Going Over The Top: War Correspondents

by David Flin

Local newspapers were a feature of life in Britain. Even quite small towns would have a local paper, informing the fairly small readership about things of local interest. Once the Race to the Sea was over, a new town, teeming with well over a million potential readers sprang up, and inevitably, several local newspapers sprang into existence to serve the very specific demands of this new readership.

Never before had the British Army gathered together in one place so many soldiers keen to read. It’s hardly surprising, given that it included the likes of Rupert Brooke, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, AA Milne, Raymond Chandler (an American author who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and served with the Gordon Highlanders. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up), and countless others.

Books and newspapers were devoured. Inevitably, the army started to generate literature of its own. From about 1915, trench journals or trench newspapers started to appear in ever-increasing numbers. They generally started as a single newssheet, and grew, sometimes into sophisticated productions rivalling professional newspapers of the time.

Many of these trench journals were produced in the rear areas, for obvious reasons, although they were written by and for men from the trenches.

There were dozens of these journals. The University Library at Cambridge includes at least 118 different titles.

These included:

- The London Scottish Regimental Gazette. - The Gasper (for the public schools battalions of the Royal Fusiliers). - The Mudlark (1/Bedfords). - The Minden Magazine (Lancashire Fusiliers). - Direct Hit (58th London Division). - The Dump (23rd London Division). - The Dagger (56th London Division). - London in the Line (56th London Division post October 1916). - The Dead Horse Corner Gazette (Canadian Division). - The Red Feather (6th Battalion Duke of Cornwall)

However, the two most famous of these Trench Journals were the Fifth Gloster Gazette and especially the Wipers Times of the 24th Division. The latter went by many different names as the division moved around. Both of these were produced in the front lines for the most part. The Fifth Gloster Gazette’s production was moved from the front lines to a rear area in mid-1917, and in late-1917, printing was done in Bristol.

The Wipers Times, however, was always produced in the front lines, with the sole exception of the final edition, printed in December 1918. The editor, Captain FJ Roberts, said that that it was generally produced “in a rat-infested cellar in Ypres, and for two months, the printing press was above ground and within 700 yards of the German trenches.”

The Wipers Times was made famous by the play of the same name, written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, and this comes highly recommended. The story of The Wipers Times is one of those stories that brings home the fact that the men in the trenches were human beings, and not just numbers on a tally board.

Captain Roberts led a patrol in February 1916, and discovered a printing press in a wrecked building in Ypres. By chance, the sergeant in the patrol had been a printer, so obviously, they recovered the press, and the sergeant restored it to working order.

Between February 1916 and December 1918, Captain Roberts and his editorial staff produced 22 issues of the journal, in between disturbances occasioned by their fierce rival, Messrs Hun & Co.

I’m sorry. Once you start reading some of the extracts, the style seeps into you. The trench journals were very much “bottom-up” publications, and quite different from the more modern equivalents, such as The Sandy Times, from the First Gulf War, which was very much a top-down official publication. These trench journals give the voices of people who were there, writing at the time, and not what people far from the scene think suitable.

One famous example, from The Wipers Times of July 1916, included a description of a dreadful disease afflicting many newcomers to the Salient: Optimism.

Are you a victim to optimism? You don’t know? Then ask yourself the following questions. (1). Do you wake up in the morning feeling that all is going well for the Allies? (2). Do you sometimes think that the war will end in the next twelve months? (3). Do you consider our leaders are competent to conduct the war to a successful issue? If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then you are in the clutches of that dread disease.

These journals didn’t print just humour, although that was a good part of them. They included announcements of decorations, promotions, and casualties. They often included advice, including explanations on how to fill in the army-issue correspondence card, or how to write to a prisoner-of-war in Germany.

There was also tongue-in-cheek advice, such as the need for a soldier, when standing to attention while holding a dead rat, to ensure that the creature’s tail was in line with the seam of the trousers.

What makes these journals so invaluable is that they give a clear insight into what the junior officers, NCOs, and privates thought of the war. It’s worth noting that it’s rare to find an editor or contributor above the rank of captain. Through these, we can get a very clear idea of what those who were actually fighting the war thought.

Pay was a constant theme. Some things never change. The Fifth Gloster Gazette set its readers a mock examination question.

