The war had an annoying habit of disrupting newspaper production schedules - Pictures: Kirsten McTernan

The Wipers Times

Birmingham Rep


There is no one alive who served in the trenches in the First World War, no one who could relate the horrors of a war that saw some 16 million troops and civilians die in a conflict that achieved little but an armistice after four years of bloody fighting.

Trench life was a sea of mud and deprivation shared with a thriving population of vermin and lice as well as a generous helping of disease and mental illness.

It generated a whole genre of poetry from both sides with one German poem making it into the play, Ernst Lissauer’s Hymn of Hate, Hassgesang gegen England, professing hatred of England, which was distributed to the troops and later was sung at opposing trenches. Ironically, with what was yet to come, a poem about hatred of a single race was written by a German Jew.

One way of coping with the horror was humour, cocking a snook at death, black, gallows humour, and the British 24th Division turned it into an art from with their own irreverent newspaper. The Wipers Times, Wipers being the mangled pronunciation of Ypres by the English troops.

It came when a foraging party found an old printing press and discovered their sergeant was an ex compositor. With their commander Capt John Roberts and his second in command Lt Jack Pearson the sort of officers who could have been early role models for Hawkeye and Trapper in M.A.S.H, it did not take long for the mad idea of fighting a war and running a newspaper, under fire, to become a reality, 


Spoils of war as Roberts' company find the abandoned press

The result was a paper published monthly from February 2016 to its final Xmas, Peace and Final Number in December 2018. It was filled with spoof ads, poems – lots of them – and satirical letters and articles, with a favourite standby lampooning the famous war correspondents who wrote tales of derring do from trenches they never went anywhere near or the General Staff who sent men to their deaths from comfortable billets well behind the lines.

Ian Hislop, editor of today’s satirical torch bearer, the esteemed organ Private Eye, came across the story some 15 years ago yet it took him a decade to interest TV, which finally asked for a 90 minute film as the centenary of WWI dawned upon them, followed by turning the story into a stage play with Nick Newman.

The result is a funny, at times moving piece as Roberts and Pearson joke their way through the war, not that it was all laughs and press deadlines though, both were to win the Military Cross with Pearson also awarded a DSO.

James Dutton as Roberts, a mining engineer, and George Kemp as Pearson, an Ombersly born civil engineer, have that easy way of the Edwardian well educated middle classes and despite their constant joking and mickey taking, a real respect and concern for their men comes through.

The men include Dan Mersh as Sgt Tyler as the printer, revelling in a chance to be back in the composing room, even if it is a bombed out hotel with shells falling all around. Mersh also has a rapid rise through the ranks also playing Gen Mitford of the General Staff who enjoys the jokes and micky taking in the paper, seeing it as good for morale, much to the annoyance of Lt Col Howfield (and lots of other names) played as an upper class twit by Sam Ducane. Howfield is a stickler for discipline, doing things by the book – in short, keeping the riff raff in the trenches in their place.



James Dutton as the recently gassed Roberts and George Kemp as Pearson about to explain how we would win the war by proving mathematically the Germans only have a handful of troops.

We have Clio Davies who pops up as a nurse, Madame Fifi, a lady who offers some, should we say, comfort, to troops far from any at home, and as a contrast she is the Temperance tartar Lady Somersby while Emma Williams weighs in as a nurse and also as Kate Roberts, Fred’s wife, with her patriotic chickens.

The rest of the troops are convincing with the likes of Chris Levans as Dodd, Joseph Reed as both squaddies and Chaplain, Amar Aggoun as Barnes and Kevin Brewer as the unfortunate Henderson.

And not only are they fighting a war and producing a newspaper, they are also doing the scene shifting, making that necessary task even interesting.

The format of the play is scenes of the war and trench – and newspaper - life along with some dramatized articles from the paper in a sort of end of the peir style.

It falls down a little on its music hall scenes, a sort of Oh What a Lovely War lite, based on the paper and popular troop songs. These short sections are perhaps not as successful, partly as quite a few of the words are lost, but they are lively enough and don’t outstay their welcome.

Dora Schweitzer’s setting is deceptively simple and remarkably effective with a trench wall backdrop which can serve as anything from bombed buildings or officers’ trench billet, then there are various boxes and desks which can be anything from the news desk to General HQ,

Lighting (James Smith) and sound (Steve Mayo) play their part with explosions punctuating almost every scene while director Caroline Leslie keeps up a good pace in a play that lasts two hours 20 with an interval, but never feels anywhere near that long.

It is a fascinating piece of history from the woefully misnamed war to end all wars, much more interesting than a dusty retelling of battles. It is a very human story showing that very British trait of finding humour in the most unpromising of circumstance, a stiff upper lip sitting above a smile and a laugh.

It is funny, clever and, amid the laughs, it is sometimes strangely moving – the division was to lose more than 35,000 men during the war and fought at all the major battles. Incidentally, make sure you buy the superb programme which has reprints of articles from the original paper. The Wipers Times is being published to 13-10-18.

Roger Clarke


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