In February 1916, Captain Fred Roberts of the 12th Sherwood Foresters entered a building off the main square in what was left of Ypres and found a rubble-covered printing press abandoned amid the chaos and carnage of the First World War.
After dusting it down and enlisting the help of a sergeant who had worked as a printer, Captain Roberts and a close cohort of comrades set about producing The Wipers Times, a satirical newspaper produced for the Tommies, or PBI – Poor Blood Infantry – of the British Army.
Its rough-and-ready first edition was a masterclass in the use of comedy against industrialised death and military officialdom, which became its trademark. A front page editorial read: “There is much that we would like to say...but the shadow of censorship enveloping us causes us to refer to the war, which we hear is taking place in Europe, in a cautious manner.
“We hope to publish the Times weekly, but should our effort come to an end by any adverse criticism or attentions by our local rival, Messrs Hun and Co, we shall consider it an unfriendly act, and take steps accordingly.”
The Wipers – named after the British soldiers’ habitual mispronunciation of the shell-blasted Belgian town where the printing press was discovered – was one of more than 100 ad hoc news sheets and publications produced along the Western Front.
But the irreverent creation of Capt Roberts, assisted by his deputy editor, Lieutenant Jack Pearson, stood out – not least because, while most other newspapers were produced in the rear or even back in Britain, The Wipers was a truly frontline publication, produced by and for soldiers whose principal means of defence against a haunting sense of their mortality was to laugh at it.
At one point, its press – turning out spoof adverts for no-man’s-land real estate and witty verse – was working just 700 yards from the German trenches. The result was one of the most remarkable chronicles of the inhuman destruction, and the darkly effervescent humour, of the First World War and the daily lives of the men who fought it.
Produced at irregular intervals between 1916 and February 1918, the paper had an unvarnished, propaganda-free voice which has echoed down the ages – so much so that it was announced this week that the story of its creation is to be made into a BBC film starring Michael Palin, set to be screened for the centenary of the start of the war next year.
The screenplay for the production, also featuring Ben Chaplin and Emilia Fox, is co-written by Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, who spotted in the irreverent prose and poetry a forerunner of his magazine. Writing in a foreword of a recent collected edition of The Wipers, Mr Hislop said: “It is quite literally laughing in the face of death, with jokes about flamethrowers and gas attacks from the troops who were facing them. It is also very rude about senior officers, the home front and the organisation of the war.”
The paper was originally intended as a circular for Capt Roberts’ Nottinghamshire unit, but its popularity grew rapidly and it soon became distributed along the length of the front as the editorial team got on with producing a newspaper in the ruins of Ypres while under constant threat of German shells and bullets.
Capt Roberts wrote: “We lived in rat-infested, water-logged cellars by day and [the frontline village of] 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 [military engineer] Vaubin [sic]. Though why the dear old bird built a wall fifty feet thick to keep out grape shot – or whatever the Hun of the day threw around – is hard to say. However, God rest his soul! He gave us the only moments of security we had for three long months, and often we drank to his shadow.”
From the various locations along the front where the unit fought, the producers of The Wipers cranked out a stream of wit, wry observation and self-deprecation which social historians say is only now beginning to colour modern Britain’s understanding of the reality of the war.
One column, entitled “Things We Want to Know...” asked for the name of one “brunette infantry officer” who had cooked a consignment of carrier pigeons to send to a company commander along with the weekly wage bill for the Fancies – an Ypres brothel.
A no-man’s-land property advert read: “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.”
Poetry and cartoons were also a staple. One famous cartoon lampooned a textbook of questions that platoon commanders were expected to ask their troops by showing an officer brandishing a riding crop with the slogan: “Am I as offensive as I might be?”
One of dozens of pieces of verse submitted anonymously read: “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.”
Laura Clouting, the curator at the Imperial War Museum in London in charge of a new gallery showing life on the frontline during the First World War, said: “These papers are so valuable because they carry the voice of the ordinary soldier. It is cynical, at times bawdy and also shows a serious side to them.
“But above all this was a coping mechanism – everyone uses humour to defuse a difficult situation. These men were enduring the most extraordinary suffering and hardship, and one outlet was to joke at the unjoke-able. It shows they weren’t numbers, they were creative, funny, emotional human beings.”
Notwithstanding a tongue-in-cheek ban on the “insidious disease” of doggerel and a dig at exhortations to victory from headquarters which suggested the true number of the enemy was 16 men, the paper was not above delivering its own sombre verdict on the battles of Flanders.
In his final post-war edition, entitled Better Times, Capt Roberts, by now a decorated Lieutenant Colonel, wrote: “Although some may be sorry it’s over, there is little doubt that the linemen are not, as most of us have been cured of any little illusions we may have had about the pomp and glory of war, and know it for the vilest disaster that can befall mankind.”