A war of words

To­gether with cig­a­rettes, card-play­ing and ca­ma­raderie, the ir­rev­er­ent Wipers Times kept chins up amid the hor­ror of Ypres. An­nun­ci­ata El­wes picks some amus­ing extracts

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The ir­rev­er­ent Wipers Times kept chins up amid the hor­ror of Ypres. An­nun­ci­ata El­wes re­ports

ASTIFF up­per lip may in­spire many a sol­dier, but the Tom­mies of the First World War, faced with hor­ror be­yond imag­in­ing, found that laugh­ter was the best medicine. In Fe­bru­ary 1916, work­ing with a bombed­out Bel­gian print­ing press, Capt (later Lt-col) F. J. ‘Fred’ Roberts and Lt (later Maj) J. H. ‘Jack’ Pear­son pub­lished the first is­sue of The Wipers Times, a joy­ous slice of sub­ver­sive sol­dier­ing satire—pri­vate Eye for the trenches.

Wipers was their ir­rev­er­ent nick­name for Ypres—‘no, Ypres is not pro­nounced “Wipers” be­cause it was once the cen­tre of the hand­ker­chief in­dus­try,’ the ed­i­tor cor­rected a cor­re­spon­dent in May 1916. It was a strate­gic spot that saw near con­stant con­flict for four years, with three Bat­tles of Ypres al­to­gether, the last of which is bet­ter known as Pass­chen­daele.

Draw­ing from a his­tory of Bri­tish hu­mour that can be traced back to Hog­a­rth and Gill­ray, Roberts and Pear­son poked fun at every­thing from trench foot to mus­tard gas, some­times, par­tic­u­larly in 1917, typ­ing away un­der in­ces­sant ar­tillery bom­bard­ment. Their wry ed­i­to­rial, let­ters, spoof ad­verts and ‘reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tors’, such as Bel­lary Hel­loc, Lt Sa­muel Pepys and Mr Teech Bo­mas (‘I write from the mid­dle of the bat­tle­field. There are a lot of bul­lets but I don’t mind that’) have stood the test of time.

A num­ber of fac­sim­i­les are in print, the BBC made a film in 2016 and, after a crit­i­cally ac­claimed West End run last year, The Wipers Times play will tour the UK this sum­mer (www.wiper­stime­s­play.co.uk).

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