“In this article I wish to show plainly that under existing conditions, everything points to a speedy disintegration of the enemy.We will take first of all the effect of war on the male population of Germany. Firstly, let us take as our figures, 12,000,000 as the fighting population of Germany. Of these, 8,000,000 are killed or being killed, hence we have 4,000,000 remaining. Of these, 1,000,000 are non-combatants, being in the navy.
Of the 3,000,000 remaining, we can write off 2,500,000 as being temperamentally unsuitable for fighting, owing to obesity and other ailments engendered by a gross mode of living. This leaves us 500,000 as the full strength. Of these, 497,250 are known to be suffering from incurable diseases. This leaves us 2,750. Of these, 2,150 are on the eastern front, and of the remaining 600, 584 are generals and staff.
Thus we find that there are 16 men on the western front. This number, I maintain, is not enough to give them even a fair chance of resisting four more big pushes, and hence the collapse of the western campaign.”
~~ Proof That We Are Winning The War, by Belary Helloc ~~
The above short article is taken from the Great War satirical magazine, The Wipers Times, and is indicative of the dark, satiric humour used by this, and many other trench publications, to use comedy in a cathartic role against the grim reality and fear of imminent death every second of every day.
The Wipers Times was a trench journal aimed specifically at the men in the front line hole: it`s purpose was to defuse the tension and conditions of war by ridiculing and exaggerating them beyond the limits of normality. Of course, nothing is “normal” about war, especially a conflict which rewrote the manual in it`s throw away attitude to human life: the Great War was the first major conflict where mass extermination of the opposition was fully mechanized.
Into this bleak, impersonal meat grinder of human souls, stepped the trench journals with their endless succession of “in jokes” which produced knowing nods from the men, and drew them closer together, as they read, and laughed at shared experiences of the insanity that surrounded them.
Sharing their experiences and private jokes, hi-lighted their exclusivity as a cohesive unit and separateness from other groups, including the home front. The Wipers Times enjoyed an extensive readership and longevity: it functioned from February 1916 until just after the war had ended, and was circulated throughout the Western Front. Although it was known to have been edited by Lieut-Col F.J. Roberts, who later received the Military Cross, the authorship of The Wipers Times remains uncertain. It`s name derived from the British soldier`s inability to pronounce the French word Ypres, from where the printing press had been salvaged from the rubble, and all submissions were encouraged.
“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 members of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters who first stumbled upon the printing press at Ypres, produced their publication irregularly and under different names (dependent upon where the unit was stationed) for the two remaining years of the war. The editorial team gleefully turned inspecting officer`s worries about the aggressiveness of the British Tommy in attacking the enemy against them……………….
“Are we being as offensive as we might be?”
The answer was of course quick in coming from the editorial team: Roberts adopted this as a motto for the paper and encouraged his contributors to be as offensive as possible. Some members of the senior British High Command not only saw the joke, but the benefit of such publications, but others did not, and there are references in the paper to “the shadow of the censor” as well as gratitude to some senior generals for their support.
At some points in it`s existence, The Wipers Times was being produced less than 700 yards from the German lines, and were under constant threat of shells and bullets heading in the general vicinity: Roberts later wrote that……….“We lived in rat-infested, water logged cellars by day and (the front line 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 grapeshot – 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.”
The trenches of Ypres was an unreal, unholy mess of featureless rubble and an extraterrestrial lunar landscape of craters filled with water, spent artillery shells and human bodies. It was a world of exclusive masculinity which sported such names as “The Grimsby Chums”: whole regiments were made up of local men who had lived in the same village, town or city area with each other, and here they now were, dying together, smashed into a shapeless, bloody pulp, in a primeval, blasted heath created by endless artillery bombardment.
“Together we had fought and fed.
Our hearts were light.
But now you`re dead;
And I`m mateless.”
The Wipers Times was produced surrounded by a world of exploding shells, mud, disease, gas and death, but it`s pages contained a resolute dollop of hearty cheerfulness, despite the circumstances, by men who exhibited an air of incipient insubordination and contempt for the senior officers and system responsible for the mindless carnage around them.
It`s a triumphant story of the wonderful warmth, and resilience of humanity, and the unique British sense of humour literally under fire. it was funny, sad, and at the same time, peculiarly British in using tongue – in – cheek humour to defuse a difficult situation.
Fred Roberts in his closing comments in the last publication summed up the whole sorry mess of warfare……….
“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 the glory of war, and know it for the vilest disaster that can befall mankind.”