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The comedy of war

05 September 2014

WAR is not considered a laughing matter. But The Wipers Times did what it could to mock and make light of hell's gates.

The Wipers Times was a magazine published by British soldiers on the front line in the First World War. In early 1916, the 12th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters was stationed at Ypres, Belgium. There, they came across a printing press abandoned by a Belgian. A sergeant, who had been a printer in peacetime, restored it to working order. The paper was named after Tommy slang for "Ypres", and featured the portrait of a chinless platoon commander clutching his cane and wondering "Am I as offensive as I might be?" This became the strap line.

It was not normal journalism, of course. On one page of the paper, the editor, Fred Roberts, says in the footer: "Have you ever tried correcting galley proofs under fire? You should try it." And Roberts was not just an editor; he also found time to win the Military Cross for gallantry, shortly after producing a magazine at the Battle of the Somme.

Two friends of mine, Nick Newman and Ian Hislop, recently made a drama out of the Wipers Times archives for the BBC. They are the energy behind Private Eye, and felt particular admiration for this blend of satire and bravery. "I think it's a particularly British thing, that we tend to laugh in adversity," Nick said. "It's about the triumph of the human spirit in adversity. It shows how a group of men managed to survive the First World War by trying to make as light of it as possible.

"There are some very subversive jokes, some satirical jokes, and some very silly jokes. . . Hopefully the audience will be genuinely surprised how this body of men reacted to the horrors of the First World War."

One common response seems to have been to write poetry, which drew this dry response from the editor: "We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry. Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other, absently walking near the wire in deep communication with their muse.

"The Editor would be obliged if a few of the poets would break into prose, as the paper cannot live by poems alone."

Poems were published, however, including this one: 

The world wasn't made in a day,
And Eve didn't ride on a bus,
But most of the world's in a
sandbag,
The rest of it's plastered on us.

War reporting tends to stay with the horror, deeming all else disrespectful. But the truth is a more many-coloured thing; for beneath the thunderous noise of missiles, like an underground stream in a desert, is the quieter peal of laughter.

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