In advance of our in-house and virtual exhibition on Canadian trench newspapers, I thought I would spend some time delving a little more deeply in their significance as part of the material culture of the Canadian war experience. The Canadian Expeditionary Force was largely civilian army, made up of men and women who left their jobs, families and lives to serve in Europe. Though life on the front was radically different from anything they had known before, elements of civilian life remained. Entertainments were hosted behind the lines and people made an effort to maintain a veneer of the lives they had left behind. One of these civilian elements was the trench newspaper.
Trench newspapers were produced by nearly every country involved in the First World War. The most famous English language trench paper was the Wipers Times, begun in 1916 by the Sherwood Foresters. In the Canadian context, the first papers were evidenced as early as 1915. By the end of the war, there were thousands of titles, produced by nearly all the armies fighting. Like their surroundings, these newspapers where constantly changing, merging with one another, beginning and ending as access to paper became impossible, or their editorial boards were killed. Most copies ended their life cycle in the latrine, but some were sent home to relatives or made available on the home front or saved in some other way; it is from these saved copies that we now draw our collection.
Printed either very close to the front or sometimes in England if money was available, these papers bound together communities of people who had been pulled out of their daily reality to face life on the front; the bombs, mud, rats, corpses and the cheapness of human life. Unlike the propaganda laced newspapers available from the home front, written by journalists who may never have been a front line, trench newspapers were written by the people who read them, and used humour and pathos to explore and ultimately accept the conditions of their lives.
They aped the conventions of civilian newspapers, with Art Nouveau decorations, “agony” columns and joke advertisements, and used a satirical tone to describe daily life on the front. Nothing was safe from lampooning; articles skewered their commanding officers, their medical officers, war time profiteers and other elements of home front society. They mocked civilian attitudes about the “glory of war”, pointing out that it was a dirty, depressing and senseless business.
Trench newspapers occupied a peculiar position in the army hierarchy. They were in many ways seditious, making fun of superiors and questioning the point of the war. Yet, most were permitted to continue and even received support from the higher ups, who may have, it is thought, considered the papers a good way for the men to relieve their disgust at the war without resorting to outright rebellion. Most articles were published anonymously, without reference to specific places, and with the subjects of the articles given pseudonyms. Certainly, for those who knew Captain X, it was very easy to tell that he was the subject of an article; but for outsiders very difficult to prove. Some newspapers, like The Listening Post, published by the 7th Battalion CEF, were censored by an official censor, making them “more official” than those that were produced by a battalion for the battalion’s consumption.
Effectively, trench newspapers created a sense of community amongst those who read them. To fully understand them, the reader had to know the workings of the battalion or company; who was the commander, who was the MO, what were their particular predilections. At another level, the reader also had to understand army slang and army acronyms, which were used with abundance throughout the newspapers. Only by being familiar with these particular features could the reader really be considered an insider, and part of the club.
Though very few remain, trench newspapers offer a worm’s eye view of the common soldier and his preoccupations. The rum ration, daily monotony and sense of camaraderie, not only with their fellow soldiers but with the enemy facing them, shine through in these communications from the distant front line.