The Wipers Times is a newspaper which first appeared in February 1916. The name comes from the troops’ pronunciation of Ypres, the Belgian city which saw continuous and vicious fighting throughout World War I —by 1918 the city had been almost completely destroyed, and many thousands of soldiers from both sides had been killed in the area. The newspaper was initiated by two officers of the Sherwood Foresters, Captain F. J. Roberts and Lieutenant J. H. Pearson, after one of their sergeants had found a printing press in the ruins of the city. Late in 1918 a collected edition of the newspaper (which changed its name several times during the conflict depending on where it was produced) was published, and about twenty years ago I was lucky enough to obtain a copy. Over the years I have attempted to decipher the jokes and references, with limited success. In recent times the publication has become better known, with Ian Hislop presenting a TV programnme based on the paper and then co-writing a two-act play of the same name. Despite all this attention, much of the content remains enigmatic, while continuing to fascinate.
Many contemporary commentators draw rather simplistic parallels with Private Eye based on the shared characteristic of both being English satirical magazines. However, the similarity is completely superficial, and a comparison probably pays little respect to either publication. Private Eye has been a magnificent irritant to the great and good since 1961, and its combination of biting satire and investigative journalism has kept it in print since then, despite several expensive court battles. The Wipers Times, although satirical, and certainly pointing its finger at those in authority, was underpinned by its context, and it is this which makes it unique. To look at two examples from the very first issue dated 12th February 1916 will explain and clarify this point.
Within the edition are headed sections which would continue to appear throughout the whole series. People We Take Our Hats Off To and Things We Want To Know were both filled with short items which soldiers around the front line would probably have easily understood, but which now take some deciphering. In this edition there are three references to ‘The Fancies,’ including these in the Things We Want To Know section:
“The name of the M.O. who attended one of the leading lights of the Fancies, and was overcome by her many charms.” and “The weekly wage bill at the Fancies.”
The obvious question here is: who were the ‘Fancies’? The small town of Poperinge was just eight miles from Ypres, and throughout the war was vital to maintaining the supply chain to the front. Through the town passed new troops, wounded troops, ammunition, food and horses. It is no surprise that it also contained places where exhausted soldiers could escape the horrors of their front-line existence, and ‘the Fancies’ were a female concert troupe who entertained soldiers in various venues around Poperinge. (The phrase may also have been the nickname of a popular brothel, and other adverts contained subtle references to the various such houses which sprang up in the town, of which some were strictly for officers only.) So the piece is highlighting the foibles of an officer, with a wry smile: shared knowledge is being used to poke fun, but not unkindly nor in a way which might undermine authority. This is absolutely crucial, and a major factor in understanding the humour of The Wipers Times. The paper was produced under conditions that we can barely imagine, and an essential component in any successful military campaign is that the common soldier obeys the commanding officers. Therefore, while it was acceptable to gently tease those in command, anything more straightforwardly satirical which might subvert the hierarchy was clearly unacceptable. (As an aside here, within the same section is an item asking the name of the Company Commander who cooked the carrier pigeons that had been sent when communications with the front line broke down —one wonders if the writers of Blackadder got their idea from this!)
On a more serious note, in this first issue ‘The Padre’ contributes Reflections on Being Lost in Ypres at 3 a.m. This is an extremely evocative description of the town in the process of being totally destroyed. It captures Ypres by day, bustling with men and with machines trundling back and forth from the front line. At dusk those still living there come out to gather what they can before returning to hide in their cellars. ‘The Padre’ describes the noise of German shells exploding and the returning rattle of British machine guns, and then writes:
“If a man would understand what hate means, let him wander along the Menin Road in the evening, and then let him find some poet, or pioneer, or artilleryman to express what he feels concerning the Hun operator in that concrete machine-gun redoubt.”
It is a simple sentence that seems to encapsulate what we now know of that place at that time. What is remarkable about this piece is the prescient manner in which it finishes. ‘The Padre’ concludes:
“Ypres has died, but will live again. Her name in the past has been linked with kings; but tomorrow she will have a nobler fame. And even when the busy hum of everyday life shall have resumed its sway in future days, still there will be heard in ghostly echo the muffled fumbling of the transport, and the rhythmic tread of soldiers’ feet.”
So in this first issue we find a combination of humour and reality, the humour itself locked firmly within the lived experience of the soldiers at whom the paper was aimed. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ‘adverts’ which complete the publication, including one for a building plot on Hill 60 —the site of particularly vicious fighting— and one flogging lightly damaged furniture from the house at 9 Menin Road, the building in which the printing press had been found.
These themes continued throughout the life of the Times. Adverts consistently make reference to the various shell and gas attacks which the soldiers had to endure. There are jokes involving cinemas and appropriately named theatres: ‘Neuve Eglise Hippodrome,’ for example, features the ‘Willie Hohenzollerns No. 1 Company’ in a ‘stirring’ drama entitled ‘BIG GUNS,’ or soldiers might be tempted to visit the ‘Dranoutre Electric Palace’ where the ‘Stupendous Film Play GAS Will be Released in THREE PARTS - 10,000 FEET LONG.’ That the editors were able to make fun of the front line’s dangers —including gas, the most frightening of all— testifies to the all-encompassing subject matter. While unable, for obvious reasons, to make reference to particular events, they consistently commented on the experiences faced by their readership. This is one of only a few references to a gas attack: the 24th Division, of which Roberts was a part, had suffered an attack shortly before the date of publication which killed or incapacitated more than 500 men. Throughout its run, the paper’s content would maintain a fine balance between encouraging a positive outlook while constantly reflecting real events and experiences.
