A satirical take on life by soldiers in the trenches

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A rare copy of a satirical newspaper produced by British troops in Ypres in 1915 has been discovered in the scrapbook of a Yorkshire soldier. Chris Bond reports.

THE purple ink may be a little faded but there’s no mistaking the outline of Kaiser Wilhelm perched on a chair and gazing at a key with a question mark hovering over it.

The hand-drawn caricature mocking the German king’s imperialist desires adorns the front page of The Salient, a satirical magazine produced by British troops in Ypres at Christmas in 1915. As well as the drawing of the Kaiser, the front cover includes an advert for a concert by “the Fancies” described as “the only known cure for trenchitis”.

The magazine was discovered in the wartime scrapbook of a Huddersfield soldier called Captain Keith Sykes and is only one of three known copies in existence – the other two are housed in a private collection and at the Imperial War Museum.

It was found by a team of university students who have spent the past three years combing through local archives to help piece together the story of Huddersfield during the First World War for a new book.

The project is led by Brian Heywood who has been scouring through the vast wealth of material housed at the West Yorkshire Archive Service in Kirklees. “We searched online and found Captain Sykes’s scrapbook which is a phenomenal treasure trove of photographs, documents and also this odd-looking newspaper.”

As he delved deeper he realised that The Salient prefigured The Wipers Times, a satirical magazine produced by frontline soldiers during the First World War and the subject of a TV drama co-written by Ian Hislop.

There is a gallows humour coursing through the pages as it depicts the grim reality of life in the trenches, while at the same time poking fun at army officers. “If you read it, the style of writing is very much like Private Eye and The Wipers Times,” says Heywood.

The magazine was written at the end of 1915 which gives it added significance. “The first edition of The Wipers Times was called The Wipers Times and Salient News and is dated mid-February 1916, seven weeks later. So The Salient is almost certainly a forerunner to that. The style of writing is the same and the humour is the same.”

The Salient was produced by troops using a purple carbon Gestetner printer because they didn’t have a proper printing press at the time, and it’s believed that only around 250 copies of this single edition were actually printed. These were handed out to soldiers in the trenches and one ended up with Cpt Sykes, a Military Cross winner who survived the war.

It contains sketches and poems and no doubt made uncomfortable reading for the army’s top brass. “There are several hints that the ordinary soldiers aren’t happy with the generals and bigwigs being behind the lines,” says Heywood. “There’s a lovely poem in there talking about the generals coming to the front after the soldiers have been trudging through mud and sludge all day, and it ends with the line ‘merry Christmas everybody come and share some cake, and why are your rifles dirty?’”

We’ve heard a great deal already from historians about what life must have like for the men on the frontline, but what makes The Salient so fascinating is the fact it’s an authentic voice from the trenches. “It was written by the troops, for the troops, and to entertain them and boost their spirits.”

Although it’s hostile towards the enemy what’s also noticeable is the attitude towards the generals. “They sailed as close to the wind as they could get away with, but I think the bigwigs decided it was better for the morale of the troops not to torpedo it and just put up with it, not that they particularly enjoyed it.”

Heywood believes those who produced The Salient may also have been involved with The Wipers Times. “It was produced by the 6th Corps of the British Army of which the Huddersfield battalion was part. The front cover has an advertisement for a Huddersfield battalion concert so it’s very likely that soldiers from West Yorkshire contributed to it.”

As well as its satirical edge the magazine also contains some hard-hitting poems including one about a “Private Smiff from Tykeshire”. “It’s about a soldier who comes in off the battlefield with two broken legs, is operated upon and goes through all the pain of that and still dies. It’s respectful but it’s also more graphic than a Wilfred Owen poem.”

As we can see from the lines below, it doesn’t pull any punches:

And ’e saw that he’d ’ave to set ’em

Though it seemed a waste o’ time

But ’e’ ad to shift the bits o’ bone

And the lumps of shell and grime

So ’e took the broken fragments

And ’e shoved, and wrenched and screwed

And you ’eard the ends a-gratin’

Till your brain was slewed

What’s particularly striking is that despite being surrounded by the horrors of war the soldiers maintained a sense of humour, albeit macabre, about their situation. In A Carol Of The Trenches the opening lines start, “Hark we hear the bullets ping, defiance to the German king,” while the US president Woodrow Wilson is pilloried as “Wouldn’t-Row Wilson”.

For Heywood, the discovery of a copy The Salient here in Yorkshire is an important find. “It’s almost unique, there’s only two other copies out there. But we’re not aware of anyone else having made the connection between this newspaper and The Wipers Times which was the most significant informal publication of the entire war.”

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