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Voices from the Trenches in WWI
November 11th is a day of remembering and honoring military veterans in the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Australia and France
At 11am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, an armistice was declared between the Allied nations and the Central Powers, bringing an end to World War I. We mark the anniversary as a holiday in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and France – a day set aside to honor the service and sacrifice of military veterans.
In the nearly 100 years since the Armistice, war records have become more easily discoverable as documents were declassified and others were uncovered, unlocking insights into one of the largest and deadliest wars in history.
One of the most profound sources for understanding the experiences of ordinary men and women who were engaged in this conflict are the Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War. The first conflict fought by a predominantly literate, formerly civilian population, WWI featured a strong micro-publishing community. Units of every type, of all nationalities, serving on active and home fronts, and even in POW camps, wrote and published “trench journals” that circulated among the troops. These materials, rarely intended for civilian audiences, reveal a vital, human counterpoint to official histories.
Traditional Journalistic Accounts Often Didn’t Tell the Whole Story
Journalists reporting from the war zones, then and now, have limitations on their viewpoint and restrictions on their access. Even today, when we have access to more vivid, accurate and immediate accounts of conflict through the Internet, journalists are often only allowed to report from specific sites, on specified routes, and to speak only with certain people.
Naturally, the importance of security and secrecy plays a part in these reporting restrictions. Military officials do not want matters of strategic importance released to the public, or the enemy. But boosting morale on the home front played an equally important role in the war reporting of the time. It was the first occasion on which a war had been fought on such a large scale by so many countries, with modern tools of mechanized warfare, such as aircraft, machine guns, tanks and chemical weapons, exacerbating the death toll. But the press was restricted from discovering or portraying the grim reality of life and death in the trenches and all too often resorted to telling tales of fortitude and bravery to sell newspapers.
Official newspaper coverage frequently featured aspects of the heroics of brave soldiers on the front lines which did little to discourage young men from taking up arms. Often soldiers on reaching the trenches experienced the shock and dislocation of the reality of the experience as compared to accounts they may have read while in Britain.
News Produced on the Frontlines, by Those Who Were There
The alternative to the official, sanctioned news coverage was the trench journal.
Consider The Wiper Times, a small magazine handcrafted by the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, who were engaged on the front line in France and Belgium. Issues of this magazine ran from 1916 until the end of the war in1918 under multiple names as the troops moved between locations, from The New-Church Times, The Somme Times and finally, The Better Times. The names were often anglicised versions of the towns in which the Battalion was billeted, as soldiers grappled with foreign names such as Ypres (pronounced “Wipers” by British soldiers) or Whyteshaete (which became “White Sheet”).
Issues of the The Wiper Times varied in size and frequency of publication responding to the resources, time and paper, available to the soldier-writers, illustrators and editors that created it. The magazine served as an outlet for troops to share their experiences and, perhaps more importantly, for soldiers to read and share in those experiences of others allowing the strain of the war to be somewhat alleviated through humor. For readers today, they permit a tantalising glimpse into the mindset of ordinary men and women engaged in every aspect of the Great War. The editors of The Wipers Times in particular, were skilled in cajoling their readers into providing contributions for the magazine:
We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry. Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other absently walking near the wire in deep communion with the muse… The Editor would be obliged if a few of the poets would break into prose as a paper cannot live by "poems" alone.
Despite that exhortation, some of the most profound pieces in the magazine come from the poetry. This stanza from “To My Chum” contributed by an anonymous poet offsets the jokes, parodies and grim humor which populates the rest of the issue.
We’d weathered the storm two winters long,
Wed managed to grin when all went wrong,
Because together we fought and fed,
Our hearts were light;
But now – you’re dead
And I am mateless.
Unflinching and Unfiltered Accounts
Since they weren’t “official” publications and often were not subject to the restrictions of the Censor, trench journals also provide a more immediate and less filtered view of the war. A 1919 edition of The Whippets, produced by the 2nd Lowland Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, includes the grim and gripping “Gallipoli Memories,” an essay recounting the impressions “seared upon the mind” of the author from his time in the Dardanelles in 1915.
