Set in the bombed-out ruins of Ypres in 1916, BBC Two's The Wipers Times followed the true story of Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson who, after discovering a printing press, produced a humorous and subversive trench newspaper. But what was Ypres, Belgium like during the First World War, and why were soldiers stationed there so receptive to the newspaper’s gallows humour?
An instant hit with soldiers, The Wipers Times became known for its candid portrayal of life on the frontline. Here, Mark Connelly, professor of modern British history at the University of Kent, puts the newspaper in context…
Q: What was Ypres like during the First World War – did it have a reputation for being a particularly dangerous place for soldiers to be stationed?
A: Ypres was in salient – i.e. the enemy surrounded the British and Imperial troops on three sides; the enemy had the high ground in a low country and the artillery smashed the delicate irrigation and drainage system.
For all these reasons it meant that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was under almost constant, pretty well-aimed shell fire; they were wet beyond belief when it rained, and numbed by the cold when it froze.
Because Ypres was the outpost of the Channel ports, and because both sides knew that if it fell the way was open to the coast, there was always a lot of action.
To survive psychologically a soldier had to look to every resource, and gallows humour which made light of the enormous difficulties of life in the salient was clearly very important.
Q: We’ve read reports that the average life expectancy for soldiers in Ypres was just six weeks – is this correct?
A: No – none of these stats make any sense unless they are contextualised.
Relatively few soldiers would spend six weeks solid in any one part of the line except in the first year of the war. Even then, rotation between front and rear meant that no one was continually exposed to the very worst of the fire.
Brand new men just out of the training camps were always most vulnerable because of the steep learning curve – they lacked the local knowledge and so inadvertently walked into trouble.
For instance, if they got lost in the maze of trenches and walked along a bit where everyone else knew that you had to crawl, they would inadvertently endanger their lives. But, once the local savvy approach set in, men became much more adept at surviving the hazards.
Q: How many soldiers were killed in and around Ypres during the First World War?
A: No one knows exactly – just over 200,000 were killed in Belgium and the vast majority of these would have been in the Ypres salient.
There are 169 cemeteries in the salient and on the major memorials to the missing.
The task of commemorating the missing of the Ypres salient was so huge that Sir Reginald Blomfield quickly realised he would never get all the names on the main memorial (the Menin Gate).
For this reason, a second memorial had to be constructed – the commemorative rear wall of the cemetery at Tyne Cot.
By the 1920s there was a large English and Anglo-Belgian community in Ypres due to ex-servicemen staying on to become gardeners and employees of the Imperial War Graves Commission.
For this reason a British school was built for the children. It was evacuated in 1940 as the Nazis approached and didn’t re-open after 1945.
The school can still be seen – it is behind St George’s Church – and the graves of many of the gardeners can be seen in Ypres town cemetery.
Mark Connelly is professor of modern British history at the University of Kent.