The Trench Magazine

By Captain W. W. Murray, M.C., R. of O.
Canadian Defence Quarterly, Vol. V, Oct 1927 to July 1928

"Statements derogatory to the characters of the Adjutant, the Transport Officer, or the Quarter-Master are especially welcome, and three months free subscription given where the said statement can be proved."

The trench magazine was one of the oddities of a war that was altogether odd, and for the reason, perhaps, that this oddness ran so markedly through every phase of it, the place for the trench magazine in historical record still remains to be determined. The whimsical little sheet which many infantry battalions, batteries and cavalry regiments brought out as the circumstances of active service allowed was written and edited by soldiers who, for the most part, had not the faintest conception of journalism. It was produced with the welter and chaos of war as a background, and it existed solely for the purpose of stimulating esprit de corps and of making laughter do service for tears. In other words, the regimental paper was the valiant effort of men who strove to endure privation with a smile.

Editing a trench magazine was no easy task. Rudyard Kipling himself attests its difficulties, for in a letter to the editors of one of those breezy periodicals—the organ of the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion which is dated "flanders, 1915," Mr. Kipling writes:—


"Your letter of no date (which is bad editing) has duly come to hand. In the first place, permit me to express my personal sympathy with you over the difficulties which attend the running of a paper at the Front; and in the second, to say how sorry I am that I have nothing by me which would be of any use for The 20th Gazette. If I had I would send it along at once. I can only wish you success in your labours, and to all your readers—Good Luck!

"Yours fraternally (as an Editor),
"Rudyard Kipling."

The copy was gathered from nowhere in particular. Local chatter in and about the companies and having to do mainly with regimental activities. humorous sallies at the officers, with even the exalted person of the battalion commander not immune from the occasional sly dig, furnished everything to be written about. London was the publishing centre. The copy was scrawled on any kind of paper that would register a pencil-mark and, in the early stages of the war, censored by the battalion Adjutant before being despatched to the printers in fleet Street where all arranging and general adjustment were done. Later, it was difficult, and also a circuitous job, to establish a regimental paper, the task being hedged about by discouraging restrictions imposed by G.H.Q.

The editorial sanctum was a dug—out, or an estaminet, sometimes even the open trench, and the flowing periods of the soldier-editors were not infrequently punctuated by exploding shells and the zip of bullets. The "general programme" of these trench magazines is hard to find, nor must the following extract from The Growler, organ of the 14th Battalion, be accepted too literally:

"Statements derogatory to the characters of the Adjutant, the Transport Officer, or the Quarter-Master are especially welcome, and three months free subscription given where the said statement can be proved."

This declaration of policy is followed by the comment that it would be futile for any of the injured persons to institute actions for libel since the editors were "broke" anyway.

The columns are crammed with light-hearted jokes and with quasi—cynical comment. The most robust and colourful execration was reserved for trench digging. It was more than an ordinary flash of genius which inspired the following "advertisement" in The Listening Post, the 7th Battalion's magazine and the pioneer of all such publications:

"WANTED—Work wanted for several hundred able-bodied men, at present employed only 20 hours each day. Would like profitable employment for remaining four hours. Digging or carrying preferred. Apply —th Battalion."

In the same strain an announcement is made with fine sarcasm in The 20th Gazette that "there is no truth in the rumor that Woodrow Wilson has written General Sir Sam Hughes asking for the services of this Battalion to assist in reveting the Panama Canal."

And again:

"The Battalion Crest, we understand, is to be changed and something more truly representative of our work to be substituted. The device most in favor is a pretty little thing of crossed communication-trenches, surmounted by an entrenching-tool rampant."

Rations were a fertile source of scorn; pay and billets came a close second. Hence one of the magazines under survey observes as a scientifically established fact: "It has been demonstrated that a bullet which will penetrate 18 inches of solid brick-work will pierce only one and a half inches into a loaf of bread (army issue)."

At the latter end of 1915, when the Corps held the line between Vormezeele and Plug Street, torrential rains combined with German shelling to make the trenches uninhabitable and the men's lives miserable. Parapets fell in or were blown in, shelters were flooded, sickness and battle-casualties thinned the ranks, and general conditions were depressing, but here is how one magazine reacted to them:

"Extracts from (expected) Brigade Orders.

"1—Commanders of submarines plying in the communication trenches are requested to see that these vessels are not used by pleasure parties between the lines.

