I’m delighted to pass on news of a new resource. The Spectator has scanned all its back numbers, from 1828 to the present, and they can be found to read here. I warn you, though, that the scanning can be a bit erratic. You’ll need your detective boots on to puzzle out some of the sentences.
Someone asked me some interesting questions about the Wipers Times yesterday, so I’ve had a quick look to see if the Spectator had anything to say about the paper. There is a long 1916 article called ‘The Accidental Literature of the War’, which includes these paragraphs about trench journals:
We have nothing like the French Bulletin des Armies de la Republique, which issues serious information, explains matters of service and pay to its readers, and gives them opinions, for example, about the geological specimens they have picked up in digging trenches. Several smaller French journals published just behind the lines are quite as much in earnest. When the French journal unbends it flies to the opposite pole, and is more Rabelaisian than we can indicate here. And of course in writing, as in military action, the French have a dramatic sense of which we are nearly destitute. A British officer has been quoted in the Times as saying of a French charge which he witnessed: “My God, how wonderful I And don’t they know it too !” French gestes, and French gestures— they are alike beyond us. The rapier-play of French wit, cold yet delicate and unerring, is not for our journals, which subsist on more riotous fun. The British journals keep an even middle course, light-hearted, and innocent alike of Voltaire= exercises in wit and Rabelaisian sallies. Their seriousness when it appears is not launched at the enemy, and is not employed in consciously bracing up the readers to a worthy service of their country, but is bestowed upon the British dead in grateful and most affectionate memory. The ironic titles of some British journals at the front tell their own tale—the Strafe, the Whizz-Bang, the Gasper, the Holy Buys’ Chronicle, the Dead Horse Gazette. We take these names at random from an article in the Nation. The Somme Times parodies the too familiar journalistic vicissitudes by telling us that with it are ” incorporated ” the Wiper’s Times, the “New Church” Times, and the Kennel Times. It has a serial story by ” Ruby N. Dares,” a ” Chronicle of Fashions ” by ” Violet,” and some uproarious bosh advertisements, among which not the least to our lilting is the ” famous cure for optimism.” We are also grateful to the correspondent who extols the new cross-breed of carrier birds known as the ” Parrotidgin.” It is a cross between a parrot and a pigeon and delivers its messages by word of mouth.
Examination papers and a column called ” Things we should like to Know ” appear fairly regularly in the journalism of sailors and soldiers. Here is a characteristic question from a sailors’ paper called the Exmouth Express : ” A ship containing members of the V.A.D. having arrived in harbour describe (a) what methods you would employ to become acquainted with such members, and (b) how you would ensure that only a limited number of Ward Room Officers secured this acquaintance, such officers being neither senior nor junior to yourself.” That N.C.O. at the front was a no less humorous instructor, though all unconsciously, who, as described in one of the letters of the late Captain C. Philipp (Smith, Elder, and Co.), imparted patriotic history to some privates in the following manner :— ” ‘Ave you ever ‘eard tell o’ the Black Prince i No f—Well, you ignorant blighters. ‘E was a cove what rode about in armour, ‘eavy cavalry ‘e was, and ‘e licked the French. Well, a pal o”is was St. George what as ‘is birthday to-morrow : ‘e’s the cove as I want to tell you about. Never ‘eard tell of ‘im? Why, look at the back of ‘arf a quid. . . Well, this ‘ere St. George is the patron saint of cavalry and don’t yer forget it. What’s that? What is a patron saint ? Now none of your back answers ‘ere, my lad, or you and me will fall out. Carry on!”