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Feature Articles - Satirical Magazines of the First World War: Punch and the Wipers Times

Punch cartoon The Great War was dominated by two satirical papers; Punch and the journal best known by it's original name, The Wipers Times.  Punch magazine was a well-established journal comparable in style and content to today's Private Eye.  It had a wide circle of distribution and was recognised by the British Nation as a middle-class and supposedly unbiased account of current affairs.

The Wipers Times took its name for the army slang for Ypres, where it was first produced.  It emulated Punch, but contained a more specific type of comedy relating exclusively to the soldiers on the Western Front.  The practicalities of trench warfare had created a sudden and often uncomfortable closeness between classes, and therefore The Wipers Times targeted a far wider audience class wise, despite it's relatively limited circulation. 

The two papers had many similarities, the greatest being that they shared the same ethos.  Both believed that comedy should be employed in a cathartic role against the tension, fear and grief caused by the fighting.  However, both dramatically diverge in outlook, contents, the ideas they pursued and the ways in which these ideas were expressed and laid out within each paper.

This essay examines some of these traits and tries to understand why the two papers were contextually so different.  I will also attempt to explain how both of these papers extolled a type of comedy that was a highly subversive yet often employed tool during the Great War, and how this was made possible. 

Punch, or The London Charivari, officially started production in 1842, although several magazines with almost identical titles had been in circulation for some time.  The concept for all of these magazines was however the same - they were anti-establishment, politically motivated satires, although the humour they contained was of a fairly lowbrow level.  The body of each magazine was based around three main types: short articles, poems and black-cut illustrations - small prints which accompanied puns either in the text or which ran underneath.

These prints became Punch's most distinctive trademark, and the magazine helped initiate the techniques of using captioned pen and ink drawings to depict political comedy which are still used to great extent in newspapers today.  In "A History of Punch" (Collins, 1957), R.G.G. Price describes the ways in which Punch used these new techniques to instigate its own brand of humour: 

"The mock systemisation (of the articles and illustrations) and the pin-pointing of the targets - two different types of joke - created a tension between them.  This kind of tension is one of the great Punch qualities.  The standard of writing and pithiness varied very much from item to item.  The political material was, on the whole, keener than the social.  Though Punch attacked separate abuses, it had no programme and no philosophy" (p.23).

Punch uses a particular authorial voice to do this; that of Mr Punch (the vile clown and wife batterer from Punch and Judy shows - a symbol of anarchy and disorder) himself.  As a detached overseer to the process of history.  This voice is a useful technique, meaning that the author appears as an observer apparently confiding exclusively in the reader.  Mundane situations can be made bizarre as the reader is forced to regard the situation in the way the author wants them to rather the way that they are accustomed to.  The cartoon below demonstrates how this displacement works.

Punch, 9 August 1916

The Captain: "Your brother is doing splendidly in the Battalion.  Before long he'll be our best man."

The Sister: "Oh Reginald! Really this is so very sudden."

(Punch, August 9th 1916.) 

The cartoon takes a familiar wartime scenario - a returning soldier and a young woman together, distorting it with a bad pun and a misinterpretation by both characters.  This cartoon is typical of the humour employed in Punch. 

By the 1910's, Punch was well established and widely read.  However it had become aimed exclusively at the upper classes, with little appeal for the rest of society.  Furthermore, the art and text relied heavily on a recognisable series of caricatures, of which the grotesque figure of Mr Punch himself, the swarthy worker man and the overweight washerwoman were used to connote the working class.

Punch employed slang and phonetic dialects to enforce these caricatures.  Additionally depicting the working classes as either rural yokels or stupid, dirty factory workers.  On the other hand, pretty girls and well-dressed men with large chests and even larger moustaches represented the more virile and acceptable face of the upper classes..  The magazine had softened in tone - although it could be anarchic, Punch increasingly veered towards sentiment.  These sentimental aspects of the magazine were again very specific, depicting a highly idealised ideas of the British nation.  They described a rural and unified country, associated in turn with the concepts of patriotism, purity, beauty and strength.

A good example of this was the sub-editor, A.A. Milne, who tended to extol the virtues of walking on the Sussex Downs with a faithful dog and affectionately pastiched the upper class society life of teas, cricket and hunting rather than producing anything that was socially reactionary.  When war broke out this pastoral context became a dominant reference for the feeling of the nation, and Punch was utterly subservient to these ideals.  Typical of this trend is the poem In Flanders Fields" by John McRae, published by the magazine on December 8th 1915. 

