Life at the front was extraordinarily dangerous for the PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry), but trench newspapers clearly show that Tommy Atkins fought dread with humour.
Many have no doubt heard of the ‘Wipers Times’, the satirical trench newspaper run out of Ypres. ‘Wipers’ derives from the British soldiers’ bastardisation of the town’s name.
Less well known is the period magazine 'Blighty', the name British soldiers used for Britain. To get ‘a Blighty’ was to receive a wound serious enough to warrant one being shipped back home where, of course, they’d be safe.
Sold in Britain, with Field Marshal’s Douglas Haig and French, as well as Admiral Jellicoe and Vice-Admiral Beatty, as patrons, the cover proudly proclaims that ‘EVERY COPY SOLD SENDS THREE TO THE TRENCHES’.
Paper was expensive, and each print run of 100,000 copies would cost £400 (£32,000 in today’s money).
As is the case today, ads also featured to help pay for production, with protective watch face covers for wrist watches and fountain pens - both useful for men in the trenches - featuring alongside Bovril, Lipton tea and Wolselsey Motors.
Much of the material, produced by fighting men themselves, revolves around common themes.
In many instances, the enemy is even brought into the jokes. One fake concert program lists absentee telegrams that were received from:
“(German) CROWN PRINCE (Rupprecht): ‘Unable (to) attend, busy retaking Verdun’.”
And another one from the common German soldiers:
“FRITZ: ‘Regret am too busy Somme-where else’.”
This theme extends into particular cartoons, as shown below:
In another section, one comic strip entitled ‘Official Reports’ uses military language to lampoon everyday situations:
As one might expect from men fighting for long periods away from home, women feature in many of the cartoons:
Day-to-day military life is also a source of amusement.
In a portion titled ‘Society Gossip’, one article reads:
“Last night I had the honour of dining with the junior subs of the “Mudshires,” a merry crowd.
"I noticed that most of them had acquired a Charles Chaplin moustache and the regulation Army drawl.
"One of the most junior subs confided to me that strict discipline could not be enforced unless one possessed the above necessary adornments of modern Army life.” (i.e. a moustache).
Another one reads:
“The rats that inhabit the trenches are very docile and very clever. Recently one of them relieved a man of the “Northshires,” who felt a little seedy, and kept a look-out for two hours, now and then firing the rifle as to the manner born.
"Several staff officers, passing along, never for a moment imagined that the tall figure in the greatcoat was a rat. Wonderful!”
Again, this also extends to various cartoons:
Those at home are also the butt of jokes: “Very few people are aware that when a bullet is fired from our Lee-Enfield rifle, the firer has no control over the bullet after it leaves the muzzle of the rifle.”
“In strict confidence I may also mention that 15-inch (artillery) guns are rarely carried on aeroplanes.”
Another common theme is the tank, which of course made its debut at the Somme in September of 1916.
Cartoons portray both ridiculous science-fiction-like models as well as stone-age versions of the tank and German Krupp artillery guns:
But it wasn't all humour. There is a love story, poems to mothers and lovers at home, and one article in the 1917 edition gives an insight into colonialism.
Named 'The "Soldier Man" in the Soudan', it shows the British trying to make sense of racial variations in Africa:
"These Acholi are not in the least like the ordinary African. They are small people, and are very slender and graceful... If you changed the colour of their skins their features would mostly pass as English."
Late-19th Century Europeans often had an obsession with, and wrong ideas about, race. The writer certainly pays very close attention to the minutest features:
"They have delicate, clear-cut features, firm, clean chins, straight noses, with frequently good bridges, and no trace of splayed nostrils, often thin lips and upright foreheads--and all of them have the most winning and delightful smile."
Part of what seems to inform this, though, is the fact that the British are involved in arbitrating local and domestic disputes (and thus, they need to know how to distinguish between different groups).
The example given sets the scene by describing a locally-raised Sudanese soldier standing to attention in the orderly room, "very smart and stiff in uniform", which the writer says is in sharp contrast to his appearance three weeks before, when he'd joined up, at which point he'd been "absolutely stark!" (naked).
The young soldier's father-in-law paid five sheep to a local magician so that his daughter might have a large family, and he wishes the young man to pay him back. The case was dismissed, the writer tells us, because the new husband had already paid fifteen sheep when he'd married the girl.
It isn't clear to what extent, if any, the article is invented or exaggerated for the sake of humour. However, since the writer, 'Yeo', has an administrative as well as a military position, it does, as mentioned, give us a glimpse into British imperialism.