"2—Non-commissioned officers and men are not allowed to use the bathing—beach at XZ—50 Trench. This is for officers only.

"3—Ration and fatigue-parties must not participate in swimming races to the firing line, owing to the presence of hostile submarines.

"4—Owing to the scarcity of material for filling sandbags, any man who consumes more than 10 lbs of mud a day will be severely dealt with."

From the time that Horace, hanging the emblem of his art on the wall of the temple, plumed himself on having fought "non sine gloria," poet-soldiers have been numerous. The trench magazine yields a curious anthology. Verses in limping rythm and cruder rhyme, but replete with profound feeling and pathos as the soldier struggled to give expression to the thought within

him, wind through the columns in company with bantering couplets and ribald limericks. In general, however, not much space is given to any serious phases of verse-making. Four line stanzas that airily touch on regimental matters, or that are written simply as flippant nothings, furnish the bulk of the "poetry." The following sneer at the artillery is not untypical of the infantryman:

"How doth the busy Bombardier
Improve his shining hours?
By dropping shells in Heiney's trench
And prematures in ours."

"Blighty," connoting as it did everything that the troops yearned for, inspired the home-sick lines that follow:

"When we're lyin' in our dugout
An' our feet is clammy wet,
With a piece o' candle splutterin'
In a greeny, yeller jet,
An' the water's drippin', drippin'
From a hole above our dome,
Then—we lies an' thinks o' Blighty,
What we mean is 'Over 'Ome.' "

But the inclination of the troops ran more toward Limericks, with a special flair for peculiarities of pronunciation:

"Said a Cockney on furlough from Ypres:
'It's a rotten ole village for snypres,
An' the things as they do
Aint exactly wot you
Reads abaht over 'ome in the pypres."

The village of La Clytte, near Dickebusch, has been immortalized thus:

"There was a young man of La Clytte,
Who, at drinking, could never be bytte,
He drank up his ale
By the jug and the pail
ut he rarely, if ever, touched mytte."

The truth of the epigrams quoted hereunder will not be gainsaid.

"Promotion is a ladder upon which many prefer to climb from an airship.

"It's hard to live within our franc a day—but that's easier than to live without it.

"Things we have noticed—that the Commanding Officer never on inspections asks to see the Field Marshal's baton that every soldier is supposed to carry in his knapsack."

As intimated, there was also a serious side to the trench magazines, although this was not unduly laboured. It is noted that one in particular—The 20th Gazette—began to print the battalion's casualties as soon as the unit reached France in September, 1915. More eloquent than anything else is the growing amount of space demanded by the record of fallen comrades. And then, the record ceases: the list becomes too large. An unwritten story of heroism and devotion lies within the following simple acknowledgement of the Commanding Officer which appears in an issue dated February, 1916:

"It is desired to place on record the self-sacrificing services of two of our late departed comrades, Privates —— and ——, who on the eve of Christmas Day voluntarily offered their services in the face of great danger. to assist in the removal of a wounded comrade for medical attention.

"It is deeply regretted that in this service, they made the last great sacrifice of their own lives."

It must not be assumed that the soldier-editors enjoyed any privileges in virtue of their work. On the contrary, they carried out all their military duties and wrote their magazine in what spare time they had. This is made abundantly clear by the editorial extract:—

"Our readers realize the difficulties we experience each time we get back to billets, for it is the editors' pride that at no time has the work of the Gazette interfered with the military duties of those responsible for it."

This broad statement undergoes a slight modification in the next sentence, which admits rather wistfully that "on one happy occasion we were excused a short route-march. That is one of the sweet memories of a glorious past."

This magazine was ambitious; it refused to be restricted to cold type; it reached out toward line-cuts and half-tones. Justifiable pride rings through an announcement that the magazine is going "to print illustrated jokes and cartoons" provided that someone can be found to draw them. "The editors," says the organ coaxingly "will be pleased to place drawing pads, ink, pens and brushes at the disposal of anyone who will volunteer."

The emergency found the men, for illustrated jokes grace later issues. The drawings, it is quite true, reveal certain deficiencies in technique, but that is unimportant. The chief point is that they enlivened the paper, and there they are with the name of the soldier-artist in the corner.

A clear index to the morale of the troops, the trench magazine is a humble but a valuable souvenir, and as such is an honoured relic that deserves recognition as a contribution to the war effort of the country.