When the war broke out, the editor of Punch was Owen Seaman.  Seaman had working class roots was initially interested in making the paper as accessible to as many people as possible.  However, in actuality he became more and more resistant to innovation.  Under his editorship the paper became steadily more conservative.  Price describes his attitude as follows:

"The qualities that he wanted in his paper were lucidity, regularity, intelligibility and soundness.  He considered that the reader, by paying for a copy, became entitled to understand everything in it and therefore all the jokes must be aimed at the maximum possible readership.  There must be nothing for minorities, nothing too subtle to appeal to the oldest and stupidest; "We can't edit a paper for twenty readers" (p181-2). 

Although Seaman wanted to encourage a wide readership, his desire to make the paper accessible to all caused stagnation.  When the war broke out, he was initially undecided as to how to approach the conflict.  Punch had already been criticised in preceding months for being too militant, although the magazines published just before the war have a cautiously neutral feel to them.  Seaman seems to have been biding his time before making a decision about how to approach the war should it happen.

In this atmosphere, the magazine published only one strongly anti-war article.  On 5th August 1914, sub editor A.A. Milne wrote a piece called Armageddon, visualising the Olympian gods orchestrating a war at the behest of his well-known character Porkins.  "We're getting flabby...A bit of a scrap with a foreign power will do us all the good in the world...The lower classes seem to have no sense of discipline nowadays.  We want a war to brace us up." Prophetically, after a years fighting there are one hundred thousand casualties and no sign of the war ending. 

On 4th September 1914, Seaman attended a meeting at the Department of Information with some of the premier writers in the country including Hardy, Galsworthy and J.M. Barrie.  Hardy recorded the aims of the meeting in his journal as "for the organisation of public statements of the strength of the British case and principles in the war by well-known men of letters".  (The Later Years of Thomas Hardy,1930).  The results of this meeting were that these "men of letters" decided to unanimously support the war effort and follow the public sentiments of enthusiasm, nationalism and militarism.  During the war years, Punch published no more overtly anti-war statements. 

For this reason, Punch is a dominant text in our understanding of the war, exemplifying and misinterpreting public sentiment from a civilian viewpoint.  When the war began, Punch was violently pro-war, articles and cartoons often recounting little more than propaganda with very little comedic undertones.  However, this attitude discreetly wanes as the war dragged on and the civilian population became increasingly discontented and disillusioned.  It was impossible to ignore the effects the fighting was starting to have, and as Punch moves into the latter stages of 1917-18, this awareness becomes gradually visible.

Subversion creeps slowly into the magazine, often by distorting the early techniques which the magazine had so strenuously enforced.  With a secondary source such as Punch, there are problems.  On the one hand, the government thought Seaman important enough to include as one of the most influential literary figures of the time, but on the other it provides and exaggerates an unrealistic gauge of public sentiment.  Although Punch invited independent submissions, it was edited by a handful of journalists under extremely strict controls.

These were both internal (the editorial board) and external (the DORA Bill, and the need for continued sales).  Some inclusions are far subtler than they first appear, containing surprising subtexts.  Others are nothing more than crude or inept propaganda.  Therefore it is often very difficult to tell whether Punch is extolling conformist opinions of nationalism and militaristic chivalry encouraged by the government, or if it does genuinely contain elements of political discord and deviant anti-war statements. 

Because of this attitude, Punch is often misread by historians today.  It is rarely analysed for it's own merits and used as a counterpoint in anthologies to poetry or prose dictating "The Horror Of War".  It is assumed that because the magazine used the ideologies of patriotism so strongly that it was never subversive, instead repeating the "ignorant" perspective of the home front.

Punch indisputably printed vast amounts of patriotism, and often shows ignorance of the realities of  the war, but internally there was room for exploitation.  Not all of the paper is as conformist as it first appears, and closer analysis reveals a more disturbing picture of underlying tensions and doubts during the period of the Great War.

This misinterpretation is crucial to the reasons that attitudes to the Home Front are often erroneous.  Modern historians use Punch in similar way to trench songs, employing it as a comparative source demonstrating how foolish the civilian community could be and how limited their understanding of the war situation was.  In a typical anthology, cartoons are used as counterpoints to whatever it is the author is trying to explain, and are rarely examined as credible or sincere resources.

They are generally perceived as subsidiary evidence and rarely investigated for their own merits.  Punch cartoons are often used as teaching resources for war propaganda or exam questions requiring candidates to explain in depth how unreliable documents can be.  Therefore Punch is recognised as important source material but rarely critiqued properly.  The types of humour employed are not investigated in depth - merely assumed to all represent the same ethos.  Humour is not taken seriously enough, particularly when it is so ostentatiously different for the commonly mythologised concept of a horrendous and bloody war which destroyed the optimism and lives of a whole generation.

