Friday, May 1, 2020

Laughing through WWI with "The Wipers Times"

During World War I the Sherwood Foresters kept morale 
high in the trenches with a satirical newspaper 
(Courtesy: Army National  Museum London)

YPRES, BELGIUMDuring World War I, while stationed at the front line in Ypres, Belgium in the early part of 1916, several members of the British 12th Battalion known as the Sherwood Foresters discovered an abandoned printing press while on patrol. 

With the aid of a sergeant who had been a printer during peacetime, Captain Frederick John Roberts, MC, became the editor along with Lieutenant John ("Jack") Hesketh Pearson, DSOMC, sub-editor of a satirical trench newspaper called The Wipers Times.

"Wipers" was the affectionate name British "Tommys" used for Ypres (pronounced 'EE-pers') because it was difficult for them to say. Tommys was slang for the everyday ordinary British fighting soldier, especially during  World War I.

Ypres was destroyed during the First World War
(Courtesy: In Flanders Fields Museum)
Though neither Captain Roberts nor Lieutenant Pearson had any prior journalistic background, they wholeheartedly immersed themselves into their project using the slogan "Am I as offensive as I might be?" which became its primary theme throughout its two-year lifespan.

Roberts was inspired and motivated by the fact that no matter how poor the muddy, rat-infested conditions were in the trenches there was always room for humor to lift the spirits of his men and to keep their morale as high as possible under nightmarish conditions.

Humor in the trenches 
(Courtesy: Army National Museum  London)
By February 12, 1916 the new publication rolled off the press for the first time with a distribution of about 100 copies.

Due to limited availability and the cost of paper, print runs were small. Despite that, readership was significant because each copy passed through many hands, with parts read out loud in dug-outs and trenches.

Until publication was interrupted when a German shell destroyed the press, the magazines appeared on a regular basis as often as possible. The size and layout remained consistent until end of the war, however the name changed several times according to where the 12th Battalion was posted at any given time.

Over its brief two-year life The Wipers Times somehow managed to put out 23 issues before its demise. When reading it today, a great deal of the humor is lost due to changes in vocabulary and its use, the internal military jargon of the times, secret words and language known only to the men in the field and other "lingo" that would have little or no meaning for the man on the street even then, much less today.

Extra! Extra!
(Courtesy: Army National
Museum London)
The story was made into a film in 2013 entitled The Wipers Times. Although some of the humor is lost, the black and satirical scenes perfectly capture the essence, the mood and the eternal optimism of the men. Subscribers to Amazon Prime can watch the movie as an included feature in their package.

When thinking about The Wipers Times some other movies with similar themes come to mind; The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain (1995 -- The indomitable human spirit to unite for a common cause), Good Morning, Vietnam (1997 -- Humor to ease the horrific ravages of war), The Green Book (2018 -- Overcoming the struggle against ethnic prejudice)

Germany began using gas as a weapon in WWI, as 
depicted Sgt John Singer in this painting
(Courtesy: Imperial War Museum London -- public domain)
In the final analysis both Roberts and Pearson were awarded medals for gallantry during the Great War.

So if you're looking for a good popcorn munching coronavirus flick, The Wipers Times just might do the trick.