THE WIPERS TIMES: A complete facsimile of the famous World War One trench newspaper incorporating THE ‘NEW CHURCH’ TIMES, THE KEMMEL TIMES, THE SOMME TIMES, THE B.E.F. TIMES, and THE ‘BETTER TIMES’



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Peter Davies, 1973  

Peter Davies, 1973, £3.75


Edited by Patrick Beaver


Foreword by Henry Williamson



The background


The book


Book cover








Although HW's 'Foreword' is not a major item in itself, it has its own intrinsic importance. It was certainly an honour to be asked to write a foreword for this prestigious reproduction of the famous First World War trench newspaper. The book itself is of imposing size, necessitated by the facsimile reproductions.


The original paper was produced under difficult conditions, with printing frequently interrupted by shellfire: the 'news' items and advertisements are as amusing today as they were then, and the paper proved a great morale booster for the troops.


The sad thing is that post-war Captain Roberts and his team were given no recognition whatsoever for their achievement and their names sank into relative obscurity. Today, however, they are remembered with the honour and respect due to them – in part because of this volume, but also because of the 2013 BBC TV dramatisation of the short lifespan of the paper and the circumstances of its production. Entitled The Wipers Times, the screenplay was written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. The script was also adapted for the stage, the first production taking place in September 2016.






The background:


HW was approached at the beginning of 1973, as recorded in his diary on 12 January 1973:


A publishing company in London want me to write a Foreword to proposed book of number of The Wipers Times – quarterly home-printed jokes etc. Produced on an old printing machine found in Ypres in 1917. I accepted this job . . . I am to have £75 for the Wipers foreword.


Two days later, on 14 January:


The gist of my preface – the Notes – is written on reverse (blank) side of Desk Diary 8-14 January 1973.



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That he wasted no time in finishing this and sending off a typed copy to his agent is shown by the next pertinent entry – on 25 January:


Mark Hamilton [his literary agent at A. M .Heath & Co] my agent writes: “I very much like your preface for Wipers Times, also Mark Barty-King of Heinemann thought highly of it too: 'Dear Henry, I am so pleased with this'”


(The reference to Heinemann publishers may have been because HW noted that he had sent with his typescript a copy of The Wet Flanders Plain, presumably thinking to get a new edition issued on the back of the Wipers Times kudos. Nothing seems to have come of this.)


On 1 February HW recorded the payment for the Foreword:


Preface to The Wipers Times paid to bank £67.50 [£75 less his agent's commission of 10%]


While HW's Foreword may tell a familiar story to readers well versed in his works, as always with his writing he took great pains over it, as is illustrated by his much corrected typescript:



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The Foreword as printed:



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The book also contains a very useful map of the Ypres area printed as the end papers:



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The book:


Apart from HW's Foreword and Patrick Beaver's Introduction, Notes and Glossary, this is a straightforward facsimile reproduction of The Wipers Times (first issued on 12 February 1916) and its five subsequent variations. There were four issues of The Wipers Times; four of The 'New Church' Times; one each of The Kemmel Times and The Somme Times; eleven of The B.E.F. Times, and two of The Better Times (the last issue dated 1 December 1918). This is not in fact the first facsimile edition: the first was published in 1918, and another published by Eveleigh Nash and Grayson in 1930 as The Wipers Times: including for the first time in one volume a fasimile reproduction of the complete series of the famous wartime trench magazines. There were other trench newspapers and magazines produced by other units; but The Wipers Times remains the best remembered of these today.


Following the BBC broadcast of the dramatisation The Wipers Times in 2013, The Times newspaper published on 21 September 2013 belated obituaries of Frederick Roberts and Jack Pearson, who acted as 'sub-editor', which we acknowledge as the main source of the information below.


The founder and editor of The Wipers Times was Captain (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Frederick John Roberts (1882–1964), of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, a Pioneer battalion whose men were trained as infantry but employed chiefly as semi-skilled engineers. In the summer of 1915 the battalion arrived in France in time for the Battle of Loos as a part of the 24th Division. Early in 1916 the Foresters discovered an abandoned printing press in the ruins of Ypres (widely known as 'Wipers' by the British soldiery, hence the title). A sergeant, a printer before the war, salvaged it, and with Captain Roberts as 'editor' the first issue of The Wipers Times was published. The print run was around 100, and copies were eagerly passed around from hand to hand. This is the first editorial:



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The name changes in the paper occurred as the battalion moved to different sectors of the Front, The 'New Church' Times being a reference to Neuve Chapelle. The two issues of The Better Times were published after the Armistice in November 1918. The Times obituary reports that: 'The first edition of February 12, of which Roberts remained most fond, was produced with a shortage of the letter "y" and "e" and interrupted by fierce shell fire. . . . The paper's humour was soldier's-gallows rather than seditious, its targets often as not the mindless optimists at home.' Hilaire Belloc was one such favourite, the journalist and war correspondent William Beech Thomas another ('Teech Bomas', mocked for his rose-tinted overly optimistic reporting). Those in uniform with poetic ambitions had special mention: "The Editor would be obliged if a few of the poets would break into prose as the paper cannot live by poems alone." General Plumer, no less, was quoted as saying that The Wipers Times was invaluable to sustaining morale.


Items 'could have a hard edge . . . striking black-humoured chords throughout the British sector'. One such example appeared in the issue for 26 February 1916, by 'Belary Helloc' [Hilaire Belloc]:


In this article I wish to show plainly that under existing conditions, everything points to a speedy disintegration of the enemy. We will take first of all the effect of war on the male population of Germany. Firstly, let us take as our figures, 12,000,000 as the total fighting population of Germany. Of these 8,000,000 are killed or being killed hence we have 4,000,000 remaining. Of these 1,000,000 are non-combatants, being in the Navy. Of the 3,000,000 remaining, we can write off 2,500,000 as temperamentally unsuitable for fighting, owing to obesity and other ailments engendered by a gross mode of living. This leaves us 500,000 as the full strength. Of these 497,250 are known to be suffering from incurable diseases. This leaves us 2,750. Of these 2,150 are on the Eastern Front, and of the remaining 600, 584 are Generals and Staff. Thus we find that there are 16 men on the Western Front. This number I maintain is not enough to give them even a fair chance of resisting four more big pushes, and hence the collapse of the Western Campaign. I will tell you next week about the others, and how to settle them.


Roberts was ably assisted by a fellow captain (later Major), John 'Jack' Hesketh Pearson (1886–1966). Both were fine soldiers and were each awarded the Military Cross in 1917 for 'Gallantry and Devotion to Duty'. In September 1917 Roberts was promoted lieutenant-colonel and commanded the battalion until the end of the war, with Pearson as his second-in-command. After the war he tried to find a job in journalism but was constantly rebuffed, despite his experience and achievements. Finally he reverted to his pre-war career as a mining engineer and emigrated to Canada. More successful was a regular contributor to the paper, Gilbert Frankau (1884–1952), who post-war became a popular novelist and short-story writer, though he is little read today.


Some sample pages:



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Book cover:



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Front and back flap panels:



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