“But Kultur’s Nar-Poo in the Trenches”

Advertisement from the Wipers Times, Apr. 17, 1916.


Members of the British Expeditionary Force seemed to conduct their stay in the vowel-rich territories of Belgium and Northern France during the First World War as an extended “sounds-like” game: the villages of Étaples and Godewaersvelde became Eat-apples and Gertie-wears-velvet, and the tavern in the village of Plug Street (Ploegsteert) sold the local white plonk known universally as “vang blang” (vin blanc). The handiest malaprop of the war, however, was “Nar-Poo” or “napoo.” Extracted from the French negative Il n’y a plus, it could mean “no good” or “there are no more,” or it could refer to any state of general oblivion.

Thus the German representatives at the 1918 Armistice were imagined wailing, “Ach Himmel, Deutchland uber alles, napoo” by the anonymous authors of the Wipers Times, a trench journal written and printed by British soldiers stationed in Ypres, Belgium (Wipers being an anglicization of Ypres). 1 In 23 issues printed over three years of punishing labor and combat, the editors and contributors to the Wipers Times poured out an astonishing flood of poems, literary parodies, mock advertisements and editorials, absurd plays and fake war journalism. This variety of production mimicked that of the newspapers the soldiers read in the trenches (Sketch, Tatler, Daily Mail), but the Wipers Times‘s range of tone can be unnerving: a sentimental ode to Jim the rat-catching terrier might sit next to a gallows-humor skit about being bombed by one’s own artillery, and be followed by a matrimonial advice column for high-strung veterans. Even more unsettling than the cacophonous quality of its disparate offerings is the proximity the Wipers Times established between horrifying events and the jokes lampooning them.

On Mar. 11, 1916, the editor of the Wipers Times, Captain Fred Roberts, a 32-year-old mining engineer, attended an academic demonstration of a flamethrower held by the British General Staff for its field officers. The German flammenwerfer was first used extensively in 1915 against British trenches near Ypres, and was just one of the military devices that the war brought to full flower, others being poison gas, machine guns and tanks. The flammenwerfer was a particularly terrifying weapon, capable of projecting flaming liquid in streams of up to 20 yards, but the one acquired for the British officers’ demonstration apparently did not work. Nine days later, the front page of the Wipers Times asked in banner font:

Has your boy a mechanical turn of mind? Yes!
Then buy him a FLAMMENWERFER—
Instructive—amusing . . . Guaranteed absolutely
harmless. Thousands have been sold.

The particular flammenwerfer inspected by the officers was nonfunctional and “Absolutely Harmless,” but Fred Roberts used the technology quite effectively later in the paper as a means to abruptly kill off the surplus characters in “Narpoo Rum,” a serial melodrama, which, presumably, he had grown tired of writing:

Should there be a few characters not dealt with in this Chapter the reader must understand that they all met their deaths in the liquid fire attack. —The Author

Wipers Times writers achieved their unique, dissonant tone by constantly displacing the vocabulary and idiomatic trappings of peacetime concerns (advertisement, property rights, insurance, self-improvement, fashion) into the theater of war—a well-worn metaphor that the editors loved literalizing. Every issue begins with a breathlessly advertised theatrical extravaganza, which might be held at the “Menin Gate Cinema” or the “Dranoutre Electric Palace,” venues named after sites of especially brutal battles near Ypres. One advertisement bragged that “50,000 Artistes have been engaged to produce this colossal work, at enormous expense.” Such a “screaming farce” might be titled “Stuck in a Gum-Boot,” “The Empty Jar: A Rum Tragedy,” “Peasants Leaving Hooge,” or “All Is Not Dead That’s Dirty.” In recommending a spectacle billed as “MINED—a most uplifting performance,” the paper advised readers to “Book ahead to avoid disappointment.” Notice was also given that “this week that stupendous film play GAS Will be Released.” Ypres’s Cloth Hall, a magnificent 13th-century secular building which the war reduced to rubble, was a favorite venue, known as “the best ventilated Hall in the Town,” where one could “See all the Stars.”

