Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Wipers Times: The Famous First World War Trench Newspaper

Introduction by Christopher Westhorp
Osprey Publishing, 2018
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Jack and Jill on top of a Hill
Had built an O Pip Station,
But Frightful Fritz blew it to bits
To their great consternation

It wasn't easy to make the war on the Western Front seem funny at the time, but it could be done—as this book shows. After a brief introduction, we're treated to 331 pages of reproductions of the original Wipers Times from the initial edition of February 1916 to the final edition (titled the Better Times) of December 1918. The trench newspaper underwent a few name changes during its life but is generally referred to as the Wipers Times and was published around Ypres, which the British Tommies had long referred to as Wipers.

Capt. Fred Rogers
This was an "underground" newspaper in more ways than one. Found in a shelled building, a derelict printing press was "rescued" by Captain Fred Roberts of the Sherwood Foresters and his men, one of whom had been a printer in civilian life. Sometimes working under fire, they began to put out an anonymous trench paper somewhat regularly. The paper was heavily satirical, not unlike our contemporary version of the Onion, the TV series Black Adder Goes Forth, and the musical Oh What a Lovely War!

Leafing through this book is addictive. We find humor and satire of every kind: gallows humor, tongue-in-cheek humor, black humor—all of which seem to be classified as trench humor when talking about the Wipers Times. The paper organized its content in the same way a popular British paper of the times would, that is, with a lot of variety. Each edition had an irreverent editorial, mock advertisements, jokes, riddles, letters to the editor, an agony column, "dug-out musings." and poems. We often find caricatures of the style and content of well-known writers; behind many literary spoofs loom the ghosts of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Byron, Poe, Conan Doyle, and others.

The content of the paper was clever and entertaining. It's easy to see that the writers were educated and often of a literary bent. Few author names are given, except hinted ones such as Herlock Shomes and Tuckis Shurtin. So we might have an entry for a "serial novel" starting thus:

Chapter 3. It was raining. Shomes, who had business of a pressing nature that night, shuddered as he pulled aside the gas curtain of his dug-out, and looked up and down the trench. Dropping the curtain hastily he injected a good dose from his vermoral sprayer, and disguised himself as a sergeant. He then swallowed half-a-pint of rum and went out into the night, to proceed on an urgent and secret mission to the "Culvert Arms" at Hooge. (p. 157).

Literary parody is never far away in the Wipers Times. One entry for OUR DIARY, a regularly appearing feature written not surprisingly by a Lieut. Samuel Pepys, begins with

On the Thursday of last week we did take up our
residence in a new part of the trench. 'Tis a
noisome place. And I am disgusted with it. The
mud is of a terrifying stickiness, and I am feared
for my breeches, which cost me one guinea at the
Hope Brothers' establishment in Cheapside.
Also, I have spoiled my new coat on the barbed wire. . .
(p. 237)

Poetry has a distinct presence in every issue of the newspaper and is often with a familiar tone. "The War Lord and the Chancellor" is quite typical and is printed with apologies to the late Lewis Carroll. Here are the first two of seven stanzas:

The War Lord and the Chancellor,
Were walking hand in hand;
They laughed like anything to see
The devastated land;
"If this belonged to us," they said,
"It really would be grand."

"If fifty Huns with fifty guns,
Swept it for half a year;
Do you suppose," the War Lord said,
"That vict'ry would be near?"
"I doubt it," said the Chancellor,
And shed a bitter tear. (p. 134).

It helps to have a knowledge of English and American poetry to fully appreciate the parodies and puns that resound in much of the newspaper. Also useful is some familiarity with British idiom and reference—especially in some of the mock advertisements that call up London establishments and events such as the "SPRING EXHIBITION at The 'Munque' Art Gallery" (any tube or train to Hyde Park Corner will get you there), and which is Open Day and Night; "Crumps may come and crumps may go,/But do not miss this wondrous show" (p. 71).

Advertisements were a graphic part of the paper, often taking up half or a whole page. One extols "THE DRINK HABIT," which can be acquired in three days with skilled help. The advertiser's qualifications follow: "For the first 15 years of my life I was a rabid teetotaler, but since the age of 16 I have never been to bed sober..." Publishers sometimes listed their latest releases, such as God's Good Man, an Autobiography by William Hohenzollern (Author of "The Innocents' Abroad," "Misunderstood," "The Christian," etc.), A Thief in the Night by Little Willie, and It's Never Too Late to Mend, by Dr. Wilson—a sly dig? (p. 186).

It's impossible in a short review to illustrate all the wit and satire in the Wipers Times and reproduced in this book. If you wish to delve deeper I strongly recommend John Ivelaw-Chapman's excellent 1997 book, The Riddles of Wipers: An Appreciation of The Wipers Times, a Journal of the Trenches. Also, you can go to YouTube and watch the full-length movie produced a few years ago about the newspaper. In spite of the thick British accents at times, I found the film quite interesting.

Finally, I leave you with this deep thought:

You can have your blooming Shelley,
Browning too, what did they know?
They could only see a poem in the way
the daisies grow;
Had I got five francs to bet 'em then I'd
very quickly risk it
That they couldn't find a poem in a
blooming Army biscuit (p. 272).

David F. Beer


  1. Bravo! Excellent review for a book I also enjoyed as much as you. Cheers

  2. There is also a movie based on the creation if the WT - it's actually rather good IMHO.