The Wipers Times (belatedly)

A couple of months ago, I tweeted this in response to the publicity surrounding a new television drama co-scripted by Ian Hislop and starring Michael Palin as a First World War general. That drama was The Wipers Times, which has now been broadcast, several weeks ago, and I can only apologise for the delay caused by pressure of work which means it is no longer available on iPlayer for anyone in Britain who may have missed it.

As the comments on my original tweet forshadowed, I am forced to eat my words because, as a historical drama, it was, I thought, very good indeed, mainly because it didn’t attempt to represent itself as historical realism.  Rather it adopted the tone of the trench journal which was its subject to represent the war as seen by the Wipers Times.  Here I want to particularly commend Ben Daniels as a stereotypical brass hat blowhard, the very stereotype I was so concerned about, played to the point of exquisite caricature, beautifully illustrating the way in which trench journals such as the Wipers Times satirized the absurdist situation in which the men who created them found themselves.  Far more than the music hall interludes, with their nods to ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’ and the excesses of cabaret culture, Daniels’s performance (and that of the more sympathetic figure played by Michael Palin) illustrated how our view of the war has been distorted by a tendency to define all wartime behaviours in black and white terms.  No one in reality could be either so blindingly stupid or so wittily sympathetic as the characters these two actors portrayed. Only as satire do they make sense.

In general, all the performances were excellent, although Emilia Fox’s role as a loving wife was more or less superfluous.  And my only potential historical criticism relates to some mumbling on the part of Julian Rhind-Tutt who made what I assume was meant to be ‘red tabs’ (staff officers) sound suspiciously like ‘red hats’ (military policemen), an entirely different, if equally loathed group of authority figures.  But it was a good drama and, for the first third, very funny indeed.  After that the humour became repetitive, and the shift of focus almost exclusively to the officers meant a loss of the voices of the ordinary soldier.  While the tone towards these men was generally condescending, mocking the ignorance and unsophistication of the young British working class man, this was an accurate reflection of the language used by many trench journals which were as class-bound as so much else in British culture during the war.

The increasing staleness of the humour as the drama continued may seem like a criticism, but it is not.  It too is an accurate reflection of trench journalism.  For anyone who has spent any time reading such journals, and those produced in prisoner of war camps and hospitals, this growing staleness is all too familiar. It reflects the fact that (pace all those television reviewers who referred to the public school humour of the publication) these publications represented the humour not of the upper-middle classes (although this was well represented) as much as that of the institution.  The result is a predominance of in-jokes which, to the outsider who is not caught in the institutional setting, be it a hospital, a prison or a military unit under orders, seem either inexplicable or dull.  The trajectory of the drama captured this beautifully, with the only duff note being the uncharacteristic injection of sentimentality and 20/20 ‘foresight’ in the scenes depicting Fred Roberts, the originator and editor of the Wipers Times, at home with his wife on leave.

In the end, it was not the drama itself which troubled me as a First World War historian, but the response of television critics after its broadcast, an number of whom implied that the Wipers Times was worthy of note because it dramatised the viewpoint of a unique publication and, as such, stands as a necessary corrective to more sombre commemorations of the war.  In fact, as I have suggested, it was one of a number of such publications which treated the trials and tribulations of warfare (including serious injury and the loss of liberty) as subjects of humour and absurdity.  Some 800 such journals have been collected by Cambridge University Library.  Nor was it only periodicals that adopted this tone.  Herman Cyril McNeile, better known as ‘Sapper’, wrote a number of short stories which were published for propaganda and recruitment purposes by The Daily Mail, which also adopted an amused, flippant tone in their descriptions of life at war.  For anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend George Simmers’s excellent essay on facetiousness in wartime and post-war writing (which does a far better job of teasing out the class dimensions of this literature than I have done here).  And for anyone want to read more institutional war time journals, Sue Light’s blog of the Gazette of the 3rd London General Hospital, Ward Muir’s Happy Hospital, gives an excellent idea of what can be found in that extraordinary organ, including contributions from C.R.W Nevinson, later a war artist, and Stephen Baghot de la Bere, the cartoonist.  Nor were British the only servicemen to produce trench journals.  Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau’s Men at war, 1914-1918 : national sentiment and trench journalism in France during the First World War(translated by Helen McPhail) and Robert L. Nelson’s German Soldier Newspapers of the First World War present a transnational picture of bottom-up morale building during the war.

