The Wipers Times: the funny side of World War I


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The Wipers Times, a satirical magazine written by frontline soldiers during the First World War, is the subject of a new TV drama written by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop. The magazine, described by Hislop as “the authentic voice of the trenches”, was produced by Captain F.J. Roberts and Lieutenant J.H. Pearson with contributions from the soldiers.

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The Battle of the Somme

A spoof advert titled ‘Are You A Victim Of Optimism?’ is a typical example of the magazine’s gallows humour. It was produced in July 1916 in response to the Battle of the Somme, where 19,240 British men died in the first day of fighting.

The extract shows the huge psychological impact the battle was having on the soldiers. It also reveals how those who joined up with enthusiasm felt now: ‘Two days spent at our establishment will effectively eradicate all traces of it from your system.’

Capt Roberts and Lieut Pearson both fought in the Somme alongside their regiment, the 12th Sherwood Foresters, which was attached to the 24th Division of the British Army. A total of one million men were wounded or killed in the battle which was fought between 1 July and 18 November 1916.

The Somme

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The major offensive was an attempt to relieve French troops in Verdun and make a decisive breakthrough in the German lines, but it revealed the failure of the Allied commanders to grasp the changing nature of warfare.

They first tried to destroy German trench defences near the banks of the River Somme in a week-long, artillery bombardment. Commanders incorrectly believed they had smashed the German defences. After the British bombardment was lifted, they instructed lines of British soldiers to head over the top, and cross No Man’s Land at walking pace. The soldiers were mown down by German machine gun fire. Despite the huge loss of life, the Allies had advanced just five miles by the time the offensive was called off. Capt Roberts served with distinction during this period. Hislop commented, “he wins the Military Cross in the middle of the War for gallantry, just after producing a magazine at the Battle of the Somme.”

Ypres for sale

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The Wipers Times, 20 March 1916

An early edition of The Wipers Times features a mock advert putting the Ypres Salient Estate for sale, something the British soldiers would have loved to do. Historian Malcolm Brown describes it as “arguably the most hated battleground of the whole war in the eyes of the British Tommy”, the regular soldier. Ypres was fiercely fought over throughout the war. The salient was a bulge in the frontline which protruded into enemy territory surrounded on three sides by German forces.

Members of the 24th Division discovered the old printing press that made The Wipers Times possible at the Ypres Salient in early 1916 – the name ‘Wipers’ came from the soldiers’ pronunciation of ‘Ypres’. Roberts and Pearson had hoped to publish on a weekly basis, except for “any adverse criticism or attentions by our local rival, Messrs. Hun and Co”, using their nickname for the German enemy. All 23 editions of The Wipers Times came out between February 1916 and December 1918 and were based on the division’s experiences on the Western Front in Belgium and France. Hislop commented, “to think that in the middle of it all they were sitting there writing jokes and then printing them up, under fire, is just amazing”.

Gas!

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The Wipers Times, 3 July 1916

The Wipers Times ran a fake advert for a film entitled “Gas” the month after the 24th Division were gassed whilst holding the front line at Dranoutre, a small village south west of Kemmel in Belgium. The Division lost 95 soldiers during three separate attacks over the course of the night of 16 June 1916. The German infantry’s plans to attack were thwarted when the wind changed direction, blowing the gas back towards their own trenches. Chlorine, phosgene and, later, mustard gas were among the weapons most feared by ordinary soldiers because of the long and painful death it could bring. By January 1917, gas masks had become more effective than the crude contraptions they first used, but a shout of ‘Gas!’ could still inspire fear in the trenches.

The Battle of Passchendaele

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The Wipers Times, 1 November 1917

In 1917 The Wipers Times produced this advert for a ‘great anti-war demonstration at Passchendaele.’ The Battle of Passchendaele, known officially as the Third Battle of Ypres, took place from 31 July to 6 November 1916. General Douglas Haig, the British commander on the Western Front, wanted a British offensive in Flanders. His ultimate goal was to reach the Belgian coast and destroy the German submarine bases that were there. The 24th Division was among the forces assembled by him to launch the assault. Both sides suffered vast number of casualties at Passchendaele, a town on the way to the coast. But the battle is also remembered for the mud. The region was experiencing the heaviest rains for a generation. Artillery fire had destroyed the ground’s natural drainage and churned the soil. The battlefield quickly became a quagmire so deep that some men and horses drowned in it. Overall, there were 325,000 Allied casualties and a further 260,000 on the German side. Gen Haig claimed the battle was a success but far from helping to carve a path to the sea, it just made the Ypres Salient slightly larger.

Armistice

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The Wipers Times, December 1918

In December 1918, the Wipers Times ran an advert for a “thrashing machine” belonging to K.A. Iser. The Kaiser, the German emperor King Wilhelm II, had no “further use for it”, following the nation’s defeat. A month earlier, on 11th November 1918, at 11am, an armistice between the Allied forces and Germany had been signed. In the spring of that year German forces had launched a major offensive to try and secure a ‘victorious peace’ anticipating the arrival of millions of American troops in the summer. The offensive was ultimately a failure. Between March and July 1918 the Germans lost a million men.

The Wipers Times also contained the cartoon of a soldier wearing his “demobilisation smile”, many British soldiers couldn’t go home immediately after the armistice. As the army numbered almost 3.8 million men demobilisation had to be staggered. This was the final edition of the Wipers Times, under the name ‘The Better Times’. The soldiers of the 24th Division returned home, they would now need to adjust to civilian life and what the Wipers Times referred to as “the horrors of peace”.

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