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. Continue reading