Ultimately, Punch was a relentlessly civilian take on the war.  In many ways it had to be.  Owen Seaman made the editorial decision to follow the mood of the nation, but it would be unrealistic to expect anything otherwise.  This was both a monetary decision and a politically motivated choice in a period when at least initially there was tremendous enthusiasm for the war itself.  As a result of this there were many issues that Punch was not in a position to handle - it could not satirise the casualties for example, or the increasing spectacle of the wounded.

Additionally, it did not wish to bring up these subjects, seeing itself as essentially moral boosting and patriotic.  A negative portrayal of the war, even in its latter stages, was not only considered taboo at the time, but also had no place in an ultimately pro-war source.  This is why subversion in the text takes a long time to manifest itself, and even when it does, it is important to realise that despite its presentation, Punch did not have a unanimous voice.  It is a mistake to read it as is so often is today; as a vainglorious and nave text, but equally it is not a seditious cauldron of anarchic writing and deviant voices.  Sometimes it is neither, sometimes it is both at once, sometimes it is utterly indifferent.

Punch is a valuable resource because it demonstrates how comedy is used to diffuse the tensions of the war in a civilian context.  This trait manifests itself in several ways.  Punch certainly makes the reader aware of the geographical dispersion of the war, trying to "report" on all fronts wherever it can.  However, the magazine had no front-line correspondents and was presumably restricted by censorship.  Front line reports are therefore vague and hazy.

They are also unanimously reported as victories.  Because Punch was a paper aimed at the home front, civilian concerns dominate the text.  These fall into five major categories; the evil German, the position of women, shirkers, shortages, and bad news from the home front trivialised by bad news from the fighting fronts.  The following example is typical of cartoons of this nature.

St Valentines

ST VALENTINES DAY IN THE FATHERLAND

(It chanced that on the fourteenth day of February the boy Cupid strayed into the precincts of Potsdam, and came all unawares upon the War Lord ; who , deeming him to be an alien babe, essayed to make a characteristic end of him.)

Caricature was essential in these depictions because of the inaccessibility of the front, and the general fears of the civilian population.  Demonisation of these groups was essential to contain them.  The German was almost always depicted specifically as the Kaiser, who luckily for Punch was large, foreign in appearance and dress, and ugly enough to suffer considerable facial distortion without loosing his physiognomy.

The shirkers were weedy and displayed the common signifiers of degeneracy in appearance, and the women either overdressed or inappropriately dressed (i.e. as men).  Of these groups, the most problematic, the most feared and the most featured were women. 

Punch gives a very telling social perspective on the role of women during the war.  The paper had already ridiculed the suffragette movement excessively, and women were already a familiar, easy target for Punch.  During the war, the workforce shortage meant many women took government sanctioned employment.  This gave rich pickings for the magazine, whose core readership was middle-class males, the group most likely to find this trend threatening.  However, this posed another problem for the magazine.

Many of its readers had been posted abroad, and it is likely that the wartime readership contained many more women.  Therefore Punch attempts to come to terms with female enfranchisement, but at the same time it displays great unease with the position of working women.  A good example of the contradictions it enacted during this period can be seen by the following extract from Mr Punch's History of the Great War (Cassell, 1920).  Here the text and the cartoon both function to create a tension the magazine never manages to resolve:

Farmer (who has got a lady-help in the dairy)  "Ullo Missy, What in the world be ye doin'?"

Lady.  "Well, you told me to water the cows and I'm doing it.  They don't seem to like it much."

"It is quite impossible to keep pace with all the new incarnations of women in war-time - 'bus-conductress, ticket-collector, lift girl, club waitress, post-woman, bank clerk, motor-drive, farm labourer, guide, munitions maker.  There is nothing new in the function of ministering angel: the myriad nurses here or abroad are only carrying out, though in greater numbers than before, what has always been woman's mission.

But wherever he sees one of these new citizens, or hears fresh stories of their address and ability, Mr. Punch is proud and delighted.  Perhaps in the past, even in the present, he may have been, or still is, a little given to chaff Englishwomen for some of their foibles, and even their aspirations.  But he never doubted how splendid they were at heart; he never for a moment supposed they would be anything but ready and keen when the hour of need struck." (p.96). 

This commentary demonstrates clearly how threatening the editors of Punch found the new roles of women.  Nevertheless they were aware how essential the female workforce was becoming.  The paper continued to ridicule both their new jobs and the women who did nothing, but vacillated greatly between condoning female workers and deriding them.  This also varied between authors - some never really changing their misogynistic views whilst others began to grudgingly give way.