Heavier material like Yeo's account of the Sudan is balanced out by whole pages of ads, songs and illustrated rhymes.
One of these is called 'Ten Little Soldier Boys' and goes:
"Ten little soldier boys, going up the Line; One got a 'Blighty', then there were nine." (A Blighty was a wound that would get one sent home).
"Nine little soldier boys, stopping out late; One saw a 'Red-Cap' (military policeman) - then there were eight.
"Eight little soldier boys looking up to Heaven; Fritz dropped a bomb on one, then there were seven.
"Seven little soldier boys in a rotten fix. One, he tried to swim it (the Channel), then there were six.
"Six little soldier boys, very much alive; One ate his 'Pork and Beans', then there were five." (Griping about food was common, but the British were far better off than the Germans).
"Five little soldier boys, all exceeding raw; One, he wondered what it was, then there were four." (A comical picture shows a soldier being blown up by a bomb).
"Four little soldier boys, happy as could be; One had some Vin Blanc, then there were three. (One of them is passed out on wine).
"Three little soldier boys, going down a Rue; One saw Madam'selle, then there were two." (One soldier walks away with a girl on his arm).
"Two little soldier boys, leaching Fritz to run; One didn't see the hole, then there was one." (A soldier falls into a ditch; and then the last one dies of shock when he sees a civilian reading a newspaper with the headline 'War Finished'):
"One little soldier boy, hears all is done; He couldn't stand the shock, then there was none."
Laughing at death is perhaps the most common theme.
One article describes the famous 1914 Christmas truce, and those that came after.
The writer, a John Cockburn, says:
"You will, no doubt, remember how, on the first war Christmas, we spent an enjoyable time fraternising (description a la press).
"That means to say that we visited their trenches and told them (the Germans) what we thought of them, and explained in detail our intentions for the following spring. Perhaps it is just as well that they did not understand English."
"On the second year we each made a strafe during the forenoon, the intensity of which rapidly died to a nonentity after our Christmas dinner of rum and biscuits had been dished out and consumed. The third year we strafed all day and part of the night as well, just to show the Huns that the friendly spirit in which we had undertaken to teach them a lesson had not diminished with the years.
"The menu for this, the fourth Christmas Day, commenced with shrapnel flavoured with aircraft pepper, included an unsavoury course from the gas detachment, and concluded with some nasty remarks by the Light Artillery section, who nobly upheld the traditions of festival speech-making by continuing for five hours at a stretch."
As well as articles like this one, it also featured in several of the illustrations:
The response to death was not always laughter though.
In 'A Rear Rank Private', MJJ Sullivan remembers his friend Bill:
"He was just a rear rank private, With a private's tendencies
"For standing at attention When he should have been at ease;
"And he wasn't much to look at From the ladies' point of view,
"But for getting into trouble, Or at most ungodly stew
"I have never seen his equal Tho' I sail the seven seas,
"Trouble rode upon his shoulders Like some grim and dread disease."
Bill, a newcomer, is innocent but completely likeable, and soon shares rations and work with his new mate.
When the writer is ambushed and strangled by an enemy soldier, Bill proves himself not just a good friend but an effective soldier:
"Have you seen the lightning flashing 'Cross the peaceful evening sky?
"Have you seen the grey hawk swooping On his victim from on high?...
"Have you seen the patient tabby With her sleek and sleepy eyes?
"Have you seen her tiny victim As she hits him by surprise?
"That's the way Bill made his entree,, And the fellow that gripped me
"Found a bayonest in his midrif Where his supper ought to be."
The melee continues, with the writer losing his rifle and going for another, he finds a German barring his way.
Bill leaps to the rescue again, but is impaled on the man's bayonet:
"I watched him draw the rifle, But before the point was made,
"Like a flash Bill jumped to save me, And lit square upon the blade.
"When I'd finished with the German I lifted 'Old Bill's' head,
"As I held him in my arms I could see that he was dead.
"Well, I acted kind of childish then, For a man with all my years,
"But I felt a whole lot better When I wiped away the tears."
The writer digs a grave and erects a cross for his friend, then pays his last respects:
"As a big gun in the distance Boomed out his funeral knell,
"I knelt a moment by his side And said my last farewell.
"With the foeman dead around him Where his feet last pressed the sod,
"In a ground-sheet close I wound him And I left his soul to God.
"There's no medals to his honour, Just a wooden cross instead,
"But he's marching with the heroes In the vanguard of the dead."
Material taken with kind permission from reproductions of ‘Blighty’ magazine Xmas editions for 1916 and 1917, published by the Imperial War Museum.