“Dysentery. Ugh! It ran like wildfire among the troops, until scarcely a man was left untouched. The desperately ill were sent off the peninsula; those who could still drag themselves about had to carry on, for there were no sound men to relieve them of their duties. And all the time there were septic sores, horrid dirty ulcers which nothing would heal. Everybody had them, from Generals downwards. The army was swathed in bandages.”
The author goes on in vivid detail…
“Who will forget the smell of Gallipoli in summer, the awful stench of the open graveyard that lay around the trenches and between the lines? The bodies of friends and foes were lying mingled there, rotting in the sun, and so close were the lines and so intense the fighting that it was impossible to give them burial. Yet often they were close at hand; and one could see the swarms of great, fat flies around them; and those flies would come into the trenches and settle all over one’s face.”
And ends sharing the sense of guilt that came with abandoning the territory and the fallen comrades:
“…we had reached a state of apathy, in which we were reconciled to remaining for ever amid the surroundings from which we could see no prospect of release.”
“But the release came with the evacuation of the peninsula. And that provides perhaps the most vivid memory of all, the indescribable joy of leaving for ever the land of so many sorrows, and the grief, it felt almost like shame, of abandoning there for ever the best of our comrades.”
Publishing by the Captured
Even in captivity, prisoners of war – including British, French and German troops – frequently took to print to while away the hours, divert their fellows and account for their experience. Production values vary widely -- from handwritten pages to those with professional typesetting and printing. They provide remarkable insight into servicemen’s willingness to reveal their vulnerabilities to each other. For example, “Christmas in Exile” from the December 1916 issue of The Camp Magazine, published in the Prisoner of War Camp, Groningen, by the 1st Royal Naval Brigade. Royal Navy.
“Christmas and Home! How fraught those little words with power,
The rusting gates of memory wide to throw…
“The vision fades. The memories pass away.
No voice of loved ones falls upon my ear…
“T’would happier be if some great deed we’d done…
“We won no victory, but th’ appointed hour,
Found us not wanting in the final test.
Be this our solace, ‘during to the end,
'We strove at least to do our little best.’”
The Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War
Trench journals are an unparalleled resource for studying World War I, and for a long time, the vast body of this writing was hidden away in libraries and archives around the world. In 2013, however, ProQuest partnered with collection holders to scan these treasures and create an unprecedented digital collection of magazines filled with poetry, stories, jokes, cartoons, observations, anecdotes and illustrations that document the average serviceman and woman’s experience of life during the Great War.
Spanning more than 1500 periodicals collected from major libraries and research collections, including the Imperial War Museums and the Library of Congress, this database makes these rare documents discoverable online for researchers around the world, opening new opportunities in fields such as literature, history, cultural studies and gender studies.
Read selections from Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War.
ProQuest also offers other resources that give other perspectives on World War I. ProQuest History Vault contains a module entitled World War I: Records of the American Expeditionary Forces, and Diplomacy in the World War I Era. This module offers extensive documentation on the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during World War I as well as materials on U.S. intelligence operations and the post-war peace process. AEF documents consist of correspondence, cablegrams, operations reports, statistical strength reports and summaries of intelligence detailing troop movements and operations of Allied and enemy forces.
Historical newspaper content is among researchers’ most sought-after primary source material. With more than 45 premier historical titles, ProQuest Historical Newspapers is the definitive newspaper digital archive empowering researchers to digitally travel back through centuries to become eyewitnesses to history.
Every issue of each title includes the complete paper, cover-to-cover, with full-page and article images in easily downloadable PDF format. Researchers can study the progression of issues over time through these historical newspaper pages, including articles, photos, advertisements, classified ads, obituaries, editorial cartoons, and so much more. The ProQuest Historical Newspapers™ program contains more than 55 million digitized pages.
Archive: Trench Archive
Correspondence.: To the Editor, The " Wipers Times."
The Wipers Times: A Facsimile Reprint of the Trench Magazines; London 2.4 (Mar 20, 1916): i