A munitions worker works 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, and draws £5 pay per week. Compare the scale of pay of those who make the shells and those who deliver them.

The BEF Times (one of the many titles the Wipers Times went under) produced a poem on the subject.

Here’s to the lads of the PBI, Who live in a ditch that is never dry; Who grin through comfort and danger alike, Go ‘over the top’ when the chance comes to strike; Though they’re living in Hell they are Cheery and gay, And draw their stipend of just one bob a day.

It was a sore point with a lot of soldiers. Many of them had left well-paying jobs, and the Government refused to subsidise the difference in pay. The fact that a lot of soldiers had taken a sharp drop in pay in order to serve on the Western Front rankled, and the soldiers expressed their dissatisfaction.

The Wipers Times also gave useful, if not necessarily officially approved advice. For example, it gave comparative reviews of three brothels, the Fancies, the Poplar Tree, and Plug Street. It’s the sort of information that soldiers appreciate.

The Wipers Times being British, it is inevitable that discussions of the weather take place. Indeed, it managed to combine the weather with horse racing tips:

The PBI Wind Handicap: 5 to 1: Mist and Rain. 11 to 2: East Wind and Frost. 8 to 1: Chlorine and Phosgene.

Politicians were not immune from the target of these trench-bound correspondents. The Gasper satirised Asquith, then Prime Minister.

O Free Man and Noble Man Asquith! A peerless Peer were he! But he clings to the lime like a principle mime Spouting prodigiously. We may go to the wall, but were Asquith to fall ‘Twere a criminal tragedy.

The Labour politician Ramsay Macdonald didn’t escape unscathed. In August 1917, the Wipers Times (who else) described how Flamsey MacBonald had addressed a great Labour meeting, only to be heckled and booed: “Mr Flamsey only looked pained and surprised at the ingratitude of the working man who grudged him his self-appointed task of doing nothing at £400 a year.”

“Adverts” were common features. For example, The Wipers Times featured an advert certain to attract the attention of married men in the trench.

Has your boy a Mechanical Turn of mind? Yes! Then buy him a Flammenwerfer Instructive. Amusing.

Both young and old enjoy This natty little toy.

Guaranteed absolutely harmless.

Thousands sold.

Other topics that were of interest to these trench journals were rats, alcohol, and food. One story in The Wipers Times relates how a rat opened a tin of sardines, ate the contents, and then sealed the tin back up for the author of the piece to find. In a serial story Narpoo Rum spread over five issues of The Wipers Times (there was a delay in production during the series on account of the Staff thoughtlessly and without any consideration for production schedules of the journal, deciding to start the Battle of Passchendaele), a detective, Herlock Shomes, tracked down the miscreants who had caused a shortage of rum in the front trenches.

I’ve concentrated on the British Army thus far in the article. The phenomenon wasn’t limited to the British Army, however. The Bibliothèque nationale de France has examples of over 130 different trench journals, and is currently cataloguing another 70 titles. The Belgian Newspaper Catalogue also includes examples.

I’ve only been able to locate Die Sappe from the German side, but this seems to have been a long-lived journal, with at least 33 issues. Disappointingly, the only examples of American journals seem to be top-down productions produced for the AEF, rather than produced by the soldiers themselves.

What is clear from reading the journals of the different nations is that the soldiers in the trenches had a lot in common with each other. They had very similar concerns, expressed themselves in very similar ways, and had a very similar sense of dark humour. A Tommy, a Poilu, or an Alley Man probably had more in common with each other than they had with their respective politicians back home.

The trench journal was what it was; the voice of the ordinary soldier at the time. My time was considerably after this period, but I recognise the voice of Tommy quite clearly. The journals are part-funny and part-serious, cynical, self-deriding, and self-confident. They both reflected morale and helped sustain it.

The thing is, if you want to truly understand WWI, you need to get the authentic voice of the person who was there. It’s no good looking at the books, and knowing that on 1st July, 1916, the British Army launched an attack at the Somme, and by the end of the first day, had taken 60,000 casualties. That’s just a big number, and carries no emotional impact. It’s only when you get to know something of the individuals that understanding starts to come. Like the case of Lieutenant Cyril Winterbotham, who wrote the first three episodes of Narpoo Rum. Captain Roberts had to complete the last two episodes.

Lieutenant Winterbotham had been killed at Passchendaele.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow