We might as well call this the general ignorance round. While taking in a few of the splendid beers Belgium has to offer, during our fortnight in Flanders, we were frequently accosted by the advertising banner for The Wipers Times beer, and it is only now that I am making the connection. ‘Wipers’ was of course the name the Tommies – the grunt soldier of the British Expeditionary Force – gave to the town of Ypres. Tommy Atkins was never known for his eloquence in French. Owing to the wit of Lieutenant-Colonels Frederick J. Roberts and Jack Pearson the beer takes its name from a satirical newspaper – like punch, only with jokes – which was published in the trenches.
As the story goes, in early February 1916, the Sherwood Foresters were scouring through the wreckage of Ypres for materials to reinforce their trench section when they happened upon an abandoned printing press. The press was completely useless as material, but as chance would have it a sergeant of the company was a printer before the war and so another use was found for the press – a means of boosting the morale of the boys while taking a poke at the general staff and the whole bloody war. Coming from a family of printers myself, I have not the faintest idea how they managed to operate a press in a trench, but operate it they did, and it was a roaring success.
Naming the paper after the soldiers’ slang for Ypres, The Wipers Times was born. As one might imagine it was not published at regular intervals, and thanks to Messrs Hun & Co., the machine was destroyed by artillery fire. Being seasoned foragers, it was not long before the outfit had located and commandeered another press, and then another after that, and the show went on. Naturally the content of the paper; comic articles, faux advertisements for real estate on the Salient and the like, poems, and pokes at the chain of command, caught the attention of the generals, and moves were made to track down the frontline editorial staff and have them court martialed.
Thanks to the better judgement of certain heads in the senior brass – which was rare in the war – the decision was reached to let it run. On the one hand it may have been seen as discouraging the lads from fighting, but, owing to its popularity on the front, and on the home front, it was thought it would do more harm to the morale of the men to shut it down. As the Foresters moved from one place to another the paper changed its name, and with no small amount of luck – with numerous stints on the Salient and at the Somme – it ran all the way to the end of the war and the publication of Better Times.