The Wipers Times
This blog post has been written by David Tyler, Independent Historical Consultant and Co-Founder of Adam Matthew Digital.
Last week I had the opportunity of seeing Ian Hislopâ€™s and Nick Newmanâ€™s stage play based upon the true story of The Wipers Times, currently showing at the Watermill Theatre, near Newbury, 22 September â€“ 29 October 2016. I also attended an afternoon discussion session where the co-writers were interviewed about their work and answered questions from the audience.
Production photograph â€“ The Wipers Times â€“ Â© Copyright The Watermill Theatre Production, 2016
The Wipers Times was a trench journal (featured in Adam Matthew's resource The First World War: Personal Experiences) published by British soldiers fighting on the Ypres Salient during the First World War. It became the most famous example of trench journalism in the English-speaking world. The front page of the first issue, Saturday 12 February 1916, features two amusing advertisements. On the left is a notice about the Wipers, Fish-Hook and Menin Railway with the warning â€śuntil further notice trains will not go beyond Gordon Farm Station, line beyond that closed for alterations.â€ť On the right we see an advertisement for the Hotel des Ramparts. This was situated in the rubble and ruins of Ypres or Wipers as the British troops chose to pronounce it. â€śNo expense has been spared by the new management in the re-decorating and re-fitting of this first class hotel. Specially recommended to Business Men. New Electric Installation. 5 Private Lines. Tel: Pioneers, Ypres.â€ť
These set the tone for the entire newspaper which pokes fun at the High Command, politicians, journalists and other commentators and organisations, who were safely ensconced back in England or in a comfortable billet well behind the front line. Special attacks are reserved for the journalist William Beach Thomas who wrote for The Daily Mail (Mr Teech Bomas) and the commentator Hilaire Belloc (Belary Helloc). Lloyd George and the Temperance Society are the butt of many jokes especially if the rum ration is threatened! â€śNarpoo Rumâ€ť (meaning â€śno more rumâ€ť), â€śOur Splendid New Serialâ€ť is launched in the Christmas 1916 issue. This is developed as a sketch in the play in response to a visit from the interfering Lady Somersby.
Subversive, full of puns, poetry, music hall spoofs and salutes to fallen comrades, the newspaper was immensely popular with the rank and file. It boosted morale and provided the men at the front with a clear voice.
â€śQuestions a Platoon Commander should ask himselfâ€ť and â€śHas your boy a Mechanical Turn of Mind? Yes! Then buy him a Flammenwerferâ€ť - illustrations from 'The Wipers Times' Â© Cambridge University Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
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Daily concerns of the soldiers in the front line â€“ shelling, sex, drink and rats â€“ are very prominent in articles, poetry, advertisements, serialisations and letters to the editor. The penchant for verse is questioned several times during the play. The Editor has no shortage of offerings! The Music Hall parodies are acted out on stage, the poems become songs, funny advertisements and illustrations come to life as actors pop up from behind the parapet to proclaim â€śVioletâ€™s Chronicle of Fashionâ€ť (fairy-like silk stockings and other garments), â€śTaxis! Taxis! Taxis!â€ť (highly decorated cars recognised by the red crosses painted on the side), or â€śGasâ€ť (a stupendous film play to be released in three parts). As illustrated above, other examples which find their way into the script include â€śQuestions a Platoon Commander should ask Himselfâ€ť, â€śHas your boy a Mechanical Turn of Mind?â€ť, â€śOur Great Insurance Schemeâ€ť, â€śThe January Salesâ€ť and â€śWigginsâ€™ Warm Wolliesâ€ť.
Front cover from a later edition of 'The Wipers Times'. Â© Cambridge University Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
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How did The Wipers Times begin? A group of soldiers led by Captain Fred Roberts discovered a printing press in the ruins of Ypres. Aided by their civvy-street printer/publisher, given the name of Sergeant Tyler in the play, and Lieutenant Jack Pearson, second in command of this motley detachment of Engineers, part of the Sherwood Foresters in 24th Division, they decide to use the press to print a newspaper. There is plenty of ink and paper. They donâ€™t have enough â€śeâ€™sâ€ť and â€śyâ€™sâ€ť in the early issues so this adds to the challenge! The editorial den is set up in an old casemate under the old ramparts built by Vaubin. â€śAs none of us were writing men, we just wrote down any old thing that came into our heads,â€ť Captain Fred Roberts recalls. Piano, gramophone and printing press were soon fully operational.
â€śWhen Fritzâ€™s love-tokens arrived with greater frequency and precision than we altogether relished we would turn our whole outfit on together. The effect of â€śPantomime Hitsâ€ť on the piano, â€śDance with Meâ€ť on the gramophone, a number of subalterns, and 5.9â€™s and 4.2â€™s on the roof, has to be heard to be realized,â€ť Roberts wrote in his explanation â€śHow it Happenedâ€ť. They lived in rat-infested, water-logged cellars by day. At dusk they trooped forward to Hooge - â€śvarious things better left unsaidâ€ť - to repair the trenches and â€śto make a little cover for the lads who were holding onto the remnants of Belgium in the teeth of every disadvantage, discomfort and peril.â€ť One hundred copies were printed of the first issue. Engineering duties and calls to â€śStand to!â€ť often interrupted the printing process. Some two hundred copies were made of the next three issues.
â€śHave you ever sat in a trench in the middle of a battle and corrected proofs?â€ť Roberts asks. This is exactly what he did at the Battle of the Somme one hundred years ago. The Somme Times, a variant of The Wipers Times, was produced during this period.
Even before the third issue of The Wipers Times had been completed, the Germans scored a direct hit on the printing press with a 5.9. This halted publication briefly, but the sergeant in charge quickly discovered a hand-jigger press and a lot more type up near Hellfire Corner. He fetched the whole lot back with a team of men and publication resumed. Roberts and Pearson were very pleased with the results.
The Wipers Times brought back memories of my own research trips working upon The First World War: Personal Experiences. I made several personal visits to Ypres, Hooge, Sanctuary Wood, Hill 62 and the surrounding countryside, where farmers still dig up unexploded ordnance on a regular basis. The museum curators and First World War experts in the Ypres region were all very welcoming and most helpful. I remember mapping various trench systems, crawling through tunnels with colleagues and organising different photography sessions.
Sanctuary Wood trench system. Â© Sanctuary Wood Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
These documents from the First World War provide us with innumerable insights into the lives and experiences of ordinary soldiers bravely facing overwhelming adversity.
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