By framing the war as if it were a production in London’s West End, the editors dodged the expected use of the “theater of war” metaphor. Rather than using the theatrical binary to highlight differences between the Germans and the British, the editors used it to dramatize the growing chasm between soldiers and the fictional “audience” addressed by many of the paper’s articles: civilian Britain, which was so close to the Belgian battlefields that Londoners could hear the most massive bombardments. With its matinee shows, insurance schemes, self-improvement courses and sartorial anxiety, the home front seemed increasingly callous, cushy, maudlin and absurd—as absurd as the war itself. Although the paper continually spoofed the army’s maddening military bureaucracy, its most zealous mockery was reserved for domestic archetypes: bloviating war correspondents who collected big paychecks for misleading the public and never got near the front (“I’ve talked to a General! I won’t tell you what he said but you can take it from me the war is over”), society ladies and their charitable aspirations (providing “Warm Woolens for War-Worn Walloons”), and the growing legions of war entrepreneurs whose profits were carefully noted by “Lieutenant” Samuel Pepys, the famously frugal Restoration-era diarist whom the Wipers Times imagined sharing in the financial concerns of the trenches: “Sardines are up two pennies the tin, which is a scandal, it occurs to me that there may be much profits accruing to some persons.”

The enthusiasm for war that swept Europe’s young men into its armies in August 1914 had curdled into disillusionment or grim recommitment to the war’s purposes—and sometimes both. Poet Robert Graves famously described the soldier’s “two irreconcilable beliefs: that the war would never end and that we would win it.” In early 1916, at the beginning of the Wipers Times‘s run, the war had been in progress for a year and a half. The representatives of culture who had joined up in large numbers were dying: painter August Macke was killed at Champagne in September 1914, and poet Rupert Brooke succumbed to an infected mosquito bite in April 1915. Käthe Kollwitz’s youngest son, Peter, died in October 1914 after only two days at the front. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in June 1915, and by July the small avant-garde magazine Blast had published its last issue with his declaration from the trenches: “My views on sculpture remain absolutely the same,” followed by a black-bordered note: Mort Pour la Patrie. By the summer of 1915, Max Beckmann had had a nervous breakdown, and Georges Braque had suffered a serious head wound for which he had been trepanned.

The atrocity and bloodletting of the war’s early years ignited the nihilist fury of Zurich Dada, the Wipers Times‘s exact contemporary. Roberts was no nihilist; he wanted to chastise, not to dismantle civilization. But there is significant overlap between the Wipers Times‘s absurdist approach and will-to-criticize and the strategies and targets of the artists who operated out of the Cabaret Voltaire. Jean Arp recalled the beginnings of Dada in Zurich in 1915: “While the thunder of the batteries rumbled in the distance, we pasted, we recited, we versified, we sang with all our soul.” 2 Recounting the same period, Marcel Janco said: “We had lost faith in our ‘culture.’ Everything had to be demolished. We would begin after the tabula rasa.” 3 The sight of “culture” in rubble was a familiar one to Fred Roberts, who describes the origin of the Wipers Times:

Our paper was started as the result of the discovery of an old printing-house just off the Square at Wipers. Some printing-house and some square! There were parts of the building remaining, the rest was on top of the press. The type was all over the country-side, in fact the most perfect picture of the effects of Kultur as interpreted by 5.9’s ever seen.

At the same time that Duchamp invented the readymade, pulling objects from the junk piles and hardware stores of everyday life and positing them as fine art, Roberts pulled an abandoned printing press from the ruins of Ypres, a city blasted apart by heavy 5.9-inch artillery shells, and used it to print a “fake” paper, a soldier’s paper in civilian drag. Just as Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), a snow shovel suspended from the ceiling of his studio, critiqued received notions of art and not necessarily snow shovels, the Wipers Times critiqued the bromides and insincerity of the British home front and not necessarily the war’s purpose or justness. In their respective efforts, both Duchamp and Roberts held up crucial parts of their own identities for skeptical and sustained examination: Duchamp’s identity as a maker of art and Roberts’s identity as a Briton.

