Tag Archives: wipers times

A Bloody Picnic: Tommy’s Humour 1914-18 by Alan Weeks

Alan Weeks is a very good social historian of the First World War on the Western Front. Having already reviewed his look at the Wipers Times, I have been looking forward a great to getting my hands on this book. First off, its a pleasure to read a book that isn’t big enough to sink the Bismarck! Given the book’s topic thats quite appropriate – wouldn’t it be ironic to read a book about Tommy hunour that was so big and wieldy that it could sink the Bismarck!

There are some fantastic stories here. Weeks has looked at virtually every aspect of humour at war, including general cheerfulness, comedy, officer-men relations, attitudes to commanders, pantomimes, humorous incidents, sex, weather, lice, rats, letters, songs, drinking, animals and the live-and-let-live system. This wide range of subjects gives us an indication of just how prevalent humour could be throughout life. It’s not difficult to imagine that humour actually made bearable what was quite a grim life. Humour could not win the war on its own, nor could it take away from the grievous casualties. But would the western front have been tougher without some light moments? Almost certainly.

There has always been something about the British Tommy that finds dry humour in even the most miserable of circumstances. And given the British military’s propensity for finding itself in miserable circumstances, this is no doubt a very useful trait. Its something that filters through to British society in general – dry British wit, as evinced by the archetypal Butler, has even been referenced in the Simpsons, of all places. I’ve read of examples of ‘Tommy humour’ during the Napoleonic Wars, which is appropriate given that the name ‘Tommy Atkins’ originates from this time.

This is a very important addition to the historiography of the western front – Alan Weeks must have spent years compiling these anecdotes. I won’t even begin to cover them all, but heres a few tasty morsels for you all:

Two of Private Webb’s comrades were killed by a grenade. An officer enquired as to what had happened… Private Webb was a good cricketer. ‘Blimey, whats happened sir’, he responded cheerfully, ‘is one over, two bowled’. Then he glanced down at the mess where he once had a leg. ‘And I’m stumped sir’.

One Sunday morning, Corps Command instructed Thorp to aim at four targets in quick succession. He chose Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The 6/Connaught Rangers were carefully coached before the arrival of a General to inspect them… they were particularly instructed on what their precise function in the Battalion was. The General asked one Ranger, ‘are you a Catholic?’, to which the man replied, ‘no sir, I’m a Rifleman’.

In front of the MO, one sapper was asked ‘have you been circumcised?’, to which he replied, ‘Oh no sir, thats just fair wear and tear’.

‘French girls are nice to sleep with, but not as good as you my wife. I miss you very much’.

A Bloody Picnic is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, social history, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

The Riddles of Wipers by John Ivelaw-Chapman

Wipers

I’m a big fan of social history. Which isn’t always an area of study that sits easily with military history. Too often in the writings about wars and battles, we hear all about the Generals and the politicians, but not about the ordinary fighting man. Yet ever since men fought each other, the human impact of conflict has been sigificant. So why is it that we rarely hear about it? What puzzles me is that there are plenty of sources available to study the experiences of the fighting man during wartime.

Perhaps one of the most incedible of these sources is The Wipers Times. A typically British corrupion of the pronouncation of Ypres. This book by John Ivelaw-Chapman serves as a very useful introduction to this uniquely British institution.

The back of the book describes The Wipers Times as ‘the Private Eye of the Ypres Salient’, but I would argue that it was much more than that. Although it was edited by a Battalion commander of the Sherwood Foresters, its contents were almost completely contributed by rank and file Tommies. Hence there was something uniquely democratic and representative about it – nothing is lost in translation. At times cryptic and couched in Edwardian sensibilities, and its riddles can take some deciphering – hence the title of the book – but that was the language of the time. To take the language out of the message would be to take The Wipers Times out of context.

It demonstrates a typically British sense of humour, in its poetry and cartoons. It tells us much about the men who shaped it, and their views on the War, the British Army and the World. Whats more, its not some kind of ‘top-down’ view, but in their own words, and their own language. A lot of myths have built up regarding Trench Warfare in the Great War, and book such as this are very important at helping a degree or reality to shine through.

This book is well illustrated with pages from The Wipers Times , and some interesting and illuminating analysis from Ivelaw-Chapman. Perhaps at times the text does not flow easily and maybe we do not need to know so much about the authors own experiences – The Wipers Times speaks for itself.

But never the less, books such as this make a very important contibution to our understanding of the social history of warfare. To listen to a lot of historians, we would think that the average Tommy was constantly worrying about whether Haig was a good General. Mud, Gas, Shells, Fear, Courage, Humour and Bitterness probably occupied Tommy’s mind much more.

The Riddles of Wipers is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, World War One