Wednesday, 4 September 2013


A most unusual story about two men decided to print a newspaper during the most fearful fighting in Ypres during the First World War.

It 1916 when infantry men went through demolished houses and trying to find food, bedding and all sorts of thing which made life a bit easier two officers stumbled on a printing press .  No soldier gave the rubble covered printing press a second glance but for Captain Fred Roberts of the Sherwood Foresters. He brushed the debris away and saw to his surprise the machine was undamaged.  He called his friend Lieutenant Jack Pearson and another sergeant who was a printer.  It took only a few days till the first 100 copies were rolled out. They named if “Wipers Times” after the mispronounced name of Ypres, Belgium.
Ypres was on a strategic route blocking the German advance to France. It was under heavy bombardment and the scene of three major battles.  It also had the first mustard gas attack.


The papers contained a mixture of trench humour, poetry and spoof advertisements. The soldiers also enjoyed the biting satire and fearless lampooning of the top brass.  Captain Roberts who was an adventurer and prospector before the war in South Africa wrote: “We lived in rat-infested, water-logged cellars by day and Hooge (a nearby village) by night. As an existence it had little to recommend it.”

Excerpts from the Wipers Times show in-jokes and thinly veiled attacks on officers. It described ordinary Tommies as PMI – poor bloody infantry.  The spoof adverts were loved. “Insurance policies available for badly defended trenches.”  “Wanted wire cutters. Good openings for sharp young men.”

You could read about golf which included tips on how to play 18 holes in no-man’s land.  The scramble to escape a gas attack was written in horse racing terms.  The great number of bombed out buildings provided a good market for the property section. A house with no roof was labelled as “airy”. Other properties were offered with good “underground residences ready for habitation” and “shooting estates” were all on sale in the Wipers Times.  They advised to contact the estate agents “Bosch and Co” and added that intending purchasers ill be shown round any time, day or night.

A favourite subject was the pot-holed roads leading to the battlefields and many times the various brothels in the area were mentioned. They were also writing seriously about the British “friendly fire” casualties and incompetence by the generals  and making sure the soldiers had a constant rum supplies. Greatly appreciated were also the poems by the solders.

They launched attack against people at home glorify the war and didn’t mention the condition, not even downplayed while the soldiers lived in waterlogged and rat-infested trenches

There were other newspapers produced during the Great War but none of it was printed near the front. At one time Roberts and his sub-editor brought out an edition only 100 yards from the enemy. For two years they were hauling the one-ton machine all over the Western Front and issued 23 editions.  To the soldiers it kept up some normality. Once the military was thinking of banning the publication but had to change their minds when they realised the importance of keeping up the moral.  The newspaper also managed quiet a number of times to avoid censorship. Against all the great danger both men survived the war and were awarded the Military Cross for their bravery at battles, including the Somme. Roberts became commanding officers of his battalion.

The Wipers Times is seen as the beginning of the satirical magazine Private Eye, whose editor Ian Hislop co-wrote the drama. The BBC is bringing out two dramas with Michael Palin about the remarkable story of the Wipers Times.

In his last edition Roberts wrote: “Although some may be sorry it’s over there is little doubt that the linemen are not, as most of us have been cured of any little illusions we may have had about the pomp and glory of war, and know it for the vilest disaster that can befall mankind,”

After the war both men faded back into civilian life. In spite of their great talent there is no evidence that they ever wrote another line. Roberts migrated to Canada and he died there in 1964. Pearson also establish a make shift pub behind the frontline serving refreshment to wounded soldiers. He went to Argentina to work on the railways and later became an owner of a hotel. He died two years later after his great friend and fellow publisher.

It will be almost 100 years when they finally receive the recognition they deserve.

The BBC showed a drama written about the Wipers Times on BBC 2, at 9pm on September 11, 2013.

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