Laughing in the face of death: Trench humour in the First World War

Fragments of France, Part six. Bruce Bairnsfather, c1918. Collections CCGW/CCGG
Fragments of France, Part six. Bruce Bairnsfather, c1918. Collections CCGW/CCGG

Since April Fools Day coincides with our blog day we thought we’d write a little bit about trench humour. Canadian historian Tim Cook wrote an excellent article on the subject in 2015, looking into the relationship between humour and coping for civilian soldiers in a world that they could not predict and rarely understand. We’ve included the link here for those interested in reading a more thoroughly researched account of soldiers’ humour. 

As Cook points out, the war was not completely a place of misery and suffering, though both of these were overwhelmingly present. Black humour and tragicomedy were both ways for those caught up in the war to cope with the situation in which they found themselves. When nothing made sense, the barriers surrounding what was appropriate to laugh at also fell, making it acceptable amongst soldiers to joke about the dead, play gruesome pranks on one another, or place wagers on who would make it through the next day. This type of humour was very specific to the context, making the community who used it one that was closed to outside access.

One of the ways that soldiers communicated jokes with one another was through trench newspapers (discussed in more depth here in a previous post), which featured satirical articles, cartoons and often a specific “joke” section that reprinted popular trench jokes. Additionally, there was a whole repertoire of songs, ranging from the tragicomic to the downright salacious that were sung while marching, digging or doing any number of the mundane tasks that were assigned. Entertainment troupes like the Dumbells also explored the humour of the trenches, as everyone in the audience played along with the illusion that the “ladies” performing for them actually were women, and not their dug out mates.

Some aspects of trench humour, like the cartoons of the hugely successful artist and British soldier Bruce Bairnsfather, made the jump to civilian life, and were often used a proof that the men “over there” were facing their obstacles with pluck and wit. But most humour, particularly the very black kind, was not accessible. A common trench story of the men in a trench shaking hands with a dismembered hand embedded in the wall of the trench may have been amusing to them, but to us modern readers it is a mark only of the horror of the situation that these people were placed in. Trench humour was largely the kind that made you cringe and laugh at the same time; an antidote to an environment where nothing was safe and there were no certainties.

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