It was Ypres, early 1916, and the Sherwood Foresters were stationed near the front line. An abandoned printing press was discovered virtually intact in a hedge. With a little bit of tinkering, a couple of hastily thrown together replacement letters that were missing, and some scrounging for ink and paper, Captain Fred Roberts was about to undertake one of the most famous icons of the Great War… The Wipers Times.
The Wipers Times has become synonymous with that great British tradition, humour in the face of adversity. The press was set up in one of the town casements, which Roberts had appropriated for his “Officer’s dug-out” and with the rapid employment of Lieutenant Jack Pearson as Sub-Editor, the Wipers Times was born. Initially comprising just a few sheets of dubious quality type, consisting of tongue-in-cheek digs at the Staff, the Germans, the workshy – in fact pretty much anybody could be a target – bogus ads, and parodies of Theatre Productions, the newspaper was soon circulating around the trenches on and passed from one Tommy to another, all for the bargain price of a few coppers.
Pretty soon contributions were flooding in, and the Wipers Times increased its articles to include jokes, poems, an advice column (all very heavily satirical) and public notices. A regular contributor was novelist and poet Gilbert Frankau who joined the war effort as a commissioned officer at the outbreak of war, first with the East Surrey Regiment, later transferring to the Royal Field Artillery. Despite several moves, each one incorporating its name into the title of the publication, and a few changes of press, the Wipers Times continued production for the majority of the latter half of the war, suspended only when activities became too urgent for the print runs to go ahead.
At the end of the war, following the Armistice, a further two copies went to press, one entitled ‘Better Times’. The Wipers Times proved such a popular production with the lads on the ground, despite heavy opposition from the men with the desks, who tried more than once to prevent its release, that in subsequent years the copies were reproduced in a volume format, and eventually a complete works which has enjoyed several print runs over the years.
In 2013 a film was made entitled “The Wipers Times”, and follows Captain Roberts after the war as he tries to gain employment in the Newspaper Industry, as a Journalist but is only offered a position compiling crosswords. His past as the editor of the Wipers Times comes to light and he later moves to Canada. Meanwhile Lieutenant Pearson is living in Argentina. Both men lived until the 1960s.
In 2014, two original copies of the first two publications of the Wipers Times came to light and were put up for sale on EBay.
I have read and re-read the Wipers Times several times over the years, and although some of it relies heavily on ‘Forces Humour’, which is often misunderstood by those who have never had the “misfortune” to serve, I guarantee you if you persevere, it is fantastically funny and gives a good insight into how those faced with the daily trauma of life on the Western Front dealt with the harsh realities of war. If you ever get a chance to read it, do so. You won’t regret it.