The Canadian Frontline Press

The Importance of trench papers in the Great War, Part 3

By Kyle Falcon

Life in the trenches was indescribably dirty and dangerous. Most of the time at the front was spent in muddy, cold wet trenches.. This delightful shot of a bather indicates that morale could be high at times, especially during periods of little gunfire. In the background, a fellow soldier is seen reading a trench newspaper. (Canadian War Museum, 19780093-0140)

Life in the trenches was indescribably dirty and dangerous. Most of the time at the front was spent in muddy, cold wet trenches.. This delightful shot of a bather indicates that morale could be high at times, especially during periods of little gunfire. In the background, a fellow soldier is seen reading a trench newspaper. (Canadian War Museum, 19780093-0140)

On May 1, 1916, nearly an entire Canadian infantry battalion suddenly disappeared without a trace while resting in their billets. They would not be seen again until the next morning when they mysteriously reappeared during roll call. When probed about their whereabouts the day prior, the men could not explain what had happened to them. “Where had they been” the Listening Post probed?

One theory proposed a sinister explanation: “Was this the result of another German plot? Had the Huns … hypnotize[d] troops by hundreds?” This article was meant to be satirical. According to the writer, the soldiers, after receiving their pay that morning, had vanished when it was announced that all men were to report to their working party. Any soldier who read this piece would have gotten the joke rather quickly since “rest” behind the lines often involved hours of busy work meant to keep the troops active. Drills, parade, digging, and other physical labours were the subject of many complaints and jokes from the soldiers. In this same issue of the Listening Post, under the headline “Things we hear that don’t happen” was the quip: “The Division is going out for a rest.”

As mentioned in the previous article of this series, one response to the boredom and monotony that could accompany life in the trenches was to read and write. But troops also required a semblance of normalcy and fun. In addition to reading books, trench journals, and magazines, they played sports and attended concert parties. The popularity of football across the various theatres of the British war effort is hardly surprising given that a majority of the British divisions were composed of civilians. After hours of working in the trenches or behind the lines, it was only natural that the men would resort to playing sports when the opportunity arose, just as they did back home after a hard day’s work.

What is surprising is the extent of organized sport and the administrative and material support provided by officers and higher officials. Inter- and intra-battalion football, cricket, and baseball competitions were held to crowds of sometimes thousands. High command instructed officers to make sure the necessary supplies and space were allocated to the men. By June 1917, the 1st Canadian Division had nine baseball fields, three football fields, tennis courts, a basketball “court” and even two boxing platforms. Motor cars were also arranged to transport men to the big championship matches.

Sports were just as important at war as back home. To provide entertainment for the troops, matches were organized between teams and countries. Baseball teams played behind the lines and in Britain during the Great War, as did soccer teams. (Canadian War Museum, 19770477-011)

Sports were just as important at war as back home. To provide entertainment for the troops, matches were organized between teams and countries. Baseball teams played behind the lines and in Britain during the Great War, as did soccer teams. (Canadian War Museum, 19770477-011)

British and Dominion command increasingly recognized that organized sports could be beneficial for morale, physical exercise, and building camaraderie, especially between officers and their men. The No. 1 Canadian Field Ambulance for example was granted permission to put together an official football club in early 1916 by their commanding officers with a warrant officer, captain, and private serving as president, vice-president, and secretary respectively. This diffusion of rank represented to the Iodine Chronicle an example “of the democracy of sport” as well as official recognition by authorities that sport could be both good for the men’s physical fitness and spirit. As one writer commentated, “football [and] baseball … do more to keep Tommy fit and contented than all the route marches ever invented. Obviously, sports were preferable to drill, training, parade, trench work, and work parties.”

One did not have to directly participate in either concert parties or sporting events to be entertained by them. Those who could not play or attend could read accounts of the matches and concerts in the appropriate trench papers. The various motives of the trench press — to entertain, to build camaraderie, and to document a history of the battalion in France — made them an appropriate place for this lighter more “normal” side of service. These were often very detailed accounts that could transport the reader’s attention from the Western Front to the more homely and familiar theatres of games and music, as the following partial description of a Y.M.C.A. concert in the Listening Post demonstrates:

            Hostilities commenced with a band selection — ‘Water, water everywhere but not a drink in sight.’ We knew it, in fact we could feel it from our knees downwards. Sgt. Clarke of the 10th Battalion then gave us a highly interesting 15 minutes whilst he argued the point with an imaginary German … through an imaginary telephone.

            The next item was a comic song by our ever popular Sgt. Mc Vic. Needless … his song met with hearty applause …

            The comic songs of Pte. O'Neill were the cause of a big sick parade next morning.

            The next artiste, Drive Place of the R.C.H.A. gave us something new in the line of hand-cuff tricks …

            Those of us who were strong enough to stand Pte. Skinners's version of ‘Where the River Shannon Flows’ had the choice of almost any seat in the house long before he had finished the first verse …

            Private Lamont’s jokes and songs were just as welcome as they were the first time he sprung them on us (Last Fall) …

            The last but not least turn of the evening was a demonstration of bloodless-surgery and hypnotism by Driver Place …

             Thus what proved one of the best concerts ever held by the 7th Battalion came to a close by all heartily singing ‘God Save the King.’

