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Press release

  • 5 November 2004
  • Front pages that portrayed World War One for laughs

    Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder offers a more accurate social view of the soldier's experience of World War One than poets such as Wilfred Owen, according to new research.

    DPhil student Esther MacCallum-Stewart says the anti-war view of soldier poets such as Owen and Siegfried Sassoon is only a part of the picture. The ordinary "Tommy" was actually pro-war, kept a stiff upper lip and didn't talk about the horrors. He looked instead to morale-boosting humour to deal with the grim realities of life in the trenches and indulged a taste for mockery and the absurd, as employed in the BBC comedy series set in World War One, Blackadder Goes Forth.

    "Humour helped to relieve the boredom. Most frontline soldiers spent much of their time out of action behind the lines," says Esther. "Blackadder is subversive without being political. The soldiers of the war would have recognised the stereotyped characters of posh, inept officers and the lower ranks and would have enjoyed the joke of Blackadder and his sidekicks trying to shirk their duties. It wasn't the war they were against, but the way it was fought."

    Esther has studied the ways in which World War One has been depicted down the decades, from poetry and songs to films such as Oh! What A Lovely War, and bestselling books such as Birdsong and the Regeneration trilogy. She says that the way we view World War One was skewed by a renewed interest in it during the sixties, when the poems such as Owen's Dulce Et Decorum Est, gained new prominence with the anti-war movement.

    To redress the balance so that the real experiences of ordinary men - and women - are included, a new anthology of World War One poetry has been published. Edited by University of Sussex lecturer Dr George Walter, In Flanders Field: Poetry of the First World War offers work by 67 writers from varied backgrounds. Alongside Wilfred Owen are less frequently heard voices - women poets such as the ostensibly pro-war Jessie Pope and the Private, Ivor Gurney. The anthology also includes anonymous popular songs - with all the rude words put back in.

    Esther, who was senior researcher on the anthology, says, "Around 2,000 poets were published during the war but we only look at a few of those. A handful of voices can't speak for everyone."  Esther's research, which can be viewed on her weblog - - also led her to the story of the Wipers Times, a spoof newspaper produced on the frontline by soldiers on a printing press hauled from the ruins of Ypres. It included poetry, song lyrics, in-jokes, cartoons, spoof articles and an agony aunt - all from soldiers. Mock adverts featured "must-have" items such a nifty gas mask and harmonica combination. Even the paper's title is a schoolboy joke: a pun of Ypres and a reference to the paper's final use. It sold by the thousand.

    "The jokes and stories were proof of a shared experience and showed it was okay to make fun of day-to-day life in wartime. It tempered all the trauma," says Esther. "But poems of the everyday experience of war - such as To My Chum, a soldier's lament for his dead friend - were also published and are very moving."


    Notes for editors 

    • In Flanders Field: Poems of World War One, edited by Dr George Walter, is published by Allen Lane.
    • Esther will be talking to Ian Hislop about the Wipers Times on Radio 4 on Remembrance Sunday (Nov 14) in Are We As Offensive As We Might Be? (11.45am)

    Press office: Maggie Clune or Jacqui Bealing. Tel 01273 678 888. or J.A.Bealing@sussex


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