Friday, 6 October 2017

Do you suffer from optimism?

The Wipers Times play

On Wednesday 4 October, I went to see The Wipers Time at Northern Stage in Newcastle. Written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, it tells the story of the trench newspaper through Captain Fred Roberts of the 12th Battalion (Pioneers) Sherwood Foresters. He was the real life editor of the paper after his company found a printing press in a bombed out building in Ypres. The paper, first printed in February 1916 and running for 23 issues until just after the armistice, was a satirical look at the war from the boots on the ground. In the play's programme, the writers say 'history had a very different view of the war from of the editors of The Wipers Times, who celebrated the camaraderie, absurdity, and tragedy of life in the trenches, often on the same page'.

Hislop and Newman's story of the paper was initially brought to the public on television. First aired on BBC 2 in September 2013, this version starred Ben Chaplin, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and Michael Palin.

The play is bookended by Captain Roberts trying to get a job at a newspaper after the war. The main story is told in chronological order, interspersed with skits and spoof adverts as appeared in the newspaper itself. The skits took place at the front of the stage with a cabaret style curtain dropped down behind. The adverts were enacted at the back of the stage, above the 'trench', framed by barbed wire lit with fairy lights. To modern eyes, it's not hard to spoof the adverts of the day (and of course the writers' Private Eye magazine means they themselves are not strangers to it), one was a cure for optimism, and another was for a duckboard that would spring your commanding officer away. 
Advert for Sloan's Liniment from the Durham Advertiser, 1916
Advert for Sloan's Liniment from the Durham Advertiser, 1916
Within the dialogue of the play, as much taken from the words of the men themselves, the voice of Ian Hislop also comes across, and a Lieutenant Colonel has a hint of Blackadder Goes Forth about him. But the play is in the spirit of the paper, the laughter occasionally punctuated by poignancy: the captain is gassed, a friend killed, a wife back home. The lieutenant colonel, not happy about The Wipers Times, says to his commanding officer 'The war is not funny sir', to which the general replies 'I have a feeling that may be the point'. We've all experienced a moment where if you don't laugh, you'll cry, though hopefully in less enduring circumstances than the men at the front.

Of course, it wouldn't be a piece of entertainment about the First World War if it didn't show the men 'going over the top', but 12th Battalion, as a divisional unit of the 24th Division were on the Somme during the Battle of Delville Wood. An effective moment in the play came when the men went over for a second time, to find the Germans already out of action, overcome by their own gas when the wind changed, as smoke drifted away from the stage and over the audience. 

The play certainly drew laughs from the audience, including myself and my Durham at War colleague. I felt it was good to see a different aspect of the war (the same view the Head of History at the BBC held when he commissioned the TV film), one that we on the project knew existed from the letters and diaries we have read. There is no denying by anyone that the war was a horrific, the men suffered, but they also laughed.
Captain TB Heslop of 6th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, left in a photograph taken at Kemmel, 1915 (D/DLI 2/6/10(379)), and right as drawn in The Whizz-Bang, January 1916 (D/DLI 2/6/32)
Captain TB Heslop of 6th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, left in a photograph taken at Kemmel, 1915 (D/DLI 2/6/10(379)), and right as drawn in The Whizz-Bang, January 1916 (D/DLI 2/6/32) 
The Wipers Times was not the only, nor indeed the first trench newspaper. The first issue of the Dead Horse Corner Gazette was published by the 4th Battalion of the Canadian Contingent of the British Expeditionary Force in October 1915. In fact, 6th Battalion Durham Light Infantry had their own trench newspaper The Whizz-Bang, the first issue of which came out a month before The Wipers Times. It ran from January 1916 for eight issues until November that year. The following is from the first editorial:

The Editor has put his foot down, and we, the Sub-editor, quelled by that last shout of his, “Write the ---- thing yourself,” slowly and regretfully suck our indelible pencil and wonder how to spell ‘Editorial’, even as the last recruit comes sluggishly to ‘shun’ at the bell-like tones of the sergeant-major.

It is notoriously the aim of all first editorials to answer the question “What are you there for?” which the suspicious public hurls at all who rush hot-headed into print. But it is not our intention to attempt to justify our existence, or to apologise for it. Like our namesake, here we are, without reason or warning…

The contributions which are collected here are the work of spare time, of which the dirty weather and dirtier Bosch do not give us a very large allowance, and they are thrust upon the world with no pretensions to literary merit… To all we bring greetings, and our work is done if we can but remind them that, even in the greatest of shadows, we can still, by the grace of Heaven, face the future with a smile.

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