Eugene Byrne is a freelance journalist and author, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine. You can read his online blog at http://eugenebyrne.wordpress.com/
This week's historical funny has been penned, as ever, by author and historian Eugene Byrne, and considers a satirical paper from the First World War, published at various points between 1916 and 1918 by soldiers from the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters (Nottingham & Derbyshire Regiment)
Proof That We Are Winning The War
by Belary Helloc
In this article I wish to show plainly that under existing conditions, everything points to a speedy disintegration of the enemy. We will take first of all the effect of war on the male population of Germany.
Firstly, let us take as our figures, 12,000,000 as the total fighting population of Germany. Of these 8,000,000 are killed or being killed, hence we have 4,000,000 remaining. Of these 1,000,000 are non-combatants, being in the navy.
Of the 3,000,000 remaining, we can write off 2,500,000 as temperamentally unsuitable for fighting, owing to obesity and other ailments engendered by a gross mode of living. This leaves us 500,000 as the full strength. Of these 497,250 are known to be suffering from incurable diseases. This leaves us 2,750. Of these 2,150 are on the eastern front, and of the remaining 600, 584 are generals and staff.
Thus we find that there are 16 men on the western front. This number, I maintain, is not enough to give them even a fair chance of resisting four more big pushes, and hence the collapse of the western campaign.
That's proof we're winning the First World War, of course. It comes from the Wipers Times, a very remarkable little satirical paper published intermittently between 1916 and 1918.
It was produced by soldiers of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters (Nottingham & Derbyshire Regiment), the first edition coming out in February 1916, using an abandoned printing press just a few hundred yards behind the front line. Little is known of the men who produced it, or contributed to it, though it was edited by Captain (later Lieutenant-Colonel) FJ 'Fred' Roberts with the assistance of Lieutenant FJ Pearson.
Taking its name from army slang for Ypres, the paper – usually just a single sheet – changed its title as the unit was moved around. So it was variously the New Church (from Neuve Chapelle) Times, the Kemmel Times, the Somme Times and after the Armistice, The Better Times. It was hugely popular, and its little print-runs were passed around from one unit to another.
The humour was ironic, full of Tommy in-jokes, and it often seems to court the disapproval of the top brass with its digs at staff officers safe behind the lines or the frequency of what we now call "friendly fire" incidents. It also took frequent swipes at gung-ho journalists back home; Hilaire Belloc, for instance, was roundly detested by many soldiers for his endlessly optimistic articles in patriotic magazine Land and Water, and that's him being satirised above.
It also looks surprisingly modern compared to other publications from that time; the articles and poems are mostly quite short, and there are lots of spoof advertisements:
DO NOT READ THIS!!!
UNLESS YOU HAVE A GIRL AT HOME.
If you have of course you want to send her a souvenir.
WE can supply just the tasty little thing you want.
Thousands to choose from;
GERMAN SHOULDER STRAPS; 1/- each 10/- a dozen
DITTO, BLOODSTAINED; 1/6 each 15/- a dozen
SHELL HOLES, COMPLETE; 50/- each
DUCKBOARDS - ENGLISH; 5/- each
DUCKBOARDS - GERMAN; 10/- each
IRON CROSS; 6d. a gross
Bullets carefully fixed in Bibles (for maiden aunts)
Humour, particularly of the gallows variety, was one of the ways in which men coped with the dangers and discomforts of life in the trenches. Study army life in the First World War and you find it's much more common than you might expect. Of course nowadays we think of poetry as the main literary expression of First World War soldiers. They were aware of this even then at the Wipers Times:
We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry. Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other absently walking near the wire in deep communication with their muse. Even Quartermasters with "books, note, one" and "pencil, copying" break into song while arguing the point re "boots. gum, thigh". The Editor would be obliged if a few of the poets would break into prose as the paper cannot live by poems alone.