These reports not only provide full details of the performances and performers but also worked in friendly jokes at others’ expense. With comments such as “was met with hearty applause,” it is also evident that the men genuinely enjoyed such productions and actively engaged in them as audience members.

Given that these summaries of games and concerts were so common, it is no wonder that the trench newspapers have proved to be valuable sources to understanding how soldiers coped and sustained morale. As historians have pointed out, the concert parties resembled in tone and production the music halls of the British and Dominion homelands. But the men did not perform in real coliseums or hippodromes or real baseball diamonds and football fields.

During the Great War, concert parties were encouraged by the commanding officers, as they provided a harmless outlet for soldiers in dealing with the hardships of life on the front line. These men of the 54th Battalion entertained their comrades and other units. (Canadian War Museum, 19790308-017)

During the Great War, concert parties were encouraged by the commanding officers, as they provided a harmless outlet for soldiers in dealing with the hardships of life on the front line. These men of the 54th Battalion entertained their comrades and other units. (Canadian War Museum, 19790308-017)

Despite the transference in spirit and design of these cultural norms and aspects of civilized society, they were conducted in the shadow of war. During the aforementioned concert a power outage spread fears of a pending Zeppelin attack, sending some members of the audience into momentary hysteria. The reminder that one was at war being never far away. The content of the trench newspapers as a whole were a merging of the environment of the Great War with the culture of home and their goal was to make light of certain misfortunes, and attempt to live day-to-day in the trenches. 

The Importance of trench papers in the Great War, Part 2

Hours of boredom, moments of terror: How trench papers allowed soldiers to share humour, break monotony and provide historical perspective

From November 2015 (Volume 22 Issue 10)

By Kyle Falcon

In the introduction to this series, 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 that implored editors, contributors, and military staff to write for the Canadian trench papers.

In The Soldiers’ Press (2013), historian Graham 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.” Articles of poetry, parody, satire, cartoons, and dark humour were part of this process of cultural expression and negotiation. But there was also another practical element 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 and maiming. 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 40 kilometres of the Somme and extend its losses to the 700-kilometre-long Western Front, British casualties in the First World War would have neared 100 million. This does not include those serving in other theatres, 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. A significant amount of time was also spent away from the front in reserve trenches, communication trenches, rest billets and leave. As Dan Todman states in The Great War: Myth and Memory, “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 October 15, 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 needs. Soldiers desired entertainment and the writing and reading of soldiers’ periodicals could help contribute to this end. “War,” as the old adage aptly describes, “is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” Boredom and monotony were important but so were the moments of terror, as some periodicals emerged as an effort to record history. These elements help explain the range and popularity of the Canadian frontline press.

The inaugural edition of the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion’s The Listening Post proclaimed, “I’m here to try and break trench monotony.” In their calls for contributions, the editors pointed out that the paper was designed to promote fun: “make [articles] as short as possible but long enough to get all the fun in.” A typical issue of The Listening Post contained eight pages and the format was designed to look like a regular newspaper. One could expect to find in any given issue articles, short stories, comics, news bulletins, and advertisements that transformed the monotony and horrors of war into satirical, light-natured pieces. 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.

British officers outside a captured and well camouflaged German dressing station during the First World War. During quiet times, officers and enlist3ed men alike took advantage to write letters home, read trench newspapers, and smoke a pipe. (Imperial War Museum)

British officers outside a captured and well camouflaged German dressing station during the First World War. During quiet times, officers and enlist3ed men alike took advantage to write letters home, read trench newspapers, and smoke a pipe. (Imperial War Museum)

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 advertised: “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.” This demonstrates 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.

Trench newspapers found support among military authorities for similar reasons. In The Brazier, LCol. J. Edwards Leckie of the 16th Battalion sanctioned the paper “as a vehicle for regimental news and anecdote” through “verse, story, joke or sketch.”

There was also recognition that history was in the making, and trench newspapers could provide a means to record a unit’s historical voice. This was the professed hope of the 12th Canadian Field Ambulance paper, In & Out. The 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. 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 as being “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.”

German reserves stop to rest their horses and enjoy a meal. to deal with the emotions of being at war, some soldiers would write poems, humorous stories or serious articles for trench newspapers. 

German reserves stop to rest their horses and enjoy a meal. to deal with the emotions of being at war, some soldiers would write poems, humorous stories or serious articles for trench newspapers. 

The first and only issue of In & Out proceeds to not only lighten the mood through verses of poems 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.

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, others to record their voice for the historical record. 

The Importance of trench papers in the Great War, Part 1

With little access to news from home, soldiers in the trenches took matter into their own hands and created frontline newspapers

By Kyle Falcon

From the October 2015 (Volume 22 Issue 9)

As armies began to dig-in in 1914, a network of publications emerged in the trenches. First appearing in German and Austrian units as a response to the lack of availability of national newspapers on the front, these first trench papers were produced from the top down, edited by staff officers. However, as the war progressed they became predominantly the domain of soldiers, especially in the allied armies where the papers were from the very start, written by the soldiers themselves.

