In my introductory blog I noted the significant scale of the trench press. Canadian, British, Australian, New Zealand, American, French and German troops all produced periodicals in various theatres of the Great War. Where did these publications come from and why did people contribute to them? This post will examine the various motivations which implored editors, contributors, and military staff to write for the Canadian trench papers
Historian Graham Seal’s book The Soldiers’ Press (2013) is the first study to examine the process and purpose of the trench newspapers as a whole. Seal argues that the trench press emerged from a broader trench culture. Those who cohered to a trench community did so through a shared language, symbols, rituals, activities and most importantly, a shared experience. The trench press was an expression of this culture and a forum for the men to communicate with the politicians, military authorities, the mainstream press, and those at home. “The message was,” states Seal, “that the men of the trench would fight, no matter what, but on their own terms and in their own way, regardless of military traditions, hierarchies and authority, regardless of political incompetence and stupidity.” All the lines of poetry, parody, satire, cartoons, and dark humour were part of this process of cultural expression and negotiation. But this explanation leaves out one of the more basic and fundamental elements of the war experience that the soldiers’ press was responding to: monotony.
It is no surprise that accounts of the great battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele reference mud, rats, death, maiming and disillusionment. But how representative is this of the broader experience? If the average day of the Somme was typical of the entire four year conflict, approximately four million of the six million British soldiers mobilized would have become a casualty, nearly twice the actual amount, and this is only one region of a front that spanned from the borders of Switzerland to the North Sea. If we were to take the approximately 40km of the Somme and extend its losses to the 700km long Western Front, British casualties for the First World War would have neared 100 million. This does not include those serving in the Middle East, Africa, the sea, or in the air. To describe the war only through the devastating battles of attrition on the Western Front would omit a significant proportion of wartime experiences both at and away from the frontlines. The great battles were certainly destructive and horrific, but they were exceptional moments to the prolonged periods of idleness and the monotony of trench-work. There was also a significant amount of time spent away from the front in reserve trenches, communication trenches, rest billets and leave. As Dan Todman states, “the most frequently endured experience for most soldiers in combat arms was not terror or disgust but boredom.” It is in this context that we can understand some of the more curious contents found within trench newspapers. On 15 October 1915, the No. 1 Canadian Field Ambulance’s first issue of The Iodine Chronicle reported the results of their moustache competition, with “Dope” Stewart winning first prize in the “Charlie Chaplin class.” Although articles frequently criticized shirkers, politicians, and military leadership, the soldiers’ press was also responding to very basic social and psychological needs. Soldiers desired entertainment and the writing and reading of soldiers’ periodicals could help contribute to this end and make light of the war’s devestation. “War,” as the old adage aptly describes, “is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” If boredom and monotony were important so too were the moments of terror, as some periodicals materialized and found support as an effort to record history. These elements help explain the range and popularity of the Canadian frontline press[K1] .
In its inaugural edition, the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion’s The Listening Post exclaimed, “I’m here to try and break trench monotony.” In their calls for contributions, the editors were clear to point out that the paper was designed to promote fun: “make [your articles] as short as possible but long enough to get all the fun in.”  A typical issue of The Listening Post contained four pages but was expanded to eight in only three months due to its popularity. In reiterating their goals, the editorial for the first expanded edition stated that “Our endeavours have been and will continue to be confined chiefly to matter in the lighter vein,” or as the poem which opened the column sated: “Who is it as a general rule, Objection has to ridicule, And lacking humour plays the fool, The man without friends.” The format was designed to look like a regular newspaper, and one could expect to find in any given issue, articles, short stories, comics, news bulletins, announcements and advertisements that transformed the monotony and horrors of the war into satirical, light-natured pieces. For example, in its first edition, The Listening Post contained the following advertisement:
Rooms to let… Dug. Inn. Guaranteed to be 50 feet below the surface. Near modern and Historic ruins. Owner left hurriedly on account of health. Long lease. Pumps or anything else which would not necessitate the reappearance of the owner would be installed free, as he is hoping to be absent for several years. Apply Sanitary Dept.
Other columns mixed humour with the trials and tribulations of trench life by highlighting their contradictions. A list of advice for “young Soldiers” in The Listening Post included the clarifying subtitle “I Guess Not.” It advised soldiers to “Never clean your rifle, it makes it shine too much in the trench,” and that “If you want to make some tea, get some nice damp wood or straw it makes a nice cloud of smoke.” Other examples speak to the everyday duties of the soldiers and their inherent dangers: “When relieving a company in the firing line make as much noise as you can when going up the communication trench…If you are a sentry keep your head well above the parapet. Its safer….If you feel tired go to sleep, it does not matter if you are on guard.” These examples not only demonstrate the creative ways in which some soldiers found humour in their daily circumstances but also how quickly they could turn deadly. The duties were simple yet dangerous, clear yet contradictory. One was not to shout in a communication trench, or get a full view in a sentry post. A cup of tea and a clean rifle were a necessity for many in the trenches but could also alert the enemy of your presence.
