Entertainment & Arts

World War One exhibition explores role of black humour

WW1 postcards
The exhibition includes a selection of humorous postcards

A new exhibition highlights how black humour helped troops cope with the horror of World War One.

Enduring War - Grief, Grit and Humour, which opens this week at the British Library, features cartoons, posters and the manuscripts of famous war poets.

It also includes magazines of cartoons produced for troops in the trenches.

"When we were putting the exhibition together we were struck by the amount of material that uses humour," said co-curator Dr Matthew Shaw.

"For the troops it was a way of talking about life on the front line, as well as satirising their officers and demonising their enemy."

The trench journals were produced very close to the Front, sometimes on captured printing presses.

One journal, The Waitemata Wobbler, was created on board a New Zealand troop ship carrying reinforcements to the Western Front.

"We didn't want to be flippant or suggest the Front was a barrel of laughs," said Dr Shaw.

"But there was something about the military experience that brought out a certain sense of humour. The ever-present threat of death and dismemberment focused the mind."

The troops' Christmas cards display a self-deprecating humour and a use of puns
Cartoons in trench journal Aussie, the Australian soldiers' magazine, from April 1918
The trench journals contained a mix of jokes, poetry, spoof adverts and satire
A British political cartoon map depicts Russia as a bear and Germany as an eagle

Political satire also played an important role on both sides as a weapon to mock the enemy.

The exhibition features British cartoons that depict the German emperor Wilhelm II and his son as helpless blunderers. A postcard shows the Germans as radishes.

A German satirical magazine Simplicissimus depicts the world drenched in blood with a personification of the British Empire trying to hold onto it.

"There's a lot of self mocking too," said Dr Shaw. "On a Christmas card a Scottish regiment portray themselves as thistles giving the enemy a bit of a prick."

Also on show is the manuscript of Rupert Brook's well-known war poem The Soldier and a letter from Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to his mother in which he describes his anxieties about his son serving at the Front.

Other items on display include a handkerchief bearing lyrics for It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary, a schoolboy essay about airship raids over London, and a knitting pattern for balaclavas.

Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour runs at the British Library from 19 June to 12 October 2014

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