Finding value in their ability to entertain troops, sustain morale, and build camaraderie, some senior officials encouraged soldiers to produce their own papers. While some were more successful than others, newspapers and journals emerged across First World War battlefields and training camps right up until the end of the war.

Soldiers gather round to hear the latest news. (imperial war museum)

Soldiers gather round to hear the latest news. (imperial war museum)

The content of these newspapers was predominately satirical, but they also reported on news relevant to soldiers and provide an interesting perspective for contemporary observers. Historians have benefited from such a view of the war and it is the goal of this article to share these insights from a Canadian perspective. The contents of British, French, and German trench newspapers have provided the source base for several important cultural studies. For example, in Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies, 1914-1918, author J.G. Fuller uses trench newspapers to argue that the successful transference of many facets of British civilian life to the front (i.e., sports leagues and music concerts) allowed the citizen soldiers of Kitchener’s Army to adjust to their new circumstances and therefore sustain a level of morale that could withstand the devastation of the conflict.

But who contributed to these publications? What did they write about and for what purpose?

First, not all papers came from the soldiers. There also existed official or semi-official papers such as The Canadian War Pictorial published by the Canadian War Records Office of the Canadian government. Nor were they strictly the work of units at the front. Chevron to the Stars was a trench paper that began at a Canadian training school, and the WUB (of the 196th Western University Battalion), was first published at Camp Hughes.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a handful of newspapers, most have left behind a scattered record, leaving historians to make educated guesses as to the number of papers actually circulated during the war. Less than 200 of an estimated 400 French newspapers have survived. Historians of the British and Dominion newspapers give a similar figure.

While these numbers are impressive, their geographic reach is perhaps even more significant, offering historians a window into almost every theatre of the war. The majority came from “somewhere in France,” but they were certainly not confined to the Western Front. The Silent 60th was first published aboard the HMT Scandinavian. The Peninsula Press (an Australian paper) was published on the island of Imbros in Turkey and the Beach Rumours (a British paper) at Cape Helles on the Dardanelles. Others were produced in the Middle East and Salonika.


It was not just the British and French troops who published newspapers; Russian soldiers also read trench papers when available during the first World War. 

It was not just the British and French troops who published newspapers; Russian soldiers also read trench papers when available during the first World War. 

Their distribution was also not confined to the battlefields. The famous British paper The Wipers Times was so popular that its editions were re-published in London for general distribution before the end of the war.

Who wrote in these trench newspapers and what did they write about? While anyone could contribute, it appears that most editors came from some level of authority. French Historian Audoin-Rouzeau identifies that high-ranking officers and generals represented less than 2 per cent of the editorial staff, half of the staff tended to be composed of lower ranks such as corporals, while non-commissioned officers and subalterns each made up a quarter of the staff. As for British and British Dominion papers, Fuller was able to identify the ranks from 66 editorial staffs, 27 were composed of officers, 25 from other ranks and only 14 had both.

The ranks of the writers are far more difficult to assess, but some papers made it clear that anyone could contribute. Certain papers even attempted to overcome the disproportion of officers and made it a point to stress that it intended all ranks to contribute. As The McGilliken stated:

“It has been whispered that too much prominence has been given to the Officers in this paper … If that be so, it is certainly not through any wish of ours. It has always been our aim to make the paper of as wide an interest as possible … therefore again we take this opportunity of saying that the columns of the paper are always open to everyone in the Unit, and that any articles for publication, or items of interest will be gladly received.”

Vestiges of the lower ranks’ contributions can nevertheless be found in the texts. For example, some articles were signed off with the monikers “Pte.”

As for content, humour was preferred. As the The Listening Post exclaimed in its inaugural edition: “read me thoroughly — and laugh. — If I am not funny enough this time, then tickle your paper with pen or pencil and tell me the funny things that happen and I’ll do my bit.”

The papers were filled with poems, songs, short stories, the occasional serious matter or obituary, and provided readers with the results of various sporting clubs initiated by men on the front, such as football, baseball, and boxing.

Given these facts, the trench newspapers have been used to elaborate on a variety of themes relevant to soldiers’ experiences in the First World War. First, the importance of national cultures, their transference to the front and the creation of a new trench culture that emerged in relation to those pre-existing attitudes, concepts, and norms. Second, the role of agency — the need to be agents in a war otherwise beyond their control influenced the need for some Canadian soldiers to express themselves in the trench press.

The purpose of these three articles is to showcase the trench newspaper’s value as a historical source through the Canadian context. These articles will show a side of the First World War not often depicted but worth acknowledging. Furthermore, they provide insight on the humour and light-heartedness the troops used to combat not only the horrors of trench warfare, but also the boredom and monotony of trench life.  Although Canadian trench papers have been examined in the historical literature, they have only been used in a wider context or for comparative purposes. The stories contained within them warrant their own space. The purpose here is to share them.