Cartoons and articles satirising women dominated most issues.  Punch found the changing role of women an easy target, but the fact that this subject was constantly employed for comedy throughout the war suggests that the paper was regrettably accurate in portraying themes the public found amusing.  This is a very obvious way in which comedy was used to displace fear of change.

Despite the changing demographics of Britain during the war, patriarchal values still dominated the modes of cultural production.  Women were supposed to be unthreatening; they had little influence in the popular press and therefore Punch was free to enforce more familiar attitudes of domesticity and male dominance.  The return of women to the home after the war ended demonstrates how insecure their position was - the front line soldiers were encouraged to regard Britain as a rural idyll, an image which they did not want to be ruined by the new and culturally disturbing roles of a female workforce. 

The roles of shirkers and Germans are again obvious targets for the civilian population.  Both groups were usually animalised or enfeebled - it is easier to ridicule a stereotype than an actual being.  If the German portrayed was not the Kaiser, his depiction was either of a barbarian or pig.  Shirkers, who were categorised fairly indiscriminately by Punch to include virtually all men still in Britain, were usually shown with the well-established signifiers of degeneracy.

In the articles this tended to be characterised by effeminacy and having a stutter, and in the cartoons by a weak frame and a long chin with big ears.  However, Punch did not embellish this theme as it had for the women, and cartoons or articles on conscientious objectors are rare.  Possibly the behaviour of the conscientious objector or the shirker was considered too risky to portray in any detail  because it was anti-patriotic, and to admit that they existed was to admit a national failing.

First Conscientious Objector.  "I wonder why they've put us on to shifting this infernal manure heap."

Second ditto.  "I-I did tell the Sergeant after drill that I thought I'd be better employed in cultivating my garden at home."

(July 5th, 1916.  Artist ?)

In all of these categories, Punch had no need to be original or inventive.  In fact one of it's aims seems to have been the opposite, enforcing a strict code of "comedy as usual" interspersed by patriotic statements which hardly pastiched anything except an enduring capacity for the British to show a stiff upper lip to all comers.  This only gradually began to change towards the end of the war.  As the conflict became one of attrition, the British populace began to become slowly more disillusioned.

As this happened, a gradually more subversive element creeps into the paper.  One of the most famous examples of this is the cartoon depicting the Versailles treaty.  A peace dove struggles to hold the log offered by President Wilson; implying that the punitive nature of the treaty was too much to bear.  This kind of criticism was more freely expressed after the war had ended, but the discontent was already apparent in the writing and cartoons of the magazine, which were stretching the nationalist tone so far that the result was a reversal - it was impossible to take these exaggerated parodies of the earlier writing seriously. 

Another way in which Punch succeeded in bringing discomforting images to the civilian population was in its development of sequential artwork.  Comic art in this form was only just developing in the shape of the funnies, and the more enterprising illustrators on Punch were starting to take advantage of their popularity.  Furthermore, Seaman had a peculiar attitude to the illustrations, explaining how they could be more obviously blatant than the articles.

When choosing which to include, he would have the cartoons presented to him with only the captions visible, and then reveal the artwork to decide if it corresponded with what the text implied.  It is apparent fron this that he did not appreciate fully how the synthesis between text and image could work, and by viewing both parts individually he was marginalizing the potentially subversive version of the two together.  One of the central artists using this new technique was H.M. Bateman.

THE RECRUIT WHO TOOK TO IT KINDLY

(H.M. Bateman, 17th January, 1917.) 

This cartoon shows the animalisation of a British recruit, suggesting the underlying fear that the war turned even the most civilised men into aggressive barbarians.  Importantly in this cartoon, the recruit is displaced from the act of killing by using a sparring dummy, but nevertheless his actions towards it clearly suggest the viciousness and savagery implicit in the act of killing.  Bateman, Fougasse and Bird all utilise this technique and possibly exposed a wider reading public to a new form of illustration.

It is very noticeable within the paper that it is these artists who often deal with the more difficult issues of the war involving munitions, explosions, men at war and the ignorance of commanding officers.  The audience is displaced by the use of more expressionist forms of art rather than the strictly literal pen and ink style artwork of Townsend or Raven-Hill,  whose old-school techniques did not adapt and continue to illustrate statements or propaganda. 

Punch had a wide readership and was freely available to the civilian public.  It was also often sent to the front for soldiers, (specifically, officers) to read.  But in the front lines its reception seems to have been less than enthusiastic - in fact it is commonly recalled as useful for nothing better than high-quality toilet paper.

