The B.E.F. Times

The B.E.F. Times

While in the trenches of the First World War, soldiers began to produce their own magazines,
including everything from patriotic poetry to satirical news items. The best known of these was the Wipers Times, later renamed the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary
Force) Times. It was printed by officers in France, on a printing press salvaged from the ruins of Ypres (known to the British
as ‘Wipers’). Although appearing intermittently (whenever the editors were somewhere they could set up their press), the magazine ran
for over two years and was widely circulated among the troops. These magazines seem a reaction against the contemporary British press,
with its often gung-ho patriotism and lack of understanding of conditions in the trenches. The magazine welcomed all submissions, and a huge range of
writing were submitted, by both officers and privates.

This type of ‘trench newspaper’ gives a fascinating insight into the range and complexity of attitudes that soldiers
showed towards the war. To modern eyes, the magazines appear a strange mixture of the comic and the sentimental, with heartfelt poetry
next to jokes. For readers used to poems such as Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum’, many poems that appear in the trench magazines can appear
bafflingly pro-war and patriotic.

The extracts below attempt to show the range of writing included in the B.E.F. Times.

Some points to consider

  • How different are the three poems included below in their attitude to the war? What attitudes do they appear to share?
  • How do the poems differ from the comic writing?
  • What are articles such as ‘News from the Ration Dump’ satirizing? Why does it have this title?
  • What are the implications of the article which imagines soldiers speaking in the language of Shakespeare? (you could compare this to the resources in ‘Theatre at War’)
  • Why do you think the trench magazines included such a range of genres?

Mort pour la France

Many the graves that lie behind the line,
Scattered like shells upon a blood-stained strand,
Crosses and mounds, that eloquently stand
To mark a spot, that forms some hero’s shrine.
And one, that nestles near a shattered pine,
Beside a war-wrecked wall, in barren land,
Is tended, daily, by a woman’s hand,
Moistened by tears, that in her bright eyes shine.

But proud she was, and proud she still can be,
Lover and patriot, both, she proudly reads
His epitaph. It dries her tears to know,
That he has purchased immortality: –
“Mort pour la France.” He filled his Country’s needs,
And though he rests, for France he’d have it so.

With the usual apologies.

If you can drink the beer the Belgians sell you,
And pay the price they ask with en’er a grouse,
If you believe the tales that some will tell you,
And live in mud with ground sheet for a house,
If you can live on bully and a biscuit,
And thank your stars that you’ve a tot of rum,
Dodget whizzbangs with a grin, and as you risk it
Talk glibly of the pretty way they hum,
If you can flounder through a C.T. nightly

That’s three-parts full of mud and filth and slime,
Bite back the oaths and keep your jaw shut tightly,
While inwardly you’re cursing all the time,
If you can crawl through wire and crump-holes reeking
With feet of liquid mud, and keep your head
Turned always to the place which you are seeking,
Through dread of crying you will laugh instead,
If you can fight a week in Hell’s own image,
And at the end just throw you down and grin,
When every bone you’ve got starts on a scrimmage,
And for a sleep you’d sell your soul within,
If you can clamber up with pick and shovel,
And turn your filthy crump hole to a trench,
When all inside you makes you itch to grovel,
And all you’ve had to feed on is a stench,
If you can hang on just because you’re thinking
You haven’t got one chance in ten to live,
So you will see it through, no use in blinking
And you’re not going to take more than you give,
If you can grin at last when handing over,
And finish well what you had well begun,
And think a muddy ditch a bed of clover,
You’ll be a soldier one day, then, my son.

This poem is based on Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’. A ‘C.T.’ is a communications trench

Late News from the Ration Dump

Three submarines have been mined on the Menin Road. Crew of one captured.

– 0 – 0 – 0 –

The Germans have only 14 shells left.

– 0 – 0 – 0 –

The pay for men at the base is going to be doubled owing to the increased cost of living, and halved for those in the line as they are not in a position to spend it.

The Menin Road was the main road east out of Ypres, and considered one of the most dangerous spots on the Western Front.
See Paul Nash’s painting of the Menin Road

Profit and Loss

Now Willaim Hohenzollern, the King of all the Huns,
Had quite a lot of country and he also had six sons,
Of money too he’d plenty and a larder fully stocked –
In fact he’d all he wanted – so at grief and care he mocked.

Karl Baumberg lived in comfort with his frau and faimly,
His sons they numbered seven, and his daughters numbered three;
They’d just enough of everything and wished for nothing more,
(This happy time, you understand, was just before the war).

For reasons which they never knew Karl Baumberg’s seven sons
Were quickly clad in suits of grey and labelled “food for guns”,
Two rot in mud near Wipers, and another at Berdun,
The Somme accounted for a brace, and Passchendaele for one.

The one remaining to old Karl is minus both his arms,
His fighting days are finished, and he’s sick of war’s alarms;
He grinds his teeth with fury, while old Karl hunts round for food,
And his mother freely curses both the Kaiser and his brood.

His one remaining sister (death has claimed the other two)
Out of water and a horse bone tries to make a dish of strew,
Comes a mandate “Our great Kaiser has another victory won
Fly your flags and cheer, by order, for the victory of Verdun.”

Then old Karl, whose waking senses grasp a fact both strange and new,
That the victories are worthless if they bring no end in view,
And he curses Kaiser William who’s the King of all the Huns,
But his frau is quietly sobbing for – the Kaiser has six sons.

The Reverse

– 0 – 0 – 0 –

Having seen in our last number what might have been the result had some of the old poets lived in these days, let us now see how delightful it would be if these same poets could influence the everyday language of war.

– :0: –

Take for example a Tommy with a duckboard and a knowledge of Shakespeare. We can imagine him walking up the Menin Road and discoursing thus: –

TOMMY: To be or not to be? That is the question.
Here’s nature moulded by the hand of man,
To be a burden borne by his own fellow,
And placed again – a weight on nature’s breast
To bear in turn he who had once it borne,
Thus ease his path to slay, or maim or take.
And yet methinks I’m wasting time, for here
Comes one whose voice has power to move the limbs
Of loit’rers.
SERG: Nah then! Hop it quick of else,
You’ll find some F.P. waiting you me lad.
TOMMY: Oh! Soft-blown zephyrs flavoured well with rum,
Waft o’er me when I see the sergeant come

– : 0 : –

Or again; take Zero hour and see the platoon officer throwing this off his chest: –
Awake! For see the barrage lifts at last,
Take up your bombs. For us the die is cast
Come all together, top the parapet,
This moment holds the present, future, past
No time to waste, to think, or wonder how
A hasty shot, a hurried dig and thou,
Wilt either fix the Hun or he’ll fix you
And that is for the one who’s fixed enow.

A duckboard was a wooden board used to make a path though mud or to provide better footing for soldiers in a trench. Barrage
was concentrated artillary fire on a particular area – in this scenario, once the barrage has stopped, the soldiers can go
over the parapet.