on 29 September 2013
Early in 1916 two officers found an abandoned printing press just behind the lines in Ypres. With the help of a sergeant who had been a printer in civilian life, they launched a newspaper known as the Wipers Times. Over the next two-and-a-half years, twenty-three issues were produced, and facsimiles of these are collected in this excellent book. Some of the humour has dated, and many of the in-jokes leave the modern reader scratching his head; but much of it is timeless, and it is easy to see how it would have been appreciated at the time. The central (and wonderfully British) message being, "War isn't funny; but lets laugh at it anyway."
Whilst the Wipers Times itself is excellent, however, I would have appreciated a more extensive introduction. According to the paper itself, the print run was very small - at least initially (the editorial for the fourth issue speaks of increasing the run from 100 to 250 copies); so how did its fame spread quite so far? I would also have liked more information on some of the contributors (from other sources, I learn that the playwright R C Sherriff offered contributions, but if so they were anonymous); what the attitude of the powers-that-be was (since both the editor and the assistant editor were promoted twice between the paper's launch and the end of the war, and collected three decorations between them, the reaction must have been largely positive, but I think it would have warranted a mention); what if anything Hillaire Belloc thought about being sent up; and whether observers of other nations thought our leaders wise or mad to let such a publication flourish. An introduction that covered these questions would have involved a bit of work, but it would have been worth it in my opinion.
on 4 September 2014
Hopefully this will come up as a `verified purchase'. To prove I have actually read the book, I shall make references to page numbers. This is a long review, please read through to the end.
Why should you buy this book ? It is the authentic voice of the people who actually served on the front line. It is not, as the British are being treated to as I write, a selective history from those determined to prove at any and all costs that WW1 was avoidable, badly run, a waste of life, time and money, and eventually pointless.
As the editor was a serving soldier himself, and given the pleas for more copy, one can trust his judgement in what was funny, poignant, meaningful to other British soldiers, especially given how far copies seemed to travel, and how long the paper stuck in the public's mind.
It will come as a definite surprise to the younger generation, raised on "In Dulce Decorum Est", "20,000 soldiers died on the first day of the Somme, the worst day for British casualties ever. Right, that's it, end of WW1 history. Let's move on", and re-runs of "Blackadder Goes Forth" that not everyone saw the war as pointless, badly run, or Haig as an idiot.
It is the range of responses that will surprise those raised on such an inadequate, and skewed view. Yes, there are poems of hopelessness, and poems about mud, AND there is a lot of venom towards the Germans for starting it all (eg p54, p142, p156, p190, p277, p287, p295), encouragement to carry on through the difficult bits (eg p64, p117), earthy, scatalogical rudeness (p56), and running throughout and appreciation of the local girls ! One of the earliest poems to appear is a scathing attack on those men at home who haven't signed up yet, p4, which implies the author thought copy might get back to `Blighty'.
It is the writings of the British facing up to difficulties with black humour, as we always have done, not a lot of LMFs (contemporary jargon for "Lack of Moral Fibre") whingeing.
The people who are most criticised, other than the Germans, are actually the politicians for a variety of things: being too far way, bad decisions, not supplying enough materiel (correct spelling for military things), etc. Second in line for a bashing aren't Haig and Kitchener, but those seen as `jobsworths', or causing administrative errors (p174, p294). (As an aside, there was a very real example of soldiers under fire, desperately needing reinforcements, who were actually getting communications from HQ about how they cut their hair !)
Mud is mentioned, but appears seasonally. It is worth mentioning in passing that it can't have rained solidly for four years - but that is the impression one gets from some current authors. Changes in tactics get passing mention too: they like tanks (p131).
There is a very wide range of spoof material here, from adverts in a proto-Goons style, Sherlock Holmes style mysteries, travelogues, a London fashion column (I kid you not), the wonderfully surreal "Answers to Correspondents", and even a long-running joke about who spotted the first cuckoo, where and when ! Regular features include the blog-like thoughts of Mr Teech Bomas, poetry from Gilbert Frankau, and more thoughts of Billaire Helloc, as well as the usual newspaper things as Lost Property, a match-making column, and "Things We Want to Know" (this was a form of newspaper column at the time).
At the end of the war, the overall feeling conveyed by the editor is of a necessary job that was well done (p320), and that actually they will miss things (p317) ! There is also the sensible realisation that "the war to end all wars", applied before things really got going, was a silly and inappropriate title that could never be aspired to (p289, p299).
All in all, this is a very valuable source book for discovering what people really felt.
And now to the few faults. The first is that we get all of the material in one go. The original covered 23 issues over 2 years and 10 months. The original recipients would have read, re-read, passed it on, and waited expectantly for the next one. Here, we are spoiled (synonym "ruined") by having five Weetabix in one go, with no milk. It is heavy going, and really should be sampled in lots of small portions.
Secondly, it is a facsimile copy of a battered original. It is small, some of the copying is not brilliant, and the spelling is necessarily weird as there weren't enough "e"s. The older generation may struggle to read some of it.
Thirdly, some of the humour was necessarily topical and played upon in-jokes. Some poems and articles are obviously based upon recently published material that we don't necessarily have access to (think "Carry on Cleo" to Burton and Taylor's "Anthony and Cleopatra" when the Burton and Taylor film is now lost).
Fourthly, the paper is very cheap and nasty, thin stuff that may well go yellow very quickly. I know the original won't have been on top-grade stuff, but that's not reason to skimp nowadays.
Do beware of over-priced copies. The Museum Selection were selling theirs for £30, but that has now since dropped to something sensible. Brand new copies are available cheaply.
All in all, a very valuable source book, and an antidote to the "Blackadder" school of history.
on 30 December 2013
"Are we being offensive enough?" is one of the popular jokes in this WWI trench not-so-periodic periodical, and one that quite defines the tone of the whole thing. Written and published by soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force in the French front, the Wipers Times is only the first name of the publication (Wipers was the pidgin appellation given to Ypres by the British soldiers) but the paper changed denominations as the division was relocated between 1916 and 1918 ("New Church Times", "Kemmel Times", "Somme Times" etc.). Not a single piece of serious news is included; instead the paper is a surprisingly good-humoured running commentary of life in the trenches, featuring poetry, Herlock Shomes serials, mock theatre programmes designed for the "best ventilated hall in town" and fake ads puporting to offer real estate with "excellent shooting" available. Gas masks, dugouts, shelling and the like are always present as part of the context and military engagements are recounted disguised as horseraces or cricket matches. Not being an expert in the period, it took me a while to get used to the slang terms for the different sorts of bombs and such, but I am enjoying the reading enormously and I have to say it gives a very humbling perspective on my everyday stress. Not only do I recommend the book but I will be acquiring another few copies to give out.