This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. A battle which, in the first day alone, injured 60,000 men and wounded/killed more than 1 million soldiers in just a few months. We find it hard to truly get our heads around the horror experienced by these men, especially when statistics, artifacts, and photographs are all we have now. But there is something that we still have that gives an insight to those experiences, a perspective that is both brutal and absolutely hilarious. The Wipers Times.
This is Capt. F. J. Roberts, M.C. He was part of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, and stationed in Ypres Salient at the front line. Early on in 1916, Roberts and his soldiers (I’ll get to the names later on) stumbled across a printing press, apparently abandoned by a Belgian, forced to flee from his building. It was a brilliant stroke of luck that there was a sergeant in the Foresters who happened to be a printer in civilian life, and thus The Wipers Times was born.
(‘Wipers’ after the Tommy slang for ‘Ypres’)
Other contributors to the paper were Lieutenant J. H. Person DSO MC, Artilleryman Gilbert Frankau, and E. J. Couzens contributed brilliant engravings of a platoon commander that became the paper’s motif.
The Wipers Times, in essence, was a home-grown satirical magazine rather like today’s Private Eye. In fact, Ian Hislop has himself done a huge amount for pushing this piece of WWI history into the public eye, and even co-wrote BBC drama The Wipers Times in 2013. Yet I still believe this wonderful section of WWI history isn’t talked about quite enough as it deserves.
The first edition was published on Saturday 12th February 1916, with 100 copies printed and distributed. Now whilst that doesn’t sound a lot, these guys were printing with limited resources, and under dangerous conditions. Plus, copies would have been read aloud communally and passed from solider to soldier. The Wipers Times was a lighthearted approach to the daily horrors of Ypres. It is also interesting to note that the paper’s name changed in accordance to the movements of the regiment, at times being the “New Church Times” and “The Kemmel Times” etc., which only fueled the amusement at their unrelenting determination to publish.
The content of this magazine was a mish-mash of amusing faux adverts, love-lorn letters to agony aunts, bets, editorials, programmes at ‘Cloth Hall’, and submissions from everyday soldiers. Before I get to the hilariously satirical material in Wipers, I just want to highlight the importance of those submissions by soldiers. Many of those submissions were poetry, often naive and overtly passionate, by amateur poets who craved an output for their strained emotions.
“Now hope lies buried, all that once could give a satisfaction, or could soothe the eye, with signs of work, which, being done, would help those other who with jar of rum did hasten about their nightly duty in the line.”
Although the paper teased the infantry about their incessant poetry, “We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry.” it was in-fact a genius way to get men talking about their experiences, and also letting those at home know, as a small facsimile of copies was published as soon as 1918. This was an important aspect in a time where news from the front was often ‘sugar coated’, a fact that The Wipers Times often satirized:
“By Belary Helloc.” was a satirical feature of the paper. It was a crude swipe at the war commentator, Hilaire Belloc, who frequently wrote about WWI in the Land and Water magazine. His articles and political views were not met with widespread agreement from soldiers, his writing could be impersonal, cold, and less than realistic in a time where the reality was destroying lives.
Another feature that I truly love is the ‘Things we want to know’ list in each paper. This part was not meant for outsiders, it was designed to boost morale by shared experiences, and wasn’t afraid to be hilariously rude. For example,
- “The most pop’lar tree in Belgium”
- “The price of second-hand Flammenwerfer”
- “Who leads in Kirchner collections” (‘kirchner’ a euphemism for local brothels)
- “Who is it that makes an infernal din on a horn at 2am???”
- “The name of the subaltern who told the Major that to take his wife to Nottingham Goose Fair was like taking a sandwich to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet.”
Finally, I have to mention the spoof diaries of ‘Lieut. Samuel Pepys’ entitled ‘Our Diary’ (again with the shared-experience thing) and amusingly describes the day-to-day life of a lieutenant, such as rum-drinking and brothel-attending. The lightheartedness and pomposity of the ‘diary’ almost takes away the drudgery and hurt caused by daily life. However, the idea is a product of the better educated editors (like much of the paper is), and I hope that it wasn’t lost on the majority of working class soldiers.
If you want to find out more, and read The Wipers Times for yourself, Conway have published a complete book of every edition of the paper.