Masculinity, Myths and Morale: The Wipers Times

By Karla Thomson

“Paper was there, ink in plenty, everything in fact except ‘copy.’ As none of us were writing men, we wrote down any old thing that came into our heads.”

Fred Roberts, The Wipers Times, (1916)

If I was to ask you to describe The Wipers Times, the likelihood is it will evoke ideas about Tommy humour, laughing in the face of death and jokes. Indeed, it has been called ‘Blackadder for real’ and it really is very funny.(1) In its latest incarnation, in the hands of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, The Wipers Times became a successful, often touching comedic film. In the foreword to the 2006 collected edition of The Wipers Times Hislop himself said that it was ‘in the great tradition of British Comedy’.(2) This is where my interest was piqued, I read those comments and was immediately struck by two thoughts. Firstly, Blackadder was not real, he is a caricature made up from some of the worst myths of the Tommy, and The Wipers Times was most definitely written by real serving soldiers. Secondly, that was an awful lot of effort for comedy! These thoughts kickstarted my research into The Wipers Times and I soon realised it was able to offer more than jokes. The Wipers Times could also tell us more about masculinity, myths, and morale. 

The front page of the BEF Times, the name changed to BEF Times, one of the few interferences by the censor
(image: Wikimedia, The Wipers Times, issue cover December 1916 Wellcome L0031565.jpg)

My research led me to reading about trench journalism and morale in the war. Unsurprisingly, I found that trench journals were only being used to disseminate ideas about life in the trenches, bookended by the four years of fighting. Described but rarely analysed, trench journals offered a ‘bottom-up’ point of view of war from privates.(3) These journals were printed by the men in the war for their own morale, and this was the main function of The Wipers Times. The men needed that outlet, comradeship, opportunity to represent themselves and make sense of their life over there on the front lines. They produced The Wipers Times as an aide to their collective morale – which was so important they even (mostly) escaped the censor.  Morale was vital, the war was brutal. Fred Roberts and Jack Pearson (editors) seemed to know what was needed. All of this left me with unanswered questions about its origins, how did The Wipers Times come to be, in Fred Roberts words, in their heads? Trench journals were hugely successful, and The Wipers Times clearly had a value beyond the trenches and beyond the war. 

Fred Roberts, Jack Pearson and members of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters
(image: IWM Website, ID: 8620897, Connected by: Mara60295 )

I found, through research, that the origins of The Wipers Times was in pre-war masculinity and social values. In the way the men were socialised, in their literature, their influences and how they interacted with their peers. It became clear that The Wipers Times was part of the canon of Edwardian masculinity rather than the canon of British comedy. The origins are found in pre-1914 society, the post South African war emphasis on militaristic preparation and an Imperial Britain with its masculine heroes such as Kitchener and Baden Powell. All of this created a new masculinity distinct from their Victorian fathers. Those boys were growing up reading publications such as Scouting for Boys and The Boys Own paper and taking part in activities provided by the Scouts, the YMCA and the Boys Brigade and reflecting that upbringing in their trench journals. They shared a masculinity that was distinct, that was militaristic and structured, and that prepared them for a war they did not know was coming. This shared masculinity and mentality of the men who were living and working on the Western Front was expressed through their writing and also through their language. 

There are many enduring myths about the Tommy – such as lack of intelligence, a willingness to blindly follow orders, even illiteracy. The process of simplifying names, such as ‘Wipers’ for Ypres has become associated with the myths of brave but dim-witted men, much like Blackadder’s Baldrick, or in Hislop and Newman’s movie version in the character of Dodd. The title of The Wipers Times itself is an obvious example of this simplification but there are many more: Dicky Bush, Gertie Wears Velvet or Eat Apples (Dickebusch, Godewaersvelde and Etaples) to name a few. This was not purely a simplification to help them understand, it was far more significant than that. This was the men finding comfort and familiarity in blasted landscapes devoid of humanity; nothing to do with any lack of intelligence. Humour was also employed as a means of making sense of the senseless and finding a way to survive the experience. The place names were as silly as the jokes and spoofs in The Wipers Times, and both were vital for the men. They were cleverly quoting Alexander Pope and satirising Arthur Conan Doyle. The Wipers Times tells us that these men were intelligent, thoughtful, were finding comfort in their surroundings, and were being comforted by the trench journal that also had echoes of their childhood literature. 

The last thought I had was if, as had been assumed so far, The Wipers Times was just for fun, why on earth were they allowed to use time, men and resources to transport an early Edwardian printing press miles around the Western Front? We have established morale was important, but this was something more than that! This was time, equipment, space and sourcing ink and paper in at least 7 major battlefields. This was as much a part of surviving the war for the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters as their guns and their rations. Why else would they have been permitted to take that old Cropper printing press to the Somme, Ypres and Loos? 

The ‘Editorial Sanctum’ front and rear view of the ramparts where the 12th Battalion were based
(images: Roberts, Fred; Pearson, Jack., (ed) The Wipers Times, Collected Edition (London: Nash and Grayson, 1930))

The Wipers Times has so much more to tell the reader than just jokes. This collection of Edwardian documents ought not be reduced to simple comedy when they clearly have a far more complex and interesting narrative. The Wipers Times should be elevated to a significant source of historical information which has, so far, been a little overlooked. 

References:

(1) Roberts, Fred and Pearson, Jack., (ed) The Wipers Times, Collected Edition. Foreword by Ian Hislop (London: Little Books Ltd, 2006), pvii.

(2) Roberts, Fred and Pearson, Jack., (ed) The Wipers Times, Collected Edition. Foreword by Ian Hislop (London: Little Books Ltd, 2006), pvii.

(3) Holmes, Richard., Tommy, The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918 (London: Harper Collins, 2004), p607.


Seal, Graham, The Soldiers’ Press, Trench Journals in the First World War (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Meyer, Jessica, Men of War, Masculinity, and the First World War in Britain (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Tosh, John, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd, 2005).

Wilson, Ross J., ‘Tommifying the Western Front, 1914-1918’ Journal of Historical Geography, 37 (2011), pp. 338-347.


About the Author

I graduated from the University of Derby in 2021 with a Masters in History. During my time at the university I developed my passion for all history, but particularly the First World War. My dissertation was on The Wipers Times where I researched at depth the notions of Edwardian masculinity, myths of the Tommy and morale and how that was reflected in the trench journal. I am currently training to be a history teacher in secondary schools, where I hope to pass on my passion for our subject. 

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