Humour and horror of war

There are terrific rain storms as the British attack the Germans in Flanders. The mud is as deadly an enemy as the German machine guns. (Exhibition text by Terry Deary)

Horrible Histories: Frightful First World War - The Exhibition
A partnership between Imperial War Museum North, Terry Deary and Scholastic Children's Books
Special Exhibitions Gallery 24 May 2008 - January 2009. FREE
There are terrific rain storms as the British attack the Germans in Flanders. The mud is as deadly an enemy as the German machine guns. (Exhibition text by Terry Deary) Horrible Histories: Frightful First World War - The Exhibition A partnership between Imperial War Museum North, Terry Deary and Scholastic Children's Books Special Exhibitions Gallery 24 May 2008 - January 2009. FREE
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Throughout human history, people in adversity have used humour to alleviate the stresses and strains of daily life. Some research on humour shows that it is a major factor in achieving, and sustaining, higher psychological wellbeing … and the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Great War, never mind the families left at home, certainly needed some of that!

Growing up as a child of the troubles in Belfast in the 1970s a sense of humour was essential for attempting to deal with the mad day-to-day reality of shootings, bombings and killings. A kind of gallows humour evolved. It was no different in the trenches of the First World War. Let’s face it, most of the men had to deal with a grim reality and the stories of many are deeply tragic. Despite the circumstances not all the humour was black.

Among the audio recorded in the thirties of war veterans’ stories by the Imperial War Museum is that told by a private who witnessed the Christmas Truce of 1914. “The Germans had been singing Christmas carols and one of them had held up a sign which said ‘Gott mit tuns’ or God is with us. So we held up a sign too which said ‘We’ve got mittens too’…I’m not sure if they saw the funny side of it.”

Another story related a company of men walking along a dusty road in France, presumably away from the front as they were singing. At the front of the company and singing with gusto along with the men, a particularly rude song about Field Marshal Haig, was a jolly sergeant.

As they are walking along, the jolly sergeant, still singing with gusto, is unaware that the song is getting quieter and quieter as fewer and fewer of the men are continuing to sing, until he is the only one singing. As he looks around he sees that he is abreast of Field Marshal Haig striding through the company of men on his horse. No more jolly sergeant.

On a trip to the Somme battlefields some years ago I met a railwayman from Liverpool called Joe, who had been visiting the area every year since the late sixties. He told me a story about when he was sitting outside a café having a beer in the town of Albert, close to the 1916 frontline. Inside were a group of veterans having a great time, drinking the local wine and beer and singing the old bawdy songs of the war (there are many versions of A Long Way to Tipperary, most unprintable).

While Joe was sitting there laughing at the songs he was joined, first by Somme historian Martin Middlebrook, and then shortly after by a man who turned out to be Haig’s son. At that moment the veterans launched into a series of songs that were, again, none too complimentary of his dad, the said Field Marshal. Joe didn’t know where to look…or what to say. The son never batted an eyelid.

However, I’ll leave the grimmest act of humour of the war to the French soldiers at the Chemin des Dames in April 1917. Marching towards the German machine guns, and to their almost certain destruction, they bleated like sheep.

If you have any information on casualties of the First World War from North Tyneside, contact the website www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call into our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre, Linskill Terrace, North Shields, Monday to Friday from 10am to 4pm. You can also drop me an email tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk