Ypres toasts the memory of the men who raised a smile in the trenches

The First World War 'Wipers Times' is commemorated by the opening of a Belgian brewery in the ramparts of the once ruined city
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The Independent Online

The anonymous British author hunkered down in the bombed-out ruins of Ypres, or enduring the horrors of the Western Front during the First World War, knew a thing or two about soldiering. In his poem satirising Kipling's If, he sketches out the skills a man needs to survive military life.

These range from the practical ability to "crawl through wire and crump-holes reeking, with feet of liquid mud", to more stoical skills such as a tolerance to "the beer the Belgians sell you". Now the Belgians are opening a brewery on the site of a wartime newsroom, and sparking renewed interest in a unique tale from Britain's First World War history.

In 1916, a group of British officers stationed in the ramparts of Ypres discovered a printing press among the ruins of the Belgian city. Under the editorship of Captain Fred Roberts, they launched The Wipers Times, a satirical newspaper which managed to keep publishing for two years and was read across the Western Front by soldiers in desperate need of some light relief.

"It was very black humour, with the officers even laughing at themselves, and it became an instant success among soldiers who were fighting in the trenches," says Marco Passarella, the sales and marketing manager of the Kazematten brewery, which has taken over the site.

"To know that it was printed right here in this location, it made sense to do something with that."

Today, parts of the ramparts which served as the officers' sleeping quarters and newsroom look more like a modern bar, with restored cobbled floors, a line of beer taps, and black and white images on the walls. It is not the stench of mud, unwashed bodies and printing ink that fills the damp and cavernous space, but the more pleasant aroma of hops and spices.

Earlier this year, the brewery moved in the kegs and kettles, and the first bottles of Wipers Times beer hit the shelves in April, with exports already making their way to Britain.

For the founders, respecting and promoting the history of the site is as important as selling their new brew. Closer inspection of the black and white images on the walls reveals that they are historical shots from the ramparts, with men in military uniform standing against the smouldering backdrop of a city on the frontline.

"The whole of Ypres was bombarded, so nothing was still standing," Mr Passarella says. "If you went on top of these ramparts you could see all the way to the other side of the city – there were no houses in between."

Julie Depypere, a co-manager of the brewery, says that the dark, humid environment of the ramparts – originally built to protect a 17th-century fort – deterred most commercial ventures, and the city was unable to find a partner to restore the site and open it to the general public.

But it turned out to be a perfect spot for brewing, and now it opens its doors every Saturday, offering tourists and locals a video history, a tour of the site, and of course a tasting of Wipers Times beer. "It's very important to us that it has history, that it has a soul here," Ms Depypere says.

The beer's logo is an illustration of a soldier taken from the pages of The Wipers Times ("Wipers" was Army slang for Ypres). There is a book at the site, which contains every edition of the newspaper; it had satirical editorials, humorous poetry from the trenches, and spoof adverts. An award-winning dramatisation by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman of Captain Roberts's discovery of the printing press in the ruins and the publication of the newspaper was shown on BBC 2 last year.

The timing of the beer launch is particularly fortuitous, as, in common with many countries, Belgium begins four years of commemorations marking the centenary of the First World War.

Peter Slosse, director of tourism in Ypres, says that visitor numbers in the area have leapt from an average of 350,000 a year to a projected 750,000 this year.

Mr Slosse is sensitive to claims that the area is "cashing in" on the centenary. The local government has issued guidelines to businesses, urging them to remain historically accurate and focused on respect and remembrance. "The Wipers Times beer is a good example," he said. "They are in that location. The historical link is not invented."

Given the fondness for references to their favourite tipple in The Wipers Times, Captain Roberts and his fellow satirists would probably raise a glass to the initiative, too.