THE BBC ANNOUNCED last week its plans to produce a television drama about the celebrated First World War trench newspaper The Wipers Times.
The film, which will star Ben Chaplin, Emilia Fox and Michael Palin of Monty Python fame, tells the story of how a handful of British soldiers fighting in France recovered an abandoned printing press and used it to produce their own satirical newspaper.
The Wipers Times, which was the subject of this MilitaryHistoryNow.com article from 2012, was named for the bastardized Tommy pronunciation of the town of Ypres. The paper was produced from 1916 until the armistice, during which time it famously lampooned the absurdity of trench warfare. Its ironic and cynical tone, while something of a tonic for war weary soldiers, raised eyebrows among senior officers many of whom would have preferred to see the paper shut down.
The Wipers Times featured faux news stories written under ludicrous pen-names, along with poetry, humorous letters to the editor, and even mock advertisements from the enemy. Soldiers wrote and edited the paper in their off-duty hours and frequently suspended publishing when fighting on the Western Front intensified.
While The Wipers Times may be the most famous trench newspaper in history, it is certainly not the only one. Consider these:
The Canadian War Museum maintains a collection of editions of The Dead Horse Corner, a self-described “monthly journal of breezy content” produced beginning in 1915 by the 4th Battalion of the First Canadian Contingent to the BEF. A similar publication was The Listening Post. Like The Wipers Times, these Canadian trench papers provided troops with a welcomed alternative to official military propaganda and the laughably upbeat civilian press. Army commanders monitored and sometimes even censored the quasi-subversive papers, but ultimately recognized them as morale boosters and stopped short of shutting them down.
According to the University of Pennsylvania, which maintains its own collection of trench newspapers in its library, soldiers of the French army had their newspapers too. Publications like the 359th Infantry Regiment’s Le Pépère or the L’Esprit du Cor of the 66th Infantry were popular among soldiers. In fact, as many as 200 different newspapers were produced in French trenches, about twice as many as the Brits published, say curators of the collection.
The university also shows that the American Expeditionary Force had a number of soldiers’ own newspapers as well, like The Mess Kit (a full 20-page copy from the 1919 post-war occupation can be found online here). It features first-hand accounts of action on the Western Front as well as poems, columns and essays on everything from army food to fraternization with French women.
It’s unclear if German soldiers had their own trench newspapers (if anyone knows of any, please add details to the comments below). However, the Kaiser’s armed forces did produce at least one publication that it directed at enemy troops. America in Europe featured short articles and cartoons most of which suggested that doughboys fighting in France were dying needlessly in a largely British war.
Soldiers’ newspapers weren’t just a feature of life in the trenches. Prisoners of war often turned to publishing as a way of whiling away the long months and years spent in captivity.
American and British fliers confined to the Stalag Luft I in Germany produced a 2,000-word daily newspaper right under the noses of the camp guards. Dubbed the POW WOW, which stood for Prisoners of War Waiting on Winning, the paper wasn’t satirical, but a serious source of genuine news about the war. Stories were gleaned from copies of Third Reich papers smuggled into the prison as well as updates on the Allies’ progress brought in from newly arriving prisoners. A radio hidden in one of the barracks also provided fodder for articles. Printed using a contraband typewriter and improvised carbon paper, copies were secretly distributed among inmates to be read in small groups and then destroyed. Eventually, the POW WOW was expanded across seven camps in Germany, despite the best efforts of the Nazis to shut the papers down. The underground newspaper even broke a number of major stories for the prisoners – including details of the D-Day landings and the liberation of Paris. While few copies survived the war, some can be found at this website dedicated to the airmen interned at the German Stalag.
Not all POWs enjoyed the luxury of printing equipment – many had to produce their newspapers by hand. Le Heraut was founded in 1914 by French soldiers held by Germans at Zossen. It featured stories and impressive illustrations all copied out longhand.
Confederate prisoners of war interned at Fort Delaware also produced their own hand-written newspaper. The Prison Times, which began its run in April 1865, featured coverage of the surprisingly diverse inmate community that had sprung up in the massive internment camp. Publishers even printed advertisements from the handful of barbers, laundry services and other businesses launched by enterprising captives. A page of The Prison Times appears in the recent Harold Holzer book, the Civil War in 50 Objects and was featured in June on Slate.com. The editors favoured coverage of literature and the arts over any sort of firebrand political commentary.