“I will meet the world with a smile and a joke”
|Canadian Soldiers Have a Laugh While Checking for Cooties|
Canadian Military History, Vol. 22, Issue 2 (17 April 2015)
The Great War of 1914–1918 was a tragedy of monumental proportions. This cataclysm of world history left more than nine million dead with Canada adding more than 60,000 to that butcher’s bill. The memory of the Great War is mired in the mud and misery of the Western Front. It is the cries of anguish that resonate through the tragic memory of the war. British soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his angry poem “Suicide in the Trenches” that the Western Front was “The hell where youth and laughter go.”
The language of the war—so brilliantly captured by the war poets—is of suffering, pity, and trauma. The constructed memory is built upon a belief that a lost generation was forced to flounder in the mud of Flanders or the slime of the Somme, eking out a grim existence with rats, lice, and unburied corpses, until some homicidal, septuagenarian general ordered the infantry over the top in a slow, methodical march into the mouth of the waiting guns. This is the most resilient strand of memory emanating from the war, and it is difficult for writers, filmmakers, and historians to construct a narrative in disjunction to this.
If we do not use the language of suffering, what are we left with? In the Great War for civilization, where the allies claimed that liberal values were pitted against unfettered militarism, was there time for laughter? In fact, was laughter in war not an insult to the legions of dead? It seems almost blasphemous to suggest that trench warriors giggled and joked, played pranks and sang merry tunes, satirized and punned mercilessly. But of course they did. Reading the vast discourse of published and unpublished memoirs, diaries, or letters reveals countless examples of soldiers’ humour. Jocularity and wit were outlets for soldiers and one of the ways they staved off the crushing psychological strain.
Humour remained an important safety valve for soldiers attempting to endure the destruction at the front. Lieutenant Clifford Wells had a laugh as he censored a letter from a ranker who advised his wife to prepare the house for his arrival home at war’s end in 1925. Wells wrote to his own loved ones, “The men have a sense of humour which goes far towards lightening their burdens.”
Soldiers' humour has no uniformity. There are pieces of buffoonery mixed with maudlin sentimentality, of biting wit and groan-inducing ditties, of sardonic satire and simple quips. The soldiers’ humour was enigmatic and must be understood within the context of creation, message, and audiences. The power of the soldiers’ humour was its ability to adapt to changing circumstances, to meet the needs of divergent groups, and to push against the system but not to break it. This article will look at the jokes, pranks, and quips, but not songs or theatre shows, where humour was the key in connecting with soldier audiences
Finish reading the article here (It includes lots of humourous examples):