Why did men consent to fight the First World War? This is one of the most difficult of all questions about a conflict that remains an enigma despite the millions of words written about it.
Patriotism is one answer. Glory another, though soldiers soon discovered there was little, if any, of that in the trenches. Social pressure from the White feather fanatics was a factor for some.
But a more surprising answer lies in the mechanism that frontline soldiers created to negotiate their consent to fight and quite possibly die. This mechanism took the form of sometimes rough and ready magazines and newsheets written, illustrated and edited by soldiers themselves.
The Dead Horse Corner Gazette, the Bran Mash and The Whizzbang were just some of the many hundreds of titles in the trench press. In the sometimes scribbled sometimes printed pages appeared verse, short stories, songs, pays and a host of parodic and satirical items written by soldiers. These squibs were often illustrated with cartoons and sketches that made the sharp toothed humour even more pointed.
Nursery rhymes were recast for gallows humour effect:
Little Jack Wrench
Sat down in a trench,
With a ‘pork and beans’ and some bread,
When an Allemande shell
On the parapet fell,
So he got ‘iron rations’ instead.
Trench songs expressed the universal desire to be ‘out of it’, as in this version from the Canadian The Sling:
I want to go home, I want to go home,
The bullets they whistle, the cannons they roar,
I don’t want to go up the line any more.
Take me over the sea, where the enemy can’t get at me.
Oh! my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.
Officers might be called to account, if to little effect, as recorded in The Swell, ‘The Regimental Rag of the 13th Battalion the King’s Liverpool Regiment’ in January, 1916:
On Monday we had bread and bully,
On Tuesday we’d bully and bread,
On Wednesday and Thursday we’d bully and toast,
Well that’s only bully and bread;
So on Friday we called out the major,
And asked him for a change, so he said
Alright, so on Saturday we got for a change
Some bully without any bread.
The humble classified advertisement provided endless opportunities to spoof the war a specialty, though not a monopoly of the British Wipers Times:
“TRY OUR NEW CIRCULAR TOUR, EMBRACING ALL THE HEALTH RESORTS OF LOVELY BELGIUM. Books of Coupons Obtainable From R. E. Cruting & Co., London. Agents Everywhere.”
WANTED – to rent for the winter season, DRY WARM DUG OUT. Must be commodious and in healthy locality untroubled by hawkers and Huns. Good price offered for suitable residence. Apply – Reggie, c/o this paper.
Although these publications were primarily for soldiers they had a less obvious but even more important readership. The trench press was a back channel of communication between the trenches and the generals, politicians and home front press. Many trench newspapers went home to wives, mothers, brothers, sisters and friends. Some were even featured in the mainstream press. This gave trench soldiers a way to let those for whom they were fighting the conditions on which they would consent to do so.
They would do it on their own terms. Not for the pap of patriotism spouted by the blimps in politics. Not for the bloodlust of the generals. Not for the risible rubbish in the popular press. They would do it for their families, for their homes and for their conception of a way of life that they desperately wanted to return to as quickly as possible. They would therefore take the piss out of the military, the war and the press at every opportunity. They would crack their grim jokes about death, maiming, gas, tanks and anything else they could possibly laugh about in a war of numbing horror. And those who were the targets of their jests would take it. By and large they did, as discussed in my The Soldiers’ Press: Trench Journals in the First World War.
This was not revolution or insubordination but a reactionary defence mechanism. Trench soldiers rarely rose up against the war. Instead they sent it up, if within certain well defined and mutually understood limits. Criticism and complaint were tolerated as long as it was masked in rumour and humour. This displacing and distancing technique was used to perfection by the trench journalists in the ‘Things we want to know’ or equivalent column carried by virtually every soldiers’ newspaper. And if the message was not clear there, the spoof advertisements, dark parodies and sharp satire that crammed the remaining pages did the job.
The end result was a negotiation of the terms on which trench soldiers would fight the war so strongly prosecuted by their superiors. They fought not for them but for those intangibles that made life worth living. Only for that were the soldiers of the trench willing to die.