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.