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

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Laughter and War: Humorous-Satirical Magazines

Order a Copy of This Book HERE

By  Lesley Milne

Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016

Reviewed by Pip Gregory

Originally presented in Reviews in History, June 2017

Lesley Milne’s Laughter and War: Humorous-Satirical Magazines in Britain, France, Germany and Russia 1914–1918, offers a well written overview of the humour of four nations during the Great War, and in turn, four satirical magazines that provoked laughter in these combatant countries. She has approached these journals critically and comparatively within a thematic framework, which she uses to illustrate the styles of humour they each express. There was always going to be the risk of trying to cover too much material when looking at the satire of four diverse nations, particularly when those nations fell on opposing sides of a major conflict. However, this is something that Milne has succeeded in doing. In places, broader detail has been lost when looking at the wider ‘multi-national’ picture of the war, yet even so, there is a vast amount of detail provided for the specific topics addressed within the book. Thus, as a qualitative overview rather than a vast quantitative one that would have easily lost value overall, this book achieves its aims. 

Laughter and War analyses the satire of four nations, although by covering four nations Milne has, by necessity, limited the volume of content that could be analysed from each nation individually. During the war, far more daily satire was available in each of the chosen countries and further afield. However, to reduce the potentially phenomenal scope of this study, Milne has focused on one specific satirical cartoon magazine from each of her chosen nations. The study looks at Punch for Britain, Simplicissimus for Germany, Le Rire in France and Novy Satirikon for Russia. These have been chosen as each was ‘the leader in its field’ (p. 1), for the countries being compared. The journals selected are argued to be ‘repositories that save for posterity the jokes of the time’, (p. 4). Punch is the classic ‘go to’ comic journal for Britain, offering easily recognised images and comic ideas for a British audience. Simplicissimus is a journal with an interesting history in its own right having adapted its politics significantly in light of the war. Whereas as a prewar publication it was socialist, during the conflict it sought to inspire and unite the public towards national goals.(1) In France, Le Rire has a title specifically meaning ‘laughter’, and identified with a need for such mirth despite the situations of war. Finally, despite being predominantly unavailable in print in the UK, beyond a few select issues in the British Library, Novy Satirikon from Russia stands as a journal to parallel the others for its spread of satirical commentary and illustrations (p. 5). The differing nationalistic standpoints portrayed in these journals could have created i.

The differing nationalistic standpoints portrayed in these journals could have created issues in the comparison and analysis of the laughter they provoked, but Milne has balanced these well against one another, and openly highlights similarities and differences as appropriate. She makes it clear that although humour in these journals comes from different perspectives, each form is based in very nationalistic terms. Sexual or scatological formulations create much of the humour in French and Russian examples, while the British focus their humour far more within class definitions that use comparisons from table manners to sporting analogies (pp. 53–8). . . Methodologically, the book looks to both cartoons and texts that illustrate particular chosen themes. There is a focus on adapting and adjusting to war (chapters two and 12), places of war (chapters seven, eight and 11), people in war (chapters five, six, nine and ten), and features of censorship and propaganda in the magazines themselves (chapters one, three, four and five again). . . [A]lthough the reader may in some ways feel that there are missing elements, the achievements of the volume in providing a detailed, interesting and clear comparison of humour across the combatant nations is clear and significant.

Excerpted from Pip Gregory's original review

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