It is easy to see why the paper was regarded with such derision.  To the soldiers at the front Punch must have seemed trivial and ridiculously inaccurate; galling and offensive, full of trite propaganda and wilfully ignorant of the realities of warfare.  For example, the Battle of the Somme was hardly reported in the magazine.  Two weeks after the advance which was responsible for over 60 000 casualties in the first day, Punch's reaction was merely the cartoon by Townsend:

(July 12th, 1916) 

The issues immediately following the attack contained little comment on the fighting, except to report another victory.  In 1919, Mr Punch's History of the Great War was still insistently reporting that: 

"The results of the battle of the Somme are shown in a variety of ways: by the reticence and admissions of the German press, by its efforts to divert attention to the exploits of the German submarine cruiser Deutschland; above all, by the Kaiser's fresh explosions of piety...Mr. Punch finds the usual difficulty in getting any details from his correspondents when they have been or are in the thick of the fighting.  Practically all that they have to say is that there was a "damned noise," that breakfast was delayed by the "morning hate," or that an angry sub besought a weary O.C. "to ask our gunners not to serve faults into our front line wire." (P.99-100). 

Perhaps as a counterpoint to this kind of drivel, factions in the trenches began to produce their own papers.  The most famous of these is The Wipers Times, whose name changed as fast as its location, later becoming The "New Church" Times, The Kemmel Times, The Somme Times, and resigning itself eventually to The B.E.F. Times.  However, there were also over one hundred other papers produced by individual units and battalions.  Collectively, these were known as Trench newspapers, or more often by the soldiers as Trench Rags.  The trench papers are markedly different from civilian journals in both content and attitude, and despite the fact that they were officially sanctioned, they provide a substantially altered viewpoint, one which often seems tasteless and dark to a modern reader.

Trench magazines can be roughly split into two categories.  The first were aimed exclusively aimed at the soldiers, often a particular battalion, and the second type were designed for joint consumption by the soldiers and the home front, specifically relatives waiting at home for news.  Most British citizens had never been abroad - finding it difficult to imagine what France was like.  More distant locations were even more problematic (the British troops arriving in Italy were amazed that not all of them were ice-cream sellers).  Most magazines of the first type tended to be produced by troops further from home.

They were light-hearted and jovial accounts of the battalions that tended to conform to the ideals of the home front.  Although these magazines tried to stress how difficult life at the front could be, they did this in the "keep smiling" attitude encouraged by the press at home.  Their aim was to portray army life in ways the civilians could understand and admire - typical of this was the  intentions of The Dagger to "show the good folk at home what we are thinking and doing…we can't tell them much in our letters and one leave a year" (Nov, 1918).

However, these magazines had a limited appeal as there were few things which the troops could (or wanted to) say in the spirit of patriotism and enthusiasm for the war.  Censorship would prevented direct references to place or activities, and more factual aspects of war could not be included as they were unpleasant and misunderstood at home.  It is worth saying at this point that the soldier was just as interested in continuing to pretend all was well to the civilians as the civilians were willing to ignore the true facts of the war.

The soldiers were extremely concerned that they would be seen as barbaric if the true circumstances of the war were revealed - that their actions during the war would be condoned and feared by people who had not experienced the fighting firsthand.  Because of these factors, magazines of this type often floundered after a few issues. 

The problem with this type of magazine was encouraging a consistent readership.  The soldiers wanted a magazine relating to their own circumstances in a more realistic and believable way.  Although they wanted to portray a positive image to the civilians, they also wanted them to understand the conditions and experiences they were enduring. Because of this tension, overtly patriotic and unrealistic magazines failed. 

As a community, the soldiers appreciated trench journals aimed more exclusively at them.  The satire and humour of these magazines helped reinvent the situation at the front - diffusing the conditions of the war by ridiculing and exaggerating them.  Trench journals circulated at the Front encouraged the sense of a community with common aims.

They contained endless successions of "in" jokes - aspects which drew the soldiers together as a cohesive unit sharing experiences and emphasised their exclusivity - they were privy to events that other people could not understand, and as a result they were able to share private jokes with each other.  This type of double-bind was extremely important - it drew the army closer in a communal sense, but it also enforced their separateness from other groups, including the home front. 

The Wipers Times is possibly the best example of this.  Its popularity can be seen in its longevity - not only did it have an extensive readership, but was printed for over two years.  It ran from February 1916 until just after the war had ended.  There were even two editions printed after the war under the name of "The Better Times".

Unlike the regular weekly instalments of Punch, the production of The Wipers Times depended on the editors being in reserve with an area where they could set up their printing press.  The press had been salvaged from the ruins of Ypres by the Sherwood Foresters, and although the paper was not officially sanctioned by the B.E.F., it was additionally circulated around most of the Western Front. 