So The Wipers Times ended up not only proving itself an enjoyable drama, but also the source of considerable reflection on popular understandings of the war. While reviews of the programme expose some of the limits of public knowledge, my previewing comment exposed the limits of my own.  It provoked a very interesting discussion with the historical adviser to the programme on the limitations inevitable with creating drama out of history, particularly on the sort of budgets provided by the BBC.  I am now training myself not to complain about the misrepresentation of roles until I consider how a limited cast is being deployed to cope with sheer lack of numbers, and not to judge a popular television programme by its publicity.

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Back to School

This blog has had a bit of a summer holiday.  Not a complete holiday, lazing in the sun and recharging batteries; two weeks of toddler illness and the start of big school for my eldest rather put paid to that.  But here we are at the beginning of the new term.  Marquees are going up around campus to help welcome the new students; language students no longer clog the lifts and staircases in the building that houses my office; my husband and I are slowly getting used to having a schoolboy in the house and to the lunacy of a morning routine that now involves a 30-minute school run and an evening routine of making packed lunches.  There is a chill in the air; I have sorted out the winter woollies (thereby guaranteeing a heatwave in the near future); I was seriously contemplating the advisability of gloves on the walk to work this morning.  Yes, autumn has arrived; the new school year has started.

I love the excitement of the start of the new school year.  As an academic I have never really left it behind in terms of the annual rhythms of my life. This year that excitement has been rather more stress-laden than usual, what with the need to help launch the first of my progeny on his own voyage of academic discovery. He seems such a frail craft at this stage, and the oceans of academe are indeed mighty from the vantage point of reception.  Winds have been set fair so far, but I am sure there will be squalls ahead.

In the meantime, the map of my own voyage through the term is filled with exciting potential destinations and discoveries.  Up first is the return of the Leeds Legacies of War seminar series, this year bigger and better with additional funding from the Schools of History and Modern Languages, as well as the Leeds Humanities Research Institute.  We have even managed to be organized enough to produce a term card this term:

LoW Term Card (2)(This is slightly false advertising as at least two of the seminars are going to have to move to larger venues but we haven’t been able to confirm where with central booking yet. More details will be advertised closer to the time.)

On a more specifically medical line, I am organising a workshop on the history of medicine and the First World War in Europe on 17th and 18th October.  More details can be found here, although I am afraid I have had to close registration due to the number of people who have already registered.  Full reports will, of course, follow, and I hope the workshop will lead to more exciting projects in the future.

Further afield, the terms looks to be a busy one for travel. At the end of the month I will attending the International Society for First World War Studies’ conference on Encountering the Other in Wartime in Paris and in November I am off to Ypres for the In Flanders’ Field Museum’s conference on War and Trauma.  There will also be a trip to London in my role as postdoctoral research fellow on the Legacies of War ‘Discovering First World War Heritage’ project and various trips to Salford and around the Yorkshire region for research and (whisper it) possibly broadcast purposes.

In between, I have a fair bit of writing to do: a couple of articles, draft chapters for the book proposal and, of course, keeping this blog up-to-date.  Writing it all down is fairly intimidating on the one hand, but enormously exciting on the other.  Like my son, I am embarking on a voyage, not into the unknown as he is, but certainly to destinations far enough on the horizon that I cannot clearly discern their shape and form.  It should be quite a journey, and I do hope you will accompany me, at least some of the way.  It is always good to have traveling companions.