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
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).