Some of the aspects of the Wipers Times‘s style and critical approach that link it most strongly with Dada are also those that underscore the publication’s identity as a soldier’s paper. Roberts’s battalion was the 24th, the Sherwood Foresters, from the industrial Midlands of England. Most of the men were miners or, like Roberts, mining engineers. The Sherwood Foresters were a “pioneer” battalion, which meant that their primary job was to repair and drain trenches; in other words, they were charged with the nearly impossible task of keeping their fellow soldiers dry and sheltered in “several feet of Belgium’s best” (the legendary mud). Much of the absurdity in the Wipers Times plays on the simple means they had to achieve their Sisyphean duties. These include “duckboards,” the raised planks placed at the bottom of trenches in the hope that they would keep its occupants out of standing water. The slapstick potential plays out in an advertisement for “PATENT TIP DUCK BOARDS,” an instrument that “HARASSED SUBALTERNS” could use to avenge themselves upon their company commanders.

Other novel inventions tailored to the peculiarities of trench existence include a “Combination respirator and mouth organ” that will “brighten even the worst Gas attack,” and the eminently Duchampian “Improved Patent Combination Umbrella and wire cutter,” an assisted readymade of sorts—about as useful in practice as a bicycle wheel inverted into a stool—which came in gold, silver and “ordinary” versions, promising “no more colds caught cutting the wire.”

As molars across Europe ground with the conviction that this had to be “the war to end all wars,” the Wipers Times continued to cheerily announce other benchmarks of progress: the breeding of “khaki hens” so soldiers could enjoy a source of fresh eggs, and proposals to carpet the trenches, or at least install linoleum.

The spirit of improvement extended not only to trenches but to the soldiers themselves. Given the number of references that appear in the paper, it seems the line officers of the 24th were constantly required to attend lectures detailing the latest technological advancements and leadership theories. (Roberts’s encounter with the inoperable flammenwerfer was just such a meeting). One fed-up Wipers Times contributor remarked, “If you are depressed, but that’s not at all likely, go to a lecture,” because sitting in the glow of the “magic-lantern” provides “a few quiet moments to instruct your pal what to do with your corpse.”

It was a conversation that every soldier had to have. The escalating casualties included many artists and writers: Franz Marc, founding member of Der Blaue Reiter, died in 1916 at Verdun before the government’s order to reassign him to safer duty reached him. The Futurist painter and sculptor Umberto Boccioni died after being thrown from a horse and trampled. Walter Gropius, who later founded the Bauhaus, was nearly killed in 1916, as was painter Fernand Léger. In 1917, T.E. Hulme, a poet and theorist whose small output had a great influence on Pound and Eliot, was blown up in a direct hit from a shell. Guillaume Apollinaire suffered a serious head wound in 1916 and was in a weakened state when the global influenza epidemic of 1918 killed him. One of the greatest poets of the trenches, Wilfred Owen, was killed one week before the Armistice.

What kind of possible solace or diversion could the Wipers Times have provided to men experiencing such trauma and horror? What did it mean to men trapped in the grotesque, “troglodyte” trench world, under constant artillery exposure and shackled to an incomprehensible military bureaucracy, to find all these things the source of comedy? For a joke to be funny, those in on it must share a common reservoir of knowledge and experience. The gallows humor of the Wipers Times created a free-floating circuit of logic independent of the outside world, uniting initiated soldiers by their fluency in the real knowledge of the war.

The blizzard of military acronyms that daunts the casual 21st-century reader of the Wipers Times helped make the joke-circuit independent: meaningful to soldiers but not fully comprehensible to outsiders. Aimed at the PBI (poor bloody infantry) who knew their QMs (quartermasters) from their Red Tabs (staff officers), inside jokes about “Effpy” (or “FP,” Field Punishment No. 1, which involves being lashed crucifix-style to a gate or large wheel), helped establish a context of meaning for the arcana, superstitions and rituals that soldiers lived by.