The authorship of the Wipers Times is relatively uncertain.  It is known that it was edited by Lieut-Col F.J. Roberts, who later received the Military Cross.  Submissions were encouraged, although the paper famously protested against the amount of poetry it received as a result: 

We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry.  Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other absently walking near the wire in deep communication with the muse…The editor would be obliged if a few of the poets would break into prose as a paper cannot live by "poems" alone. 

(This is the most quoted article of the paper - again the rest of the contents are often ignored because they do not contain items which a modern audience can fit into the idea of the War Myth).  The contributors do not usually sign their names, instead using appropriate pseudonyms - "one who would like to know", "Grandpa", "Teech Bomas" (after Beach Thomas, a correspondent from The Daily Mail).

This is a useful technique as the journal often pastiches civilian journalists that its readers would have remembered.  These pseudonyms 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. 

The paper's style was also restricted by the situations of production.  Articles had to be written in the limited free time the soldier had; in dugouts, reserve lines or on rest.  To compensate for this, The Wipers Times used a series of mock advertisements, all containing quick jokes, puns and commentary.  These were again emulative of the home front but contained topical jokes - advertising occupied land as country retreats, using army slang, or mentioning specific brands of equipment used by the army: "Are you ready for winter?…We can supply you from the "Dernier Cri" (behind the lines) in Macintoshes to Gum Boots" (B.E.F Times 1#1).

There was always a  mock theatre or cinema programme from the Ypres Cloth Hall, long since destroyed by shellfire.  These advertisements were extremely inventive and arguably contained some of the more subversive aspects of the journal:

Can you sketch?
Some of you may be able to draw corks.
Very few of you can draw any more money.
Probably some of you can draw sketches.

Here is a letter I have just received from a pupil at the front :- 

"The other day by mischance I was left out in No-Man's Land.  I rapidly drew a picture with a piece of chalk of a tank going into action, and while the Huns were firing at this I succeeded in returning to the trenches unobserved" 

Could you have done this?

Send a copy of the following on a cheque :- Francs 500 - 

And by return I will send you a helpful criticism and my fourteen prospectuses.  Please sign your name in the bottom right-hand corner to prevent mistakes.

Corps Christmas Card Company. 

The reason for these advertisements had another explanation.  Firstly, the editors were trying to fill up space, and it was easier to so with a small amount of large words.  Secondly, they had only a limited number of printing blocks.  This is also why the paper had very few cartoons - they were extremely difficult to reproduce as they had to be hand engraved.

The Wipers Times #5 

(One of the only cartoons printed in the paper, this is a submission of the most popular and repeated joke in the paper.  The "rose" guttering underneath the text is one of the printing blocks found with the press in Ypres.) 

A limited number of illustrations had been discovered alongside the press and were designed to compliment the typeface - these included the banners, the gutters and the line dividers.  If no typeset was left however, spare dashes and "o"'s were used. 

"--o--o--o--o--o--" 

By laying out the paper as a pastiche, it was far easier for the writers to be more openly subversive than Punch.  The paper could be sent home without too much concern as it superficially appeared to praise and admire the B.E.F.  Roberts noted in his preface to the collected edition: 

"Somehow we expected the paper to appeal to a very limited section, even of those who were in France.  That its appeal was much wider is shown by the welcome accorded to the book in all circles.  I have noticed that the present youngsters, who were small boys in those days, seem to delight in it, and I have to spend hours in explaining some of the advertisements and other items which are to them rather baffling." (The Wipers Times, 1920, Eveleigh Nash & Grayson Ltd.).

An audience at the home front appreciated the style of the jokes without really understanding the context.  The magazine contained army jargon, which would not have been understood or was only partially appreciated - by using an exclusive language, the journal became insular; aimed at an exclusive readership and giving a sense of a gang or club.  Outsiders could look and admire, but were not actively encouraged to join. 

The tone of The Wipers Times can be split into two categories.  One is a self-conscious and predominantly middle-class style derivative of the home front press and literature.  The other is excessively sentimental, and couched in a far more clumsy manner.  In The Riddles of Wipers (1997, Pen and Sword), John Ivelaw-Chapman analyses these methods of production, but makes the mistake of identifying the two separate traits as one and the same.  He seems to simultaneously to fall for the contrived, satirical attitude of bonhomie within the magazines and to confuse it with the more genuine attitude of the sentimental articles.

