“No one is interested in the First World War”. That’s what my co-writer Nick Newman and I were told when we first pitched the idea of The Wipers Times to a film company six years ago. Now that the 90-minute drama is about to hit the television screens we’re really hoping that this turns out to be wrong.
I have been rather obsessed by the Great War and have made a number of television documentaries and radio programmes about it, but no story coming out of the conflict has appealed to my imagination more than the story of The Wipers Times. It is incredible and it is also true.
In early 1916 Captain Fred Roberts of the 12th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters was searching the bombed-out ruins of the Belgian town of Ypres for salvage materials to shore up the trenches. He and his men came across something unexpected – a printing press. They were about to smash it up when the sergeant, who had worked as a printer in Fleet Street, told Roberts that the press was intact and in working order.
Roberts then had the extraordinary idea of producing a newspaper, right there on the front line, despite what he called, with characteristic understatement, “the attention of Messrs Hun and Co”. It was probably not the most sensible decision in a war zone, but it turned out to be inspired.
Roberts appointed his friend and fellow officer Lieutenant Jack Pearson as the sub-editor and between them they went on to produce 23 issues of this remarkable publication, which was not, as you may have gathered, a serious journal of record, but a witty, humorous, satirical publication about the everyday reality of the war.
The Wipers Times was named after the British soldiers’ inability to pronounce Ypres properly and its black humour proved hugely popular with the troops. Its comic mix of spoof adverts, puns, limericks, songs, literary parodies and take-offs of newspaper columns, sweetened by sentimental poetry and prefaced by defiantly flippant editorials by Roberts (“Oh to be in Belgium, now that winter is here!”) offered a release from the misery of the conflict.
This was laughter, quite literally, in the face of death. Roberts (played by Ben Chaplin) was hospitalised after a gas attack and later corrected the proofs for The Somme Times (the title of the paper changed depending on where the Sherwood Foresters were deployed) in the trenches before the Battle of the Somme. He then went over the top, leading his men into one of the bloodiest days in the history of warfare and was awarded the Military Cross for Gallantry. That is some editor. Pearson (Julian Rhind-Tutt) also won the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.
No one could accuse these men of lack of courage however many jokes they made about how useless the staff officers were in HQ or how ineptly the war was being conducted.
I particularly loved the single question that senior officers used when inspecting troops, constantly worrying that the British soldiers were getting bogged down in the trenches and were not doing enough to attack the enemy: “Are we as offensive as we might be?”.
Roberts adopted this as a sort of motto for the newspaper and exhorted all his contributors to be as offensive as possible. This sort of subversive humour obviously went down better with some of the British High Command than others and there are references in The Wipers Times to both “the shadow of the censor” and to the editors’ gratitude to various high-ranking generals for their support.
One such thank-you was to a General Mitford, so Nick Newman and I decided to use his name for the character of a sympathetic officer played by Michael Palin who articulates the case for humour on the battlefield as a way of sustaining morale, and as a way of staying sane in an insane world.
But the truth is that we had to make up very little. All the incidents that do not seem credible are actually true. Roberts did meet Winston Churchill in the trenches, Pearson did set up a pub on the front line, the dramatist RC Sherriff who wrote Journey’s End was an occasional contributor to the paper.
As writers, Nick Newman and I are happy to admit that not only the jokes but much of the dialogue is taken from the pages of The Wipers Times and we were also able to incorporate material from an unpublished memoir, which the Roberts family let us have.
Nick and I have worked together for years producing jokes for the satirical magazine Private Eye and we were fascinated by the way that nearly a hundred years ago these two men came up with a satirical magazine full of jokes we could recognise and admire but in conditions that we could barely imagine. I think The Wipers Times is remarkable not merely as a contemporary, authentic voice of the trenches but also as an overlooked chapter in Britain’s comic tradition.
My suspicion is that Roberts and Pearson would probably have been too modest to accept this analysis and they made jokes at the time about writing down “the first thing that came into their heads”.
But the evidence suggests otherwise. Roberts wrote in an editorial: “Most of us have been cured of any little illusions we may have had about the pomp and glory of war, and know it for the vilest disaster that can befall mankind”. He also characterised his war effort as “wallowing in a ditch” but he and his fellow writers managed to produce something that was finer, funnier and more life-enhancing than should have been possible.
Both Roberts and Pearson fought right through to the end of the war, survived some of the fiercest fighting and doggedly kept going until they could optimistically retitle their newspaper The Better Times. But they found that peacetime Britain was “no place for heroes” and, sadly, no place for them. Roberts tried to get into journalism but was disappointed and turned to prospecting, ending up in Canada. Pearson went to Argentina and worked on the railways before marrying a local woman and inheriting a hotel. Pleasingly they both made it to a ripe old age and died in the 1960s, though neither received an obituary or any recognition of their achievement.
The Wipers Times is, however, their legacy and I hope we have done it, and them, justice. The publication had an occasional column in which the editors of the newspaper saluted their comrades, which was called “People we take our hats off to”. This included “The French at Verdun”, “The Canadians” or, less earnestly, “the officer in charge of the costumes of the Fancies” (two buxom French girls who put on entertainments for the troops). For Nick and I, there can be no one more deserving for inclusion in this very British list of all-time-hats-off-worthiness than Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson.
See The Wipers Times tonight at 9pm on BBC2