It was The Wipers Times

03 January 2014

History | Literature | War and Conflict

The BBC’s long-awaited First World War drama ‘The Wipers Times’ airs this week, written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. Taking its title from the trench journal of the same name, the 90-minute drama is “based on the true story of Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson who, in the bombed-out ruins of Ypres in 1916, discover a printing press and use it to create a satirical newspaper to raise the spirits of the soldiers.”
The Wipers Times
Only 100 copies of the first edition of The Wipers Times (so named after the British pronunciation of the small Belgian city of Ypres, in the Hooge sector where Roberts and Pearson were stationed) were printed and distributed among the “immediate circle”, but demand outstripped supply almost immediately and the reputation of the newspaper began to grow.

How it Happened
A 1918 reprint of The Wipers Times enabled the Editors to outline “How it happened”:
"To get an idea of the birth of the paper one has to try and visualize Wipers in those early days of 1916. We lived in rat infested, water-logged cellars by day and at Hooge by night. As an existence it had little to recommend it. The editorial den was in a casement under the old ramparts built by Vaubin – Heaven alone knows when!
At dusk, donning boots, gum, thigh, we would set off to Hooge to work till dawn in feet of liquid mud composed of - various things better left unsaid - trying to make a little cover for the lads who were holding on to the remnants of Belgium in the teeth of every disadvantage, discomfort and peril.
Yet always at the most inconvenient moment came a persistent demand from an ink covered sergeant, “Copy wanted sir!”

The satirical content of The Wipers Times, through verse and mock features, is relentless and clearly illustrates the recognition by readers and writers of the individual within such a massively destructive conflict:

‘Letters to the Editor’ enquired whether the authorities could deal with the menace of Zeppelins in a more “workmanlike way”; suggesting a high barbed wire entanglement around the British Isles.
‘Fedup, Gordon Farm, nr Wipers’ placed a “classified ad” making a “desirable residence for sale, cheap…splendid links close by, good shooting.”
The “We Want to Know” column enquired who had cooked the homing pigeons sent to the front line to help communications.

The impact on morale must have been perceived as being positive for the printing not to be suspended by superior officers.

Many trench journals shared the satirical focus of The Wipers Times but on occasion there was opportunity for some more poignant and direct messages. A cartoon in the early 1916 edition of The Gasper - The Unofficial Organ of the BEF is entitled “Idealism”. On one side of the image, a woman in England is wishing “if only I could see dear George” whilst picturing him standing bravely on guard. The other side has “Dear George!!” advancing with less formality, colleagues shot and gas mask on.
 Cartoon from The Gasper

Another Gasper article entitled “Futility” observed that the “human race has devised and evolved almost as many schemes for its government as for its slaughter”.
Article from The Gasper
While “Courage” was clear in its low opinion of cheap propaganda:
“Courage, energy and determination…that make up morale are the indefeasible birthright of every Englishman.

The Hun has of course little or no morale. His officers are animated by low and brutal hate, his men are driven by these as sheep to the slaughter…Different entirely from the fine clear sighted patriotism that sends our own men dashing into the hail of German lead.”

Editions of The Wipers Times are available alongside many other Allied and German ‘Trench Journals’ in Adam Matthew’s First World War collection. Sourced from multiple archives, this portal provides a broad range of primary source material on the Personal Experiences and Propaganda of 1914-1918.

The First World War: Propaganda and Recruitment is published by Adam Matthew in October 2013.

About the Author

Glyn Porritt

Glyn Porritt

I joined Adam Matthew in 2002. I manage our in-house development team and the integration of our technical partners. I am involved in the development of all our projects, working closely with the editors to ensure content is delivered online efficiently and effectively.