Lately I’ve been listening to the excellent BBC documentary World War I, which you can download and then listen to, incongruously, while waiting on line at the grocery store. The series presents the listener with a multifaceted portrait of the Great War, but—for obvious reasons, given the topic—it’s not exactly a laugh a minute.
That’s part of what makes the British Library’s new exhibition, “Enduring War: Grit, Grief, and Humour,” so surprising. Of course, people have always laughed and joked and made the best of awful situations—resilience is a marvelous thing. But the lighter side of World War I hasn’t come in for much scrutiny.
The exhibition is multifaceted: there are propaganda posters, excerpts from Rupert Brooke’s war journals, harrowing accounts of gassings and shell-shock, and horrifying casualty numbers. But along with this, the curators have made a point of highlighting soldiers’ darkly humorous letters and joke postcards; photos of servicemen goofing off; and satirical excerpts from the morale-boosting publication Honk! The voice of the benzine lancers.
If you’re wondering whether I’m reporting this live from the British Library’s Folio Room, let me just say: I wish. But the library’s World War I archive page is absolutely fantastic. I spent literal hours learning about army chaplains, war dogs, civilian diets, trenchfoot remedies. The range of materials is enormous: you can see both the original manuscript of “Dulce et Decorum Est” and read about “the presence and variety of swearing within World War One ranks and how its use bonded or divided soldiers.” To wit,
If swearing was part of the brutalizing process of the war, it was also capable of wit and invention. A devious and clever indication of word and accent comes in W H Downing’s 1919 Australian war glossary, Digger Dialects, in a couple of definitions: Carksucker—American soldier; Fooker—English private. This enjoyment of the potential for wit in swearing is also seen in the description of the anti-gas Phenate-Hexamine or PH Helmet by Captains Robert Graves and J C Dunn of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who famously described it as the “goggle-eyed (or googly-eyed) bugger with the tit.”
‘If a whiff of gas you smell,
Bang your gong like bloody hell,
On with your googly, up with your gun—
Ready to meet the bloody Hun’
If you’re in London, you can see the posters, ephemera, and artifacts for yourself: the show opens today.