On July 1st, 1916, the British forces launched the Battle of the Somme, the details of which are well-known: 60,000 casualties on the first day alone, the worst in British history, and more than a million by the end of November 1916, with very little to show for all that effort and suffering. The Somme has come to symbolise the very nature of the war -- endless sacrifice and effort — while we marvel at the bravery and camaraderie of the soldiers involved. Editions of the then-named Kemmel Times were published on the 3rd and 31st of July, before a long break until Christmas Day 1916. We might expect there to be some reference therein to the contemporary events. There were none, at least none that are immediately obvious. However, in the edition of the 31st of July there is an advert which begs attention:
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TWO DAYS SPENT AT OUR ESTABLISHMENT WILL EFFECTIVELY ERADICATE ALL TRACES OF IT FROM YOUR SYSTEM DO NOT HESITATE - APPLY FOR TERMS AT ONCE TO:- MESSRS. WALTHORPE, FOXLEY, NELMES AND CO. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ A month into the Somme, content decisions might have presented a problem to Roberts. How could he produce a newspaper which entertained the hard-pressed troops while remaining true to the nature of their circumstances? As we have already noted, Roberts could not be openly critical, nor could he even hint at the scenes of carnage before him. The above advert is remarkable for the way in which it uses ironic humour to press home very serious concerns about the conduct of the war, and hold to account those making the big decisions — note especially the final question regarding the competence of the political class. It should be remembered that, according to the senior commanders and the popular press in England at the time, the Somme was supposed to represent the final phase of the war, when the allies would push the Germans back. The ordinary soldier at the front line knew from his experience that this was not true.
Alongside the satirical humour which might provoke sardonic smiles and nodding agreement from the beleaguered soldiers, The Wipers Times featured poems and other writings which tapped into more serious themes but which, again, fell short of outright criticism. Much of the poetry is either mimicry of well-known authors such as Lewis Carroll or imitations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a poem enormously popular with the troops. However, occasionally a poem was published which succeeded in evoking the raw experience of the soldier at the front while avoiding mawkish sentimentality.
One such poem is To My Chum, a five-verse elegy to a fallen friend, which you will not find in any World War poetry anthology. One aspect of the front line which can sometimes be understated is the strong bond between the soldiers. The shared experiences and the constant danger fostered deep and lasting relationships, and this poem exposes the devastating loss felt on the killing of a comrade, often within sight. The final verse is worth quoting in full: "Just one more cross by a staffed road-side, With its G.R.C., and a name for guide, But it’s only myself who has lost a friend, And though I may fight through to the end, No dug-out or billet will be the same, All pals can only be pals in name, But we’ll all carry on till the end of the game Because you lie there."
Another short poem, Jim, is a reminder to us of how simple, ordinary aspects of civilian life can become vitally important to those in mortal danger. Many of us form close relationships with our pets, and although it was frowned upon by distant commanders, small dogs shared the front line with the soldiers and became much-loved companions in danger. Jim is a little terrier, valued for his ability to tear trench rats apart, but note how the short poem finishes: "And when the light’s done, and night’s falling And the shadows are darkling and dim, In my coat you will nuzzle Your little pink muzzle And growl in your dreams, little Jim."
Within the inhuman environment of the trench, in which violent death was a constant threat, the need for some kind of emotional comfort must have been overwhelming. That it could be found at all is remarkable, and it is one of the very special features of The Wipers Times that it was able to give expression to those feelings which soldiers often find most difficult to reveal. So, although the paper was primarily filled with humour which the combatants could understand and smile at, it did not dehumanise them or portray them as nationalistic heroes, but reflected them as ordinary men within the extraordinary conditions in which they found themselves.
The Wipers Times is a unique publication, and one which has become more valuable as time passes and the events that it commemorates are increasingly shrouded in myth and folklore. The heroic stereotypes began forming as soon as the war finished, and, with the commissioning of memorials, these myths became ever stronger. At the centenary, the nation watched the ceremonies at the Cenotaph and the Menin Gate, where wreaths were laid and the bravery of the soldiers constantly referenced. This is how those who govern us must respond, and it is right that they should.
But there are other memorials which are perhaps more personal, which can lead us to connections, not with the vast casualty numbers, but with the individual, the fellow human being with whom we can empathise. Those who have never been in a situation like the front line can only briefly imagine its horrors. Huge memorials such as the Menin Gate, with their 54,000 inscribed names, mark the passing of the soldiers whose graves are unknown. They gave grieving relatives a focal point, despite being criticised by some for being pompous and over-blown —Siegfried Sassoon, who attended the opening ceremony of the Menin Gate on July 24th 1927, called it the ‘Sepulchre of Crime.’
The Wipers Times is a different kind of memorial. It speaks with the voice of the common soldier and reflects his fears and worries, and his habit of making fun of the deadly weapons hurled at him by giving them familiar names: Bertha, Johnson, Minnie (a particularly hated device with a fuse attached to explode underground, so that if the bomb didn’t harm you, there was still the risk of being buried alive). The paper gently mocks those in authority, but avoids suggestions of incompetence or callousness, for this could threaten the whole enterprise. The fact that it was produced at all was remarkable; its careful eschewing of allied propaganda is equally special. That we can read it now and become immersed in the soldiers’ world is, perhaps, the most significant memorial of all.--Paul Flux