When thinking back to the First World War, I think it’s very easy to sometimes forget the very simple fact that the men who fought and died on the battlefields were individuals. With the millions that fell, including the tens-of-thousands in a single day that fell on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, we think of their deaths in terms of numbers and figures, rather than what they were – fathers, brothers and sons.
Yet the conscript army of the First World War was driven by young and patriotic individuals usually living in squalor as they endured the harsh and grim reality of service in the trenches. A look at their lives, including their food, entertainment and day to day duties, on the Western Front can help to humanise the soldiers of the war. But something that reveals much about their character and drives was their weaponisation of humour against the reality of war – their light at the end of the trenches.
A major source of humour for soldiers on the frontlines was newspapers written and edited by soldiers, of which over 100 were created. Typically produced in relative safety, far from the action and bombing raids of the war, one paper stood out as a truly frontline publication, and at one point was produced just 700 yards from the German trenches.
It began with Captain Fred Roberts of the 12th Sherwood Foresters, who found an abandoned printing press in the rubble of the Belgian town of Ypres. With the help of a sergeant and some of the men under his command, he created The Wipers Times, a play on the common mispronunciation amongst the British Tommies of Ypres. The satirical newspaper, produced by soldiers for soldiers, gives a glimpse into the lives of those in the trenches and how they used humour to cope with the dark day-to-day reality of the war.
Satirical poetry, a popular creative medium in the early 20th century, was one type of writing that sometimes graced the pages of The Wipers Times, like this anonymous piece:
Little Tom Buffet
Thought he would snuff it
When hit on the chest with a shell
The shell was a dud’un
So all of a sudden
He rose and is now doing well.”
Soldiers could also submit columns to the editorial team. One such column, entitled Things we Want to Know… inquired after the name of a ‘brunette infantry officer’ who had cooked and sent some carrier pigeons to a company commander along with the weekly bill from a local brothel in Ypres.
Jokes also extended to the deadly No Man’s Land – the area littered with bomb craters and dead bodies which separated the British and German trenches. Not even this death strip, promised to go on in infamy in historical memory, could deter one soldier who created a property advert for No Man’s Land, reading:
Building land for sale. Build that house on Hill 60 – bright and breezy & invigorating. Commands an excellent view of historic town of Ypres. For particulars of sale apply: Bosch & Co, Menin
Another popular form of comedy and satire for the troops in the trenches was cartoons. The collection of Douglas Arthur Chambers, which can be found here, is particularly interesting and rich in content. Spread across three sketchbooks, dozens of drawing about everyday life as a soldier litter the pages. One depicts a solider bending over, scrubbing the floor with a brush, which the subject clearly isn’t happy about. The caption reads ‘What did you do in the Great War, Daddie?’
Not all satire was intended as a source of light in the lives of British troops, however, but was instead rather an anti-war critique in direct contrast to the propaganda cartoons churned out by the government. One extraordinary example is the work of Archie Gilkison.
Apparently a shy man, a writer and a poet, Gilkison worked for various publications, including the London Opinion and Bristol Echo. With the outbreak of the war, however, his cartoons shone through, depicting the grim reality of the front.
At the beginning of the war, his cartoons were fairly light-hearted, with one drawn just before Christmas 1914 depicting Father Christmas putting toys in the stocking of a little boy who says he can’t accept them if they were made in Germany.
But as time and the war wore on, the tone of the cartoons changed. One of the most striking images, entitled The Reason Why, depicts a German soldier lying dead in the trenches, his skin stretched across his gaunt face and rifle strewn beside him. Underneath the image, Gilkison mocks the German emperor’s triumphalism with the stark reality of his ‘glorious Western Army’.
— NEWSONSCOTLAND (@NewsOnScotland) November 10, 2018
The ‘Wilfred Owen of cartooning’, Gilkison’s works have only recently been discovered, giving insights into the nature of anti-war sentiment and activity at the time. Unfortunately, Gilkison was conscripted into the Army in 1916 but died on the way to the Front from pneumonia.
What is most remarkable about Gilkison’s work is how is evaded historians for so long, surfacing from his family just a few years ago. All of this material survives; Gilkison’s and Chamber’s cartoons, the pages of the Wipers Times and dozens of photos and other material, which showcases the humour that nevertheless could arise from such terrible circumstances.
You may think that history is all about dates, battles and important monarchs or politicians. You may have simply memorised the facts and figures for a test and used them for a bit of trivia. But it’s important to tell the stories of the soldiers that fought in the First World War, exploring their lives for who they were – complex, emotional and humorous human beings.