ARE YOU A VICTIM TO OPTIMISM?
YOU DON’T KNOW? THEN ASK YOURSELF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS.
1. DO YOU SUFFER FROM CHEERFULNESS?
2. DO YOU WAKE UP IN THE MORNING FEELING THAT ALL IS GOING WELL FOR THE ALLIES?
3. DO YOU SOMETIMES THINK THAT THE WAR WILL END WITHIN THE NEXT TWELVE MONTHS?
4. DO YOU BELIEVE GOOD NEWS IN PREFERENCE TO BAD?
5. DO YOU CONSIDER OUR LEADERS ARE COMPETENT TO CONDUCT THE WAR TO A SUCCESSFUL ISSUE?
WE CAN CURE YOU.
TWO DAYS SPENT AT OUR ESTABLISHMENT WILL EFFECTIVELY ERADICATE ALL TRACES OF IT FROM YOUR SYSTEM.
This satirical advertisement is among the many gems to be found in Suffering from Cheerfulness: The Best Bits from THE WIPERS TIMES , which I’ve been reading this afternoon in my bath. THE WIPERS TIMES was a magazine written by British soldiers, in the trenches of the Western Front, during the First World War. In his introduction to the book, historian Malcolm Brown writes:
To conclude: laughter and mockery and poking fun at authority have been part of the warp and weft of the British military psyche for centuries and it was singularly unlikely that so great a comic tradition would have nothing to say about the new circumstances of 1914-1918, however challenging they might seem. Came the danger, came the leg-pulls, the quips, the spoofs and the jokes. Came the suffering, came the cheerfulness. The outcome was a brilliant philosophy for the time, a philosophy to get men through everything, or almost everything, that the war could throw at them.
THE WIPERS TIMES appears not only to have been permitted by the authorities, but also reprinted in Britain during the war. Here’s another example, this time a letter to the editor.
Once again I feel constrained to draw your attention to the increasing rowdiness of the district. I am a peaceful citizen, and although somewhat behindhand with my rates, yet the injustice of the present conditions is apparent. Surely, when a quiet citizen wishes to cultivate his own small holding, it is not quite the thing to plant a 12-inch howitzer in the middle. I must protest, and if nothing is done in the matter, I announce my intention of voting against the present candidate at the forthcoming elections.
I am, Sir,
From the comfort of my 21st Century bath-tub, the volume makes for pleasant reading. In the trenches, it offered indispensable ‘comic relief’ to both readers and contributors alike, as a fine example of British humour in the face of adversity.
Another fine example in this same tradition was penned by P.G. Wodehouse, who spent part of the Second World War imprisoned in a German (civilian) internment camp.
Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me ‘How can I become an Internee?’ Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest. At the time of their arrival, I would have been just as pleased if they had not rolled up. But they did not see it that way, and on May the twenty-second along they came – some on motor cycles, some on foot, but all evidently prepared to spend a long week-end.
P.G.Wodehouse (in the first of five radio broadcasts from Berlin)
And in his second broadcast, there is more of that same, fine humour:
The cell smell is a great feature of all French prisons. Ours in Number Forty-Four at Loos was one of those fine, broad-shouldered, up-and-coming young smells which stand on both feet and look the world in the eye. We became very fond and proud of it, championing it hotly against other prisoners who claimed that theirs had more authority and bouquet, and when the first German officer to enter our little sanctum rocked back on his heels and staggered out backwards, we took it as almost a personal compliment. It was like hearing a tribute paid to an old friend.
Nevertheless, in spite of the interest of hobnobbing with our smell, we found time hung a little heavy on our hands.
The lads from ‘Wipers’ would have relished having Wodehouse’s brilliant pen and stiff-upper-lip on staff. Here he is again in the third ‘Berlin Broadcast’:
Arriving at Liège, and climbing the hill to the barracks, we found an atmosphere of unpreparedness. Germany at that time was like the old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many adopted children that she didn’t know what to do with them. As regards our little lot, I had a feeling that she did not really want us, but didn’t like to throw us away. The arrangements for our reception at Liège seemed incomplete. It was as if one had got to a party much too early. Here, for instance, were eight hundred men who were going to live mostly on soup – and though the authorities knew where to lay their hands on some soup all right, nothing had been provided to put it in.
And eight hundred internees can’t just go to the cauldron and lap. For one thing, they would burn their tongues, and for another the quick swallowers would get more than their fair share. The situation was one that called for quick thinking, and it was due to our own resourcefulness that the problem was solved. At the back of the barrack yard there was an enormous rubbish heap, into which Belgian soldiers through the ages had been dumping old mess tins, old cans, cups with bits chipped off them, bottles, kettles and containers for motor oil. We dug these out, gave them a wash and brush up, and there we were. I had the good fortune to secure one of the motor oil containers. It added to the taste of the soup just that little something that the others hadn’t got.
I quote from these broadcasts at length because they are so often referred to, but too little read or appreciated as part of the tradition to which they rightfully belong. By the time of the fourth broadcast, Wodehouse had learned that his gently amusing account of life as an internee was not entirely appreciated in Britain. What had happened to the great British sense of humour in the face of adversity?
This affair has been much written about, particularly since the relevant MI5 documents were made public three years ago. The consensus is that Wodehouse’s radio broadcasts from Berlin, made after his release from internment, were innocent in both content and intention. But it suited the political (and private) purposes of a handful of people to make an issue of his broadcasting from Germany. Few people in Britain actually listened to the broadcasts, and accepted the anti-Wodehouse propaganda. The resulting stain on his reputation has been shamefully slow to lift. I still meet people who believe Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathiser.
So I’ve cut short my bath today to add my voice to many who have written on the subject. It is not enough that Wodehouse has been exonerated. It is time he was recognised as part of the wartime humourist tradition to which he belongs.
You can read the full broadcasts here.