The Wipers Times: forgotten heroes

The soldiers find a printing press

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman would be the first to agree that much of the credit for their play belongs with the writers of the satirical magazine. But it’s a worthy homage to a forgotten but important fight for freedom.

Comedy and World War One are two things you rarely find together. Great though plays such as Journey’s End and Birdsong are, they’re heavily themed on slaughter and misery and not exactly a barrel of laughs. Where you do get comedies, they tend to be cynical things of the style of Blackadder Goes Forth where chaps get sent charging into machine-gun fire with General Melchett types going “Jolly good show! I’ll see you get your Victoria Crosses.” Under such depictions, you’d be forgiven for thinking that jokes were cancelled from 1914 to 1918. But this is the backdrop to The Wipers’ Times, considered by many a predecessor to Private Eye.

Little wonder, then, that Ian Hislop would choose to champion this, first as a TV series, later as a play. But there is surely another reason why this story is so close to his heart. It was a very important victory for freedom of speech. 100 years earlier you could publish disrespectful cartoons of the ruling class that could get you killed in another country. In 1916, however, press freedom was a joke. Papers on the home front were little more than government propaganda outlets, giving absurdly optimistic accounts of the war and badgering everyone to sign up, alongside trivial stories about which outfits the landed gentry wore this week. The last place one would believe something off-message would be printed was on the Western Front, where insubordinate soldiers were often short-lived. But believe you must, for against all expectations it ran until the war ended.

This, of course, is a review of the play and not the magazine it’s about. But the two come quite close to being the same thing. Lots of the lines are lifted straight from the magazines – and not just the sketches the re-enact articles from the mags. Even in the scenes where the story of the magazine and the men who made it heavily lifts from the jokes of the Wipers Times. True, it does take a few liberties with reality, and no soldier would ever be that quick-witted with their quips all the time, but end result is something unique. There’s plenty of sharp cynical humour written about the Great War after the event – but this play is the actual humour of the men on the front. Gallows humour, perhaps, but their gallows humour.

But it’s not all fun and games. The writers of the Wipers Times suffered losses as much as anyone, and those tributes made their way into the papers, which in turn found its way into the play. If there’s one thing I had to fault with the play, it was that it hammed this up unnecessarily. One poem from the mag, written by a solider who lost his friend, was read out quite late in the play, and to hammer the point home that this is the serious bit, scenes of world war one graves were projected in the background. You don’t have to do that – that people and the other tributes were moving enough as they were without these prompts.

As director, Caroline Leslie had a more thankless task than usual – with the glory going to the magazine first and the writers second, it was one of these plays where the director’s contribution is only noticed if you screw up. The best you can hope for – as what happened here – is for the play to pass smoothly without incident. But it’s only fair to appreciate how complicated a production this was to get right, with numerous scenes both in and out the trenches. Although these staging techniques might have been derived in part from Birdsong, which rose to a similar challenge first, when it works that well you can’t complain.

What is most interesting about the story is how this magazine managed to say what it said at a time when virtually no other paper dared utter a word out of line. No-one really knows the full answer to this; the top brass in the British military knew about this – of course they did, The Wipers Times was far too popular for them to not find out – but no-one knows for certain what they thought of it. The theory given in the play is that different officers had different opinions, but the argument that won was that lifting the spirits of the men on the front was worth the endless ribbings that both they and the more conformist papers back home were subjected to. Whatever the reason, this magazine can be regarded as one of the most important historical victories for freedom of expression, showing that when all other forms of dissent are repressed, humour can win through.

With so much of the warmth and humour coming from the pages of this magazine, it can be argued that the credit belongs not to the writers The Wipers Times the play but The Wipers Times the magazine. And it’s not me arguing that, it’s Ian Hislop and Nick Newman who consider themselves more facilitators than writers. But this is a forgotten chapter of history that needs to be remembered for what it achieved, and if it took Hislop and Newman to give this the commemoration it deserves, all the credit for doing so.

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