August 1914 marks the centenary of the start of World War I for European nations. There has so far been a lack of film industry involvement around the event, but one British movie has gone into production. Though set in a part of Flanders where there was ferocious fighting, the subject isn’t combat but the survival of truth and creativity in the face of carnage.
Ben Chaplin and Monty Python’s Michael Palin have been cast as the leads in “The Wipers Times,” which is about the publication of the most famous of the satirical “trench newspapers” produced by British soldiers.
Scripted by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman (co-writers of the sitcoms “The Young Ones” and “My Dad’s the Prime Minister”), the movie is currently being directed by Andy De Emmony (“West Is West”) in the Ballywater Park Estate, County Down, Northern Ireland. Emilia Fox, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and Steve Oram co-star.
British soldiers in the front line produced around 100 newspapers and the French over 400. Typically, they were a response to the confident, jingoistic journalism-cum-propaganda issued and frequently self-censored by official newspapers for home consumption. The humor tended to be rueful or biting, reflecting the men’s awareness of their extreme proximity to death.
The website of the Penn Libraries Rare Book and Manuscripts Collection, a substantial repository of trench papers, reports:
“While some were simple penciled sheets reproduced with carbon paper, others were many-page publications made with printing presses, which soldiers sometimes came upon in the war-torn towns of France and Belgium.”
Such was the case with The Wipers Times, printed on a press discovered near the town square of Ypres, the strategically vital Belgium municipality where the British fought the Germans in 1915, 1915, and 1917 (the last battle being Passchendaele). The press was salvaged by a sergeant, who printed a sample page.
Named for the Tommies’ slang for hard-to-pronounce Ypres, the paper was put together by men of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters (Nottingham & Sherwood Regiment), 24th Division. It was edited by Captain F. J. Roberts (who is being played by Chaplin) and sub-edited by Lieutenant F.J. Pearson. Among the writers was the war poet and future novelist Gilbert Frankau, an artilleryman. Only one page could be printed at a time. The print run was 100 to 200 copies.
“Have you ever sat in a trench in the middle of a battle and corrected proofs? Try it,” Roberts wrote, adding that the paper was “produced when the air was generally full of shells…. Often one had to stop writing an article in order to ‘stand to.’”
During its run from February 1916 to February 1918, the paper was sometimes issued under the following titles: The Kemmel Times, The Somme Times, and The B.E.F. Times (for British Expeditionary Force). Two issues called The Better Times followed the November 1918 Armistice, the last billed as “Xmas, Peace, and Final Number.”
Along with samples of poetry, the selection of dark humor published here gives a strong indication of why a movie about The Wipers Times would appeal to a member of Monty Python. Facsimiles of the collected papers have been reproduced in a book.