Despite dismal conditions in the trenches of the Western Front in the First World War, an enterprising group of British soldiers decided to laugh in the face of danger with a mock “newspaper” popularly known as The Wipers Times.
In 1916, Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson of the 12th Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters, decided to create an irreverent gazette using some printing equipment they discovered in the bombed-out city of Ypres.
The satirical paper—christened The “Wipers” Times to reflect British soldiers’ pronunciation of the name “Ypres”—satirized daily life on the frontlines. As the troops deployed to different areas around the Western Front, the paper assumed different titles, including The Somme Times, The B.E.F. Times and The Better Times. A motto adopted by the editors—a wordplay on the military term “offensive”—was: “Are we as Offensive as we might be?”
The parody paper ran the gamut from news, poetry, letters, advertisements, entertainment sections, and even serial stories—all highlighting the ironies of life at war. Occasional “features” included romantic folly, such as a section entitled “Lancelot’s Letters to Lonely Ladies.” A frequent contributor of witty verses and columns was Gilbert Frankau, who later became a novelist.
A “sports” section often included dark fighting humor, such as: “There is some good shooting to be had in Railway Wood, but game is getting wilder.”
The witty writers took aim at famous authors and war correspondents. In one humorous piece attributed to a “Belary Helloc”—a distortion of the name Hilaire Belloc—a “journalist” calculates that there are 16 enemies on the Western Front and predicts easy victory.
“In this article I wish to show plainly that under existing conditions, everything points to a speedy disintegration of the enemy…Firstly, let us take as our figures, 12,000,000 as the total fighting population of Germany. Of these 8,000,000 are killed or being killed hence we have 4,000,000 remaining. Of these are 1,000,000 non-combatants, being in the Navy. Of the 3,000,000 remaining, we can write off 2,500,000 as tempermentally unsuitable for fighting…This leaves us 500,000 as the full strength. Of these 497,250 are known to be suffering from incurable diseases. This leaves us 2,750. Of these 2,150 are on the Eastern Front, and of the remaining 600, 584 are Generals and Staff. Thus we find that there are 16 men on the Western Front. This number I maintain is not enough to give them even a fair chance of resisting four more big pushes, and hence the collapse of the Western Campaign…”
A recurring character torn from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed Sherlock Holmes mysteries is “Herlock Shomes,” a trench detective addicted—instead of to morphine—to a vermorel sprayer used to dispel chlorine gas attacks. He and his assistant, named Hotsam, feature in absurd dramas set in no-man’s-land, at times accompanied by glamorous women as they attempt to solve mysteries—such as cases involving soldiers’ missing whiskey and rum. One antagonist is Sandy Sam, described as a “suspected spy and sandbag merchant.”
One “Shomes” anecdote appears to mock the tendency of nervous soldiers on the frontlines to shoot at friend and foe alike:
“Hurriedly tearing open and reading the dispatch, the true Sholmes stood revealed in all his strength and method. Seizing his vermorel sprayer, he rapidly squirted an enormous dose onto his forearm. Just then the voice of the faithful Hotsam was heard calling, “Where are you, Sholmes?” “Here,” replied the great detective, rapidly emptying his revolver at the approaching figure. “Thank goodness I found you at last, but you nearly got me that time,” said Hotsam admiringly. “Never mind, better luck next time,” said Sholmes, sotto voce…”
The paper was also rich with fake advertisements regarding wartime conditions in the area. Medical vehicles were advertised as “taxis” and described as “highly decorated cars…handsomely appointed throughout and…easily known by the Red Cross painted on each side.” Spoof seasonal “sales” ads hawked “second-hand furniture, slightly damaged” with instructions to telephone “14, Ruins,” offered “all the latest in Barbed Wire” and described the latest “fashions” in trench clothing.
One ad drew attention to the tendency of trench duckboards—wooden planks used as avenues for walking—to pop up unexpectedly when stepped on. The ad offers frustrated soldiers a chance to “buy” tipping boards to smack commanding officers in the face.
To Harassed Subalterns: Is your life miserable? Are you unhappy? Do you hate your company commander? Yes! Then buy him one of our new patent tip duck boards—you get him on the end, the duck board does the rest. Made in three sizes, and every time a “Blighty” –
‘If once he steps onto the end, Twill take a month his face to mend.”
Entertainment pages included darkly humorous wordplays on weaponry and warfare in general. One featured “troupe” was “The Bros. Whizz-Bang,” described as “merry little fellows [that] get there every time.” Night attacks were advertised as a cinema feature: “Nightly, the Great Spectacular Picture – Inferno – 50,000 Artists have been engaged to produce this colossal work, at enormous expense. Music and effects of this great picture by the International Orchestra.”
Mine explosions were cynically hailed as “A Most Uplifting Performance,” while phony shows like “Piggles goes a Sniping” and “Charley Goes Gunning” poked fun of shooting.
The writers also razzed military staff and personnel, for example: “Quartermaster & Company: The World’s Famous Back Chat Comedians (A Great Show)” and “Jock McGree in his Famous Song, ‘Trenches Ain’t the Proper Place for Kilts.’”
Despite being produced in limited supply, the paper enjoyed a large readership—soldiers would often pass copies through the lines and read it to one another. It also attracted many contributors as soldiers offered poems and doggerel to the paper, such as:
Jack and Jill on top of a Hill
Had built an O Pip Station
But Frightful Fritz blew it to bits
To their great consternation.
The paper proved so popular that its appeal outlasted the war. It was published in the form of collected editions in 1918 and 1930, and is still in print today. The story of The Wipers Times was also the subject of a 2013 BBC drama of the same name, starring Michael Palin of Monty Python.