So much has been written on World War I, more so now that the 100th anniversary of the war is upon us at the end of July. But, it's not often that humour and the Great War are discussed together.
The Wipers Times is the best-known of the trench newspapers that were written by soldiers during the First World War. The story goes that Captain Fred Roberts from the 12th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters found a printing press among some ruins in Ypres, and out of that discovery, a trench rag was born. 'Wipers' was army slang for the town of Ypres. The paper was published intermittently between 1916 and 1918 and often changed its name as the unit moved along the line. It was also known as The New Church (from Neuve Chapelle) Times, The Kemmel Times, The B.E.F. Times, The Somme Times and after the Armistice, The Better Times.
The tone of the paper is humourous overall, although sometimes it is dark and subversive. It's full of in-jokes, of course, because it was written for other soldiers, not the civilian population. It says a lot about the open-mindedness of Captain Roberts that some of the humour was written at the expense of officers. In one often-repeated cartoon, a chinless platoon commander asks himself, "Am I as offensive as I might be?"
However, Ian Hislop who wrote the foreword to the volume of compiled issues of The Wipers Times says that the paper often alluded to “the shadow of the censor." So, some army brass must not have found it very funny. It does make you wonder what was marked too dangerous or offensive for publication.
Here is a cynical ad for a remedy for optimism written in July 1916 just after the Battle of the Somme had begun.
How about these advertisements for a new toy and a terrific real estate deal?
Or this promotional piece for a play at the Ypres Cloth Hall?
The Flammenwerfer, or flamethrower, was a new and devastating weapon developed by the Germans. The Ypres salient, location of at least five of the ugliest, muddiest and deadliest battles of the war, was commonly considered the most hated piece of ground in Europe at the time. The Cloth Hall in Ypres, bombed almost to oblivion by 1917, is often mentioned as the venue for various fake musical reviews and plays, and is noted in The Wipers Times for its "lifting roof and perfect ventilation." The play, Pilkem's Progress, refers to the Battle of Pilckem Ridge in July and August of 1917, a battle for which General Haig took a lot of criticism.
To me, what is most striking about the humour is how much of it still resonates today. It reminds me of Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, or the The Onion. Unlike other soldiers' writing about their war experiences, trench newspapers were spontaneous. Reading them all these years later you get a feeling for what was on their minds at the time.
Ian Hislop also wrote a screenplay for a film dramatizing the story of Roberts and the newspaper. He had this to say about the post-war fate of its editors:
"Both Roberts and his sub-editor Pearson fought right through to the end of the war, survived some of the fiercest fighting and doggedly kept going until they could optimistically retitle their newspaper The Better Times. But they found that peacetime Britain was “no place for heroes” and, sadly, no place for them. Roberts tried to get into journalism but was disappointed and turned to prospecting, ending up in Canada. Pearson went to Argentina and worked on the railways before marrying a local woman and inheriting a hotel. Pleasingly they both made it to a ripe old age and died in the 1960s, though neither received an obituary or any recognition of their achievement."
Amidst death and ruination, The Wipers Times was life-enhancing. We're fortunate that copies survived the war to be read today. There are other trench journals and newspapers, including some Canadian ones. You can view original copies of The Listening Post and Another Garland from the Front as part of the Toronto Reference Library's Special Collections or at North York Central Library's Canadiana Department. You can read digitized versions of several Canadian trench journals at Early Canadiana Online.
More World War I humour
Jaroslav Hasek's bumbling dogcatcher wages his own war on the nationalism and idealistic piety of his superiors simply by trying to follow their orders.
The satire is too sharp and bitter to make you laugh out loud in this lampoon of a music hall review, but oh, does it bite!
Blackadder and his sidekick, Baldrick, good-naturedly suffer the incompetencies of those in power and make the best of life in trenches. Hilarious until the very end which will knock you off your feet, it's so terribly sad.