working at the time as an apprentice compositor at the University Press and like many of the workforce there joined the pre-war D Coy. After the outbreak of the war he volunteered for overseas service, despite being underage. He went over to France with the Battalion in February 1915 and served in B Coy.

While on stage with the Cantabs, Tom was well known for his singing, along with some of the more serious acts in the show, which he performed with Struggles and Wilson. Sadly on the 9th June 1916, while in the trenches near Givenchy, Tom was hit by shrapnel from a German rifle grenade and was killed.

Private Leonard Struggles

Leonard was born and grew up in Cambridge where he later worked as a draper’s assistant. He enlisted in the Cambs in the first month of the war and joined them while they were at Stowlangtoft Hall. He was posted to A Coy and went to France with the Battalion in February 1915.

Not much is known of Leonard’s time in the Cambs other than his involvement with the Cantabs. What is also known is that he was wounded in the Battalion’s attack on St Pierre Divion on the 13th November 1916. His wounds were severe and he was brought back to the UK. He was discharged from the army due to his injuries in October 1917. He died in Cambridge in 1949.

Private Thomas Harold Burns

Usually known as Harold, he came from Stuntney, near Ely, and was the son of the local schoolmaster. At an early age he learnt to play the church organ and soon became the organist for Stuntney Church. After leaving school he began work as an accountant’s clerk. He enlisted in the Cambridgeshires along with his younger brother, Herbert, in 1911. Both Harold and Herbert volunteered for overseas service in the early days of the war and went over to France as part of D Coy. They were also both picked for the dangerous job of Company Bombers (grenade specialists).

Harold was wounded slightly in May 1915 but remained in France. When the Cantabs were being formed his skills as an organist were put to good use and he joined the troupe as their pianist. After the Cambs left Flixecourt, Harold was regularly in action, he was wounded in the attack and capture of the Schwaben Redoubt and returned to the UK. He wrote to his parents about the Battalion’s attack:

… the day I was knocked about we and the Jocks took the Schwaben Redoubt. It had been taken by our division before and lost again, and so Territorials again, you see, had to do it.

His injuries sustained during the attack were severe enough that it was decided he would not be fit enough for front line service again. He was transferred from the Cambs and joined the Labour Corps, where he worked as a clerk. He remained in the army after the war and was finally discharged in early 1920.

Private Arthur Wilson

Known by the nickname “Rugger” or “Rugby” during his time in the Cambs. Wilson was born and grew up in Northamptonshire but moved to Histon at some stage and started working for Chivers Jam Factory. He joined the Cambs at the outbreak of the war and was part of the 1/1st Battalion when it went to France in February 1915. He was given the role of drummer and served as part of B Coy.

Rugger joined the Cantabs shortly after it was formed and his extensive repertoire of songs, such as “Will-o-the-Wisp”, were a welcome addition to the troupe’s shows. He was wounded in November 1917 and again in February 1918, while returning from taking rations up to the front. He was later transferred to the Northamptonshire Regiment and was medically discharged from the Army in March 1919 due to his wounds.

2nd Lieutenant Ivor Williams

Ivor originally enlisted as a Private in the Monmouthshire Regiment at the start of the war. In early 1915 he was selected for a commission and after training was posted to the Cambridgeshire Regiment, joining it in June 1915. After a short posting to the 3/1st Battalion in the UK he went over to France in September 1915 and joined the 1/1st Battalion.

On stage with the Cantabs, Williams excelled in performing comical interpretations of various people including clergymen and policemen. Shortly after the Cambs returned to the front Williams was taken ill and returned to the UK. A medical board found him unfit for front line service and he spent time with 3/1st and 4/1st Battalions. In mid 1917 he was promoted to Captain and attached to the 17th West Riding Volunteer Regiment as Adjutant.

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This site went live on the 14th February 2015 to mark  100 years since the 1/1st Cambs went off to war.


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