A new comedy drama starring Michael Palin is set to tell the true story of how troops during the Great War found a bout of humour on the battlefield using an abandoned printing press. Nina Koo-Seen-Lin takes a look at the publication that has inspired the programme.
During the Great War, a soldier’s life was a trench life. During lulls in the fighting – when no sudden attacks, gas or artillery barrages loomed – soldiers would often divulge in various activities to pass the time. Much information on the troops’ pastimes in the trench can be gathered by stories from family members and ancestry websites and paraphernalia shown in war museums, such as footballs, playing cards and old war time journals.
Many men took to physical labour to relieve themselves of boredom, setting out to dig trenches whilst others took to playing cards. Some men wrote poems and songs to sing while marched to and from the trenches. Their words reflected the hardships the soldiers endured in the trenches and the misery of being cold, exposed to diseases and frightened.
Yet not all soldiers picked up a pen to note the terrors of war. Some men believed that comedy should be employed in a cathartic role against tension, fear and grief caused by fighting. And so, The Wipers Times was born.
Founded in 1916 in YpresThe Wipers Times was set up after troops from the Sherwood Foresters salvaged an abandoned printing press from the ruins of the Ypres battlefield and used it to produce the paper. They name of the paper derived from the army slang for Ypres.
The paper was edited by Lieutenant-Colonel F.J Roberts, who later received the Military Cross. Submissions were encouraged and the paper was additionally circulated around most of the Western Front. Contributors often used pseudonyms to sign their names rather than their own names – “one who would like to know” and “Granpa” – as it conveyed the idea of the type of caricature represented, and in this way new writers could take over should the original author be injured or posted elsewhere. Although all content was welcomed, the paper famously protested against the huge amount of poetry it was receiving:
We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry…The editor would be obliged if a few of the poets would break into prose as a paper cannot live by “poems” alone.
Articles that filled the columns in The Wipers Times combined black humour and satirical swipes at allies and enemies alike:
OUR SHORT STORY
There once was a teetotal Q.M.
A succession of ‘in’ jokes and army jargon was used a lot which soldiers across the Western Front related to and drew them together as a unit sharing the same experiences.
The paper’s popularity provided it with a longevity compared to other trench newspapers. It ran from February 1916 until just after the war ended which is incredible considering the production of the newspaper depended on the editors being in reserve with an area where they could set up the printing press. Two editions were printed after the war under the name of The Better Times.
The story of how British soldiers in the trenches of the First Word War produced and published their own satirical newspaper will be televised in a BBC2 drama starring Monty Python’s Michael Palin. Private Eye editor, Ian Hislop co-wrote the script with cartoonist Nick Newman and the programme aims to be as full of jokes and spoofs with amazing examples of the courage behind the laughs.
The Wipers Times is scheduled to air on BBC2 later in 2013 – look out for a review here.
You can follow Nina on Twitter here