“Far from being an official mouthpiece of the British war effort, The Wipers Times mainly featured poems, jokes and short articles satirizing the futility of trench life.”
IT’S BEEN SAID that war consists of long periods boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. However, some British soliders in the trenches of France in 1916 managed to put those lengthy stretches of down time to good use. A handful of officers and men from the 12th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters Regiment managed to create their own front line newspaper while they sat in the trenches. They called it The Wipers Times.
The paper was named for the British infantryman’s slang for Ypres, the town around which so much of the fighting on the Western Front took place. It was founded by a sergeant in the regiment, a printer by trade in civilian life, after he located an old newspaper press in an abandoned building.
Far from being an official mouthpiece of the British war effort, The Wipers Times mainly featured poems, jokes and short articles satirizing the futility of trench life. Light-hearted stories about shelling, bad food, the rum ration, sex (or lack there of), and trench rats were common to the paper. Much of the humour consisted of inside jokes that would likely be lost on anyone who hadn’t spent time in the lines.
Contributors to The Wipers Times wrote under pen names that poked fun at real wartime correspondents while others used initials like P.B.I, which stood for Poor Bloody Infantryman.
The magazine was famous for its phoney ads, ironic personals, and bogus real estate listings. One such item was supposedly submitted from the Germans under the name “Bosch and Co Menin”. It describes a parcel of land on “Hill 60” that commands an excellent view of the “historic town of Ypres”, which at the time would have been a bombed out ruin. Other adverts invited soldiers to take in a movie at the “Dead Cow Cinema” or an airshow by the Royal Flying Corps the author referred to as “The Flying Pigs.”
The satirical style of The Wipers Times has been described by some as the forerunner of such magazines as National Lampoon or The Onion. In his book, The Great War and Modern Memory, author Paul Fussell describes how ironic humour was a by-product of the disillusionment, cynicism and a mistrust of authority developed by soldiers during the war. These feelings went on to influence much of pop culture in the decades that followed the conflict, argues Fussell. Today, such satire is evident in everything from old Monty Python skits to television advertising.
The Wipers Times ran until 1918, but was often renamed as the 12th moved to different locations along the front. For a time it became the Somme Times, the Kemmel Times and even just the BEF Times. Publishing was temporarily interrupted by the German spring offensive in 1918, but was resumed at war’s end publishing some final issues under the more optimistic masthead: The Better Times.
Compilations and reprints of The Wipers Times have been published repeatedly over the years, most recently in 2006. This latest version was entitled: The Wipers Times: The Complete Series of the Famous Wartime Trench Newspaper.