The Riddles of Wipers

 Peter Hart on a look at the First World War trench journal The Wipers Times

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Reviewed by: Peter Hart
Author: John Ivelaw-Chapman
Publisher: Pen & Sword
Price (RRP): £12.99

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The Wipers Times is a window into the past. Men under incredible stress contributed to this trench journal produced by the 12th Sherwood Foresters, an ordinary infantry pioneer battalion that managed to produce a steady stream of satirical articles, quite dreadful poetry and sham adverts. The magazine first appeared at Ypres in early 1916, then followed the unit around the Western Front.

It is a fascinating publication, although by no means unique as there were several such magazines, which are all but forgotten. The prevailing humour is strangely gentle given the violent backdrop of the First World War. This book, subtitled An Appreciation of the Trench Journal The Wipers Times, originally came out in 1997 and is intended to act as a beginner’s introduction to the comic world of the journal, with an occasionally jarring preoccupation with the author’s own ‘discoveries’ while solving what he perceives as riddles. In truth these faux investigations are more about justifying a silly book title than an effort to solve genuine mysteries.

There are also a number of mistakes of fact and interpretation which somewhat undermine the author’s credibility. A more reliable guide would be Patrick Beaver, whose 1988 The Wipers Times contains a complete facsimile reprint of the magazine and much valuable comment. Yet there is no need to be wholly negative about a book that has much of interest within its pages. Taken as it stands it is an enjoyable, rambling read. The extracts are nearly always amusing – either genuinely funny or so awful they raise a smile – a cross between Private Eye and Punch.

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Peter Hart’s books include 1918: A Very British Victory (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008)