Ivenlaw-Chapman claims that "the target audience of The Wipers Times was young officers in the 19-22 age group, of good background and education, who were well indoctrinated with the Christian ethics of the day and who were constantly aware of their responsibilities as gentlemen" (p.67).  To an extent this is true.  The paper was produced by young middle-class officers, and their ideologies are apparent in the regular articles of the paper both in terms of style and contents.

The poetry often shows an awareness of a classical education and the spoof articles emulate the conservative British press (The Mail, Country Life).  However, Ivenlaw-Chapman  is mistaken in taking this ethos at face value: it is this atmosphere of false enthusiasm and chivalry which the paper continually derides.  At times the writing is anything but light-hearted - many articles using this technique to express themes and ideas which would otherwise have been condoned: 

A day from the life of a "Sub" in Divisional Reserve" (By himself) 

12.40am.  Sleeping peacefully.

12.45 am Not sleeping peacefully. 

12.50 awakened by a noise like a fog horn gone mad.

12.55.  Realise someone has smelt gas, cannot find gas helmet or shirt.

1 am.  Grope about for matches and candle  - find to my discomfort several extra articles of furniture in the hut - curse volubly….

1.15am Stumble round camp - rumour of "Stand To" - curse abominably.

1.30 am - Rumour squashed - gas alarm false - somebody's clockwork motor-bike horn came unstuck - curse again - retire to bed. 

This article is obviously produced by an educated man.  The use of the words "volubly" and " abominable" demonstrate advanced vocabulary, and the stilted speech echoes that of the public schoolboy.  However, this extract is obviously satire, although it portrays the situation as amusing, it is equally miserable and disturbing.  This kind of depiction blending satire with fact simply did not appear in the civilian papers. 

The less ironic submissions for the Wipers Times expound very different themes.  The editor was right to complain of " a hurricane of poetry", as a great deal of these contributions are sentimental discourses or even more sentimental poems.  Although very little is known about these contributors, I would tentatively suggest the following.

Most of the submissions were by working-class soldiers.  There are two reasons for this theory.  The first is that the submissions emulate articles within the Wipers Times and do not demonstrate such a strong educated background, and the second is their apparent lack of irony; a bluntness in the text which came from the need to express oneself after the constant stress and pressure which came from active service.

The majority of non-commissioned soldiers on active service were working-class men.  Trench journalism was possibly the first opportunity they would have had to express themselves publicly.  Again, it was carried out in an atmosphere where their contribution would be valued - it could be anonymous and it would be appreciated by the mutually exclusive world of trench life. 

Possibly the best example of this is To My Chum.  This is a heartfelt and moving poem, but it is not a good one.  The stanzas rhyme clumsily; the cadence is broken and erratic, and there is little originality in the expressions within the poem.  Evidence within the poem determine the soldier is a private - references to shared billets, shelter and food suggesting the life of a Tommy, not an officer.  There are no classical citations but there are allusions to army slang, particularly the terms of friendship used.  "Mate", "pal" and "old lad" were used by the Tommies.

Many of the submissions are recognisable for these traits - they dwell on a series of set expressions regarding the war, friendship, and descriptions of trench life.  These devices make the submissions more easy to spot, but the other factor is the absence of irony.  "To My Chum" is meant to be taken seriously, there is no sub textual meaning.  However this in itself is an incredibly subversive view.  For a poem such as this to be published, with such overt references to strong homosocial bonds, is something the home front would have considered extreme and possibly unnatural.  To allow a poem which expresses such a raw grief for a friend and to include the coldness of the threat of vengeance is a far more emotionally aggressive technique than the British press used. 

This deviance draws both types of journalism together.  On both counts The Wipers Times contains one of the most subversive viewpoints of the war.  It expounds a discourse which was excluded from the papers of the home front - that of  first hand experiences of the soldiers.  The way in which the paper was written expresses one of the least privileged versions of the war in which the soldiers satirise and reinvent themselves and their situation on an almost immediate basis.

Magazines such as Punch instil the ethos of a successful war into their satire, however the trench magazines successfully blend irreverence with a real awareness of the conditions of warfare.  In this way the trench magazines address issues that are often ignored or reinvented by the civilian press.  The trench magazines refer to the enemy as an equal rather than demonising him - the German is merely another man who is unfortunately in the same situation as the Tommy.  The papers dwell on conditions and grumbles; there are no stirring speeches unless in tones of irony.  No references are made to whether the war will end or not - it is merely a situation to be endured.  The destruction and casualties of war are referred to as commonplace occurrence.