The Wipers Times was also a platform for the demonstration of a soldierly virtue known as “phlegm.” British phlegm is a companion attitude to the “stiff-upper-lip,” embodying a breezy contempt for danger (“Can there be any emotion equal to that of lying prone in a crump-hole with a machine gun ripping across your back?”) and considered essential emotional equipment for Great War officers. It often appears in the Wipers Times as extreme understatement: “The German fleet has bombed Wapping Old Stairs, and ruined the carpet.” Demonstrations of phlegmatic leadership were considered crucial for regimental morale: picture Kirk Douglas’s cool indifference to a terrific bombardment as he strides through his trench in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). But phlegm is more complex than simple bravery. It involves a performative contempt for logic, physics and self-preservation instincts, in order to establish powerful new conventions of wartime behavior, and to present these behaviors (going over the top, for instance) as routine, a new normal. In a 1917 editorial, Roberts phlegmatically accounts for a long, six-month gap between issues, due to “more war than is conducive to the steady production of a paper.” By transposing an unflappable style that might seem more appropriate to a routine morning at the office than to the deadly unpredictability of war, British officers found not only a way to get by, but a powerful rhetorical strategy appropriate for the modern world brought into existence by the conflict. Historian Paul Fussell, for example, ascribes Hemingway’s iconic, clipped tone to that author’s borrowings from Great War phlegm.

The humiliations of trench-bound bodies were favorite subjects of the Wipers Times: filth, rats, lice and monotonous diets of tinned beef and government-issued jam that came in one flavor. (The much-derided jars of plum and apple were more valued when empty than when full, as the glass containers made excellent ad-hoc grenades.)

The debasement of being constantly muddy, cold, wet and exposed to the smell of decomposing flesh was canvassed with particular vigor by men very awake to the irony of supposedly advancing the cause of civilization by fighting a war which left them helplessly, degradingly dirty. In an editorial, Roberts recalls acidly “the dear dead days when we imagined war to be other than wallowing in a dirty ditch.” In a parody of Kipling’s poem “If,” an anonymous author lists the requirements to “be a soldier one day”:

If you can clamber up with pick and shovel,
And turn your filthy crump-hole to a trench,
When all inside you makes you itch and grovel,
And all you’ve had to feed on is a stench.

Corpses of men and horses were everywhere near the trenches and in No Man’s Land. Soldiers often had to endure the sights and smells of the recently dead for days and weeks. The bodies were frequently dosed with chloride of lime powder to mask the stench. (An army sanitation officer who appears in a Wipers Times serial melodrama is dubbed “Chloridy Lime.”) The powder was also used to disinfect the men’s water supply. Drinking tea laced with the same chemical used to sanitize a pal’s nearby corpse was a great affront to that beverage’s comforting and patriotic signifiers. “Chlorinated tea and Tickler” (the hated government jam) was a common and depressing breakfast. One ad conjures the overwhelming implications by suggesting “One teaspoonful Cames Curry,” so you’ll “never notice the cloridylime in your tea.”

In the context of such bodily mortification and discomfort, the Wipers Times parades snappy “ads” for tailors, hats, accessories, soaps—all the fashionable trimmings of the clean, civilized man. One ad for a “new line of velveteen plush corduroy breeches” advises, “Are you going over the top? Be the fashion and look like a soldier,” before pronouncing, “Legs make the officer.” Manly vanity was further piqued in an ad for shorts: “We guarantee to show more leg than lower-priced shorts.” A “trench conversation” in the paper debates the merits of wearing a cardigan in a trench as a means of keeping shirts clean.

The frequent, masochistic dwelling on visions of cleanliness (one soldier submitted a heartfelt ode to his “Stick of Superfatted Shaving Soap”) takes a gendered turn in “Violet’s Chronicle of Fashion,” one of several columns written from a fictional female perspective. Violet was modeled after Eve, Tatler‘s fashion commentator, whose intent was to “expound fashion’s whims to an audience of mere males.” Violet’s narratives are mildly titillating—at one point, she confides that munitions workers who can’t wear their usual “pretty frocks” are indulging in “frillies” (lingerie) under their smocks. The bulk of her column is devoted to breathless descriptions of the latest dresses: “Garments are fairy-like in their filmy beauty . . . and the materials are so dainty and so diaphanous that the result seems the mere ghost of a nightie!” Employing a prose as erotic as it can be, given the limitations of both sarcasm and censorship, “Violet’s Chronicle of Fashion” presents a vision of women-soft-skinned and innocent, swathed in scented fabrics, freshly starched and clean, to be both idealized and despised as emblems of the unbridgeable divide between the home front and the trenches.        

