AS the number of casualties soared humour became an increasingly important way of coping with the horrors of the First World War.
The ever present threat of death and dismemberment brought out a dark comedy among soldiers on all sides. It ranged from self-deprecating Christmas cards littered with puns to more ghoulish habits like shaking hands with corpses in the constantly churning mud.
Others would salute a dead body they stumbled across, not out of comradeship but mockery – mocking them for being dead, and also the wretched war itself.
Such anecdotes sound macabre but it was a way for many soldiers of dealing with the obscene reality they faced on the frontline.
As the war progressed a number of trench journals sprang up containing a mixture of jokes, poetry and spoof adverts blended with a heavy, often near-the-knuckle, dollop of satire.
One of the earliest of these was The Salient, a satirical magazine produced by British troops in Ypres at Christmas in 1915. Its front page carried an advert for a concert by “The Fancies” – billed as “the only known cure for trenchitis”, while inside the US president Woodrow Wilson was pilloried as “Wouldn’t-Row Wilson”.
Dr Jessica Meyer, a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the school of history at the University of Leeds, says these journals were important for morale. “The officers and Army chiefs might not have liked them but they realised it was a good way for soldiers to blow off steam, because it was better than facing a mutiny.”
Cartoons offered another way of laughing in the face of death and one man in particular who made a name for himself was Captain Bruce Bairnsfather. His collection of cartoons featured a host of scruffy, stoical characters like Old Bill and Bert and Alf who used humour as a way of deflecting everything the war, and the army staff, could throw at them.
“He poked fun at the Army chiefs and he was encouraged to do so,” says Dr Meyer.
“His cartoons were seen by people at home as well as by soldiers in the trenches and there’s no doubt they helped boost morale.” So much so that Bairnsfather was later referred to as “The Man Who Won the War.”
The butt of most soldiers’ jokes were the Army bigwigs and the improbable adverts found in magazines and newspapers at the time. “There were a lot of in-jokes. Newspapers carried adverts for things like rain-proof lighters and aunties were encouraged to send bullet-proof vests to their nephews in the trenches, and all this was satirised in these journals.”
The most famous of these trench journals was The Wipers Times, first produced in 1916 by members of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters based at Ypres. Among its many spoof adverts was one for a “Combination respirator and mouth organ” that was guaranteed to “brighten even the worst Gas attack”.
Dr Meyer says that different experiences yielded different kinds of humour. “The mud of Passchendaele provoked a grim sense of humour that was different to the reactions to the Somme and the flies in Egypt. But the underlying irony behind them was similar.”
It’s something that still exists in war zones today. “If you speak to servicemen and women who were in Iraq and Afghanistan they would talk about a similar unit humour. During the First World War soldiers would name some of the trenches after places back home, like Piccadilly Circus, which was at a junction on the Ypres Salient.
“This happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, too, where troops would come up with names for some of the regular outposts. It shows how humour helps soldiers cope with the fear and boredom of being at war.”