Trench newspapers found support among military authorities for similar reasons. In The Brazier, Lt.-Col., J. Edwards Leckie of the 16th Battalion sanctioned the paper on the grounds that it could serve “as a vehicle for regimental news and anecdote” through “verse, story, joke or sketch.” He hoped that many men would contribute to this effort and that collectively the paper would “reflect the esprit de corps of the Canadian Scottish.” Similarly, Lieut. Col. P. G. Bell of the 12th-Canadian Field Ambulance endorsed the trench paper In & Out on the grounds that it “chronicles…a great deal of the lighter side of a Unit’s daily life.” The tasks of a Field Ambulance were especially prone to monotony he argued, and contribution to, or reading of a periodical, could provide much needed entertainment.
There was also recognition that history was in the making, and trench newspapers could provide a means to record a unit’s historical voice and sustain community. This was the professed hope of the semi-official paper, Chevrons to the Stars. First initiated upon the completion of a training school in 1917, it was to continue to chronicle their experiences and sustain communal ties as they fought across the Atlantic. Lieut. Col. A.C. Crithcley, D.S.O proclaimed that the level of enthusiasm displayed by the men through their hard work, games, and concerts during training would prove valuable to the morale and effort of the men on the front-lines.
Unfortunately only one issue of Chevron to the Stars has survived (or only one issues was ever produced) but other papers attest to a historical consciousness. In & Out’s first issue was released in November 1918, and was justified by the editor as a way to record and preserve the voice of the unit before the war’s end. Even though previous efforts at a paper had failed in the past, there was a strong demand to highlight the unit’s creative talent and provide a “memoir of our ‘mighty deeds’ for reference in later life.” That the men who had fought in the war had experienced a history worth sharing was evident in the paper’s columns. One piece, “Survey and Forecast,” described the duties of the men and women of the 12th-Field Ambulance: they were “Stokers, plumbers, cooks and janitors, guards and prisoners…stretcher-bearers and pack carriers, nurses and patients,” but no matter what transpired after the war, they “shall be…historians and story-tellers.” The first and only issue of In & Out proceeds to not only lighten the mood through verses of poem but also contains within it proud accounts of the duties of a medical corps. The monotonous work of erecting dressing stations and dugouts and dealing with the sick behind the lines were defended as crucial to the war effort. Writers also pointed out that men of the Field Ambulance were repeatedly exposed to enemy fire while they collected the wounded. Whether writing about monotony or danger in humorous or serious prose, the articles in In & Out were determined to record the stories and experiences of these men and women.
Some trench journals were even designed for the specific purpose of contributing to the historical record, especially when the paper was an official publication. The Canadian War Pictorial (CWP) by the Canadian War Records Office in its inaugural edition stated that:
The original and dominant duty of this office is to collect and preserve every form of record that may be useful to the historians who, when the tumult and fury of battle pass, attempt to give to the world the definite story of Canada’s military service in the Great War; but we believe that the Cause is also served by the current publication of certain records and historical material in our hands.
A typical issue was 31 pages long and included 70 images. Rather than capturing the soldiers’ experience through their own voice, the series sought to illuminate it through the photograph. Interspersed with official narratives, the pictures display some of the simpler aspects of trench life in addition to its destruction. One could find on a single page both pictures of men peeling potatoes and the wounded being loaded into an ambulance. A panoramas of no-man’s land on one page might be followed by men drinking tea in the trenches on another. The placement of cheerful men committing simple acts with the horrors of war was used strategically to make statements about Canada’s contribution in the campaign. In an article about the ruins of Ypres, the CWP stated that although “Ypres has long been dead. Her homes are roofless and deserted, her churches…shattered,” that “another and finer life…still beats in her fallen and outraged body.” These shattered ruins were now home to Ypres’ defenders the article explained, men from England, Canada, Ireland and Australia who “go out and give their lives for that broken city.” The contrast of happy soldiers with images of “hell on earth” were used not to depict war as “hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of terror,” although they certainly inadvertently capture that reality, but to make statements about the heroism and fine character of the Canadian troops. The CWP expressed hope that the periodical would present a story of the fighting in Ypres “as clearly and as fully as it can…until professional historians go calmly to work at it in the quiet days after the war.” The purpose and motivation of a trench paper could therefore depend on the goals of the editorial staff.
The importance of the monotony of trench life should not be underscored in any narrative of the trench papers. The Canadian frontline press offered a means to break trench monotony through both reading and writing. Some soldiers chose to make light of their circumstance or write poetry to simply pass the time. Some sought to record their voice for the historical record, and as Graham Seal demonstrates, to criticize military officials, the public and politicians. As The Canadian War Pictorial demonstrates, the frontline press can also offer evidence of the nature of life in the trenches. In the next article we will see how troops also found entertainment through sporting events and music shows behind the lines. Here the trench press coordinated, advertised and reported on these events, offering the historian a glimpse as to how soldiers spent their time when out of the frontlines and sustained morale.