A less equivocal stance is taken toward war correspondents, the Wipers Times‘s most gleefully pursued targets. Roberts mocked their demureness in his very first column, as he solemnly assumed the editor’s mantle for his soldier’s paper: “The shadow of censorship enveloping us causes us to refer to the war, which we hear is taking place in Europe, in a cautious manner.” As Roberts indicates, war correspondents were kept on a tight leash by publishers who didn’t want to shock the public with horrifying realities. As a result, war correspondents rarely saw the front lines or spoke to fighting men. At least three such “correspondents” contribute regularly to the Wipers Times. Each was modeled on a real journalist, and each embodied a distinct journalistic sin: “Belary Helloc” (modeled on Hilaire Belloc, respected man of letters and poet who covered the war for Land and Water) specialized in armchair generalship: “Having very little time at my disposal this week I only intend to roughly outline my plan for ending the war satisfactorily and quickly.” Cockles Tumley (Horatio Bottomley, fraudulent financier and founder of John Bull) was given to preening, once abruptly terminating a column with: “Now I must go have my photo taken in a gas-bag and tin hat.” And Teech Bomas (Beach Thomas of the Daily Mirror), supplied florid descriptions of tanks and other war machines in action: “Like great prehistoric monsters they leapt and skipped with joy . . . jumping two villages, [they] came to rest in a crump-hole.”

Only through the purple pen of Teech Bomas does any description of battle appear in the Wipers Times. His accounts, crusted with alliteration and flourishing idioms, stand in contrast to the phlegmatic tone of the rest of the paper. His fondness for unlikely happenstance (“I was picking wallflowers in Glencourse Wood when all this happened”) and inappropriate simile (“suddenly the atmosphere was riven by the crescendo chorus which leapt to meet the light as a bridegroom to his bride”) point to the great stress that the war placed on conventional vocabularies and forms of expression. The ludicrousness of “Teech Bomas” does not far outstrip his real-life counterpart Beach Thomas, who once described the nobility of the British dead in the Daily Mirror: “Even as he lies on the field he looks more quietly faithful, more simply steadfast than others.”

While it is inarguable that a corpse is both quiet and steadfast, the insistence on extracting moral meaning from it may have been the Wipers Times’s point of objection. In consistently mocking attempts by journalists and businessmen to explain or understand the soldier’s experience, and in substituting oblique, parodic and absurd voices for those of traditional authority, Fred Roberts and the Wipers Times were linked by strategy and technique to the avant-garde of their time. Roberts’s choice of a parody newspaper as a form also makes the Wipers Times an unmistakable forerunner to faux news outlets like The Onion and “The Colbert Report,” and its black humor positions it within an Anglo-Irish timeline that runs from Jonathan Swift to Samuel Beckett to Monty Python. It is an utter shame that Roberts and his paper continue to be neglected by historians of the war and of early 20th-century art and literature. There is no adequate academic treatment of the paper or of the hundreds of other trench journals—French, British, Canadian, German, American—that flourished during the war, although Malcolm Brown and Ian Hislop’s admirably introduced and footnoted edition of the complete Wipers Times provides a good entrance to the paper. 4 The publication’s sharp critical agenda should establish it not as a historical curiosity, but as an essential document of the great social and artistic upheavals begotten by the war. The fact that it was written by soldiers—as Roberts said—”none of us were writing men, we just wrote down any old thing that came into our heads”—should make it an even more valued testimony that ordinary people, living through extraordinary experiences, and finding the will to pool their collected observations and criticisms purely for each other’s sake, could make something funny, descriptive and true.

The most sympathetic portrayal of the Wipers Times may have been written by a man who never saw it but fully knew its context and its complaints. Tristan Tzara was speaking of Dada when he wrote:

There is a literature that does not reach the voracious mass. It is the work of creators, issued from a real necessity in the author, produced for himself. It expresses the knowledge of a supreme egoism, in which laws wither away. Every page must explode, either by profound heavy seriousness, the whirlwind, poetic frenzy, the new, the eternal, the crushing joke, enthusiasm for principles, or by the way in which it is printed. On the one hand a tottering world in flight, betrothed to the glockenspiel of hell, on the other hand: new men. Rough, bouncing, riding on hiccups. Behind them a crippled world and literary quacks with a mania for improvement. 5