Fred Karno's Army

Posted by ESC on September 28, 2004

In Reply to: Explanation of Picture posted by Bruce Kahl on September 28, 2004

: : : Chatting to a friend yesterday she mentioned that her husband's hospital ward was like 'Fred Karno's', and neither of us knew where the phrase came from, so I've checked it up on the internet, and though someone wrote that the British Army used the phrase, and the House of Commons, and explained who Frederick John Westcott WAS, I still can't determine any connection as to why anything in a muddle is referred to as a 'right Fred Karno's', when he seemed to be a particularly clever and successful gentleman? Please enlighten!

: : Fred Karno, a comedian and producer of burlesque, ran zany shows of very outlandish sketches and comedic characterizations a la The Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.

: : Karno's golden rule of comedy was 'When in doubt, fall on your arse.'

: : So his name has been associated with any chaotic organization or setup where nothing works and the staff is incompetent.

: Fred Karno Comedy Company on a vaudeville tour near Butte, Montana, ca. 1911-1912. Lead comedian Charles Chaplin is seated at left. His understudy, Stan Jefferson, later known as Stan Laurel, is seated at the far right.
: Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York

FRED KARNO'S ARMY - "A humorous nickname applied to the new British army raised during the First World War, in allusion to Fred Karno, the comedian and producer of stage burlesques, whose real name was Frederick John Westcott (1866-1941). At the time Fred Karno's company was a household name through its high-spirited and eccentric performances. The well-known Army chorus, sung to the tune of 'The Church's One Foundation,' runs:

We are Fred Karno's army,
Fred Karno's infantry;
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
So what damn good are we?
But when we get to Berlin
The Kaiser he will say
Hoch, hoch, mein Gott
Vot a bloody fine lot
Fred Karno's infantry.

There are variations, of course, and in the Second World War 'Old Hitler' was substituted for 'The Kaiser.' The name is also applied derisely to other nondescript bodies. Karno himself adopted his stage name, when he and two gymnast colleages filled in at a music hall for an act called 'The Three Carnos.' His agent Richard Warner, suggested they change the 'C' to a more distinctive 'K.' See also Harry Tate's Navy." From Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition).