There are a lot of myths surrounding the history of reading. From time to time, we aim to correct historical misconceptions that have entered the realm of received wisdom. This one relates to the most celebrated trench newspaper to be printed on the Western Front during the First World War.
The title of The Wipers Times is a combination of the soldiers’ common parlance for Ypres and a scatalogical joke about its ultimate destiny, the pages filled with clever humour and subversive jibes at the ‘expense’ of officialdom. Its notoriety is due largely to its subsequent circulation during the war in facsimile, issued by the London publisher Herbert Jenkins, and in several editions since. Among other duties, Jenkins was an informant to the Official Press Bureau whose archives indicate that from the beginning of the war Jenkins clandestinely reported to the authorities on the activities of his book trade colleagues. On 31 March 1916, he had written to the Bureau to say that ‘If at any time I can be of any assistance, I hope you will not hesitate to make use of me.’ Shortly afterwards he sent the Bureau a list of publishers and newspaper proprietors for closer government scrutiny. When he applied for permission to reissue The Wipers he assured the Bureau that it had been cleared by the censors before its original appearance, ‘each and every number’ having been ‘submitted to and approved by the Army Authorities in France.’
This is very different from the popular story that has tended to exaggerate the subversive nature of the Wipers. The story told by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman in the 2013 docudrama, for instance, presents it as the epitome of subversion, a real-life combination of Oh! What a Lovely War and Private Eye. In fact its closest affinity was with the society magazine, The Tatler, with which it had humorous sport in both of their correspondence columns throughout the war years. Its pages may be peppered with jocular references to the censor’s incursion, lending the paper an ironic air of mock insubordination, but, in practice, The Wipers was far from subversive.
Trench journals were not just tolerated but were sanctioned as part of the campaign for morale, both at home and at the front. They often portrayed themselves to their readers as autonomous, home-grown anarchic publications but they were regarded by the authorities as an outlet for potential discontent. The fundamental role of such magazines, observes Graham Seal, was to engender the ‘willingness of soldiers to endure the palpable insanity to which they were consigned by forces beyond their control.’ Three decades and a world war later the debate was still raging about the political efficacy of a free press among allied troops. In the face of Churchill’s attempts to impose a more patriotic and conservative tone on newspapers ‘produced from below’, surviving censorship reports indicate that ‘what troops liked was not necessarily what senior military figures believed should be given to them.’ Despite their employment of a dissenting tone, many understood that such publications were actually good for building esprit de corps. In giving voice to the disaffected, through irreverent jokes about commanding officers and frank satires on day-to-day conditions, front line print culture offered a public sphere that provided catharsis, or what Field Marshal Montgomery, who gave a free hand to such publications in the 1939-45 Eastern campaign, referred to as a ‘valuable safety valve’.
Before he published his facsimile, Jenkins approached General Haig to write a foreword. That he declined is not necessarily evidence of the old man’s disapproval but that it might have compromised one of the most sophisticated kinds of frontline propaganda deployed by the authorities in the First World War.