The writing is more blatantly discontented with the army authorities and the ways in which the B.E.F. is organised; again the context in which this is mentioned are couched to sound like an inevitable grumble.  Although all of these ideas seem obvious to a contemporary reader, these discourses were not even considered publicly (on the home front during and after the war), until after the War Books Controversy in 1929.  In the trench magazines they are a surprising and often exceptionally callous technique, but unlike the post-1929 mythology, there is no residual bitterness.  The "alphabets" contain very good examples of this.  They were published regularly within the paper and were often sent as submissions - their simple style being an easy form to emulate:

T for the TRENCHES themselves (this is where I must take heed what I write, or I'll swear!) 

Which have blackened our souls, and have whitened our hair: Oh! Life is a dream in the trenches. 

W for WHISKEY and WHIZZ-BANGS as well: 

Of the Former I've almost forgotten the smell,

Whilst the latter contribute to make it like Hell.

At various times in the trenches.

(The B.E.F Times, Vol 1 #4 5/3/1917). 

There is a gigantic amount of information to be absorbed in the trench magazines.  They give such a strong depiction of the war that it is shameful how little has been written about them.  In Troop Morale and Popular Culture (Oxford University Press, 1991), J.G. Fuller undertakes an extensive survey of trench journals which he continually reiterates their importance as documentary evidence regarding he war: 

They are not coloured by subsequent experience and they represent a collective rather than an individual commentary, validated to a large extent by their soldier audience.  In addition, they deliberately set out, in many cases, to capture the spirit of the army.

They addressed themselves directly and continuously to a task which letters and diaries tackle only peripherally and randomly.  Even without this purpose, the journals were themselves an expression of collective culture…They served, moreover, as a means of intra-unit communication, with the result that there lodge in their pages not only essential details of unit administration, but also many details of the jealousies and feelings otherwise perhaps too trivial to be generally recorded, but important to the historian.  (p.4). 

In The Wipers Times, the section "Things We Want to Know" contains a series of questions and comments that seem to sum up the issues at the heart of the paper.  The most repeated joke of the paper appears here, the question "Are we as offensive as we might be?" (B.E.F. Times, vol.1 #2).

This simple and effective pun demonstrates the over-riding feeling that the soldiers had of the ridiculousness of their situation, their concerns and grumbles, and their attempts to trivialise awful events through a comic medium.  This has a far more immediate effect than other satirical documents, conveying an incredibly subversive and under-rated view of the war.  As with Punch, there are many things in the trench magazines which genuinely disturb the modern reader and not only bring home the conditions at the front, but the ways in which soldiers reacted to them.

The uncompromising nature of the trench journals, especially The Wipers Times, show just how much the war myth has been distorted - the writers are not nave fools, but equally they are far from brave or noble.  Articles written in the magazine can be alternately are petty and devious, often referring to thievery, shirking and cowardice.  Although these are cleverly couched in ways the home front reader would not recognise, it is indisputable that this type of evidence gives a far more realistic picture of the war than those recreated in subsequent writing or in home front journalism.

However, despite all of the negative aspects portrayed in the journals, there is always a sense of determination about them, produced and sustained by the communal feelings they created amongst the troops.  Even though there is little recognition of the actual goals of the war (defeating the Germans, regaining territory), there is still a powerful sense of the "rightness" of the war, an ethos that places more emphasis on loyalty, friendship and communality.  The soldiers are fighting for their "chums," and not the long distant generals.

They do not see the Germans "over there" as an enemy, rather a nuisance which is fighting for similar (if misguided) reasons.  Combined with the more removed and ideological aims of Punch, these papers are utterly essential in demonstrating how a nation at war developed strategies to diffuse fear and grief by providing mediums for self-expression and shared experience.

Article contributed by Esther MacCallum-Stewart

Bibliography
Books
N.B. Where reference is made to collected editions of either Punch or the trench magazines, I have included them as books.

J.G.Fuller. Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918. (London, Clarendon Press, 1990).

John Ivelaw-Chapman The Riddles of Wipers. (London, Leo Cooper 1997.)

Anon. Mr Punch's history of the Great War. (London, Cassell, 1920).

R.G.G. Price. A History of Punch (London, Collins, 1957).

Punch Magazine 1914-18.

David Roberts. Minds at War, the Poetry and Experience of the First World War 2ed.. (Saxon Books, London, 1998)

The Wipers Times,ed. Lieut-Col F.J Roberts, M.C. (London, Eveleigh Nash & Grayson Ltd, 1930).

The Wipers Times 2ed. (with new introduction and annotation ) Patrick Beaver (London, Peter Davies, 1973).

Other Magazines and Trench Journals

The Dagger: 56th London Division, vol .1 #2. Nov,1918.

A 'Woolly Bear' comprised a German shrapnel shell, which burst with a cloud-like explosion.

- Did you know?

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