Humour in the First World War workshop

On 20 June we held a highly successful workshop, sponsored by the Open University’s War and Conflict in the Twentieth Century research group, that brought together over 20 scholars working on humour during the First World War. Whilst humour was an important feature of everyday life during the conflict, its significance has often been overlooked. Despite this, studies of trench newspapers, cartoons, and popular entertainment, for example, have begun to reveal how humour was used, both on the home and fighting fronts, for a variety of purposes. Through examining humorous responses to the war in a range of forms and contexts, this workshop promoted further discussion within this burgeoning area of research.


14.00 – 14.15      Registration and Opening Remarks

14.15 – 14.45      Emily Anderson (Newcastle): Humour and the Written Representation of the Great War, 1914 – 1918.

14.45 – 15.15      Vincent Trott (Open): American Humour and the Road to War: A Case Study of Life Magazine, 1914 – 1917.

15.15 – 15.45      Coffee Break

15.45 – 16.15      Emma Hanna (Kent): Fighting Fear with Humour: Songs and Singing in the RFC/RAF, 1914 – 1918

16.15 – 16.45      Julian Walker (UCL): Populist Satirical Magazines During the First World War

16.45 – 17.15      Closing Discussion

Emily Anderson (Newcastle): Humour and the Written Representation of the Great War, 1914 – 1918.

Abstract: An abundance of humorous Great War literature was written and published in the 1914-18 period. Humour appears in a multitude of different genres and texts about the conflict; there are even flashes of humour in writing that is otherwise solemn. On the relatively rare occasions on which such humorous texts are discussed, they tend to be seen as material for emotional relief, emphasis being placed on their potential for improving morale. This is in contrast to the war’s most famous, solemn literature, which has been extensively explored for its representational force. I give a number of examples from a variety of genres of how humour contributed to the depiction of life during the war, including a discussion of how different kinds of humour were especially well-suited to the portrayal of certain aspects of the conflict. I argue that forms of humorous literature that were well-established before the outbreak of the fighting were sufficiently robust to capture a range of war experiences. In doing so, I draw attention to the nuanced tones, complex pictures, and moving impressions of the war that humour often created.

Biography: Emily is a third year PhD student at Newcastle University, funded by the AHRC Northern Bridge partnership. Her research examines humour’s role in depicting the Great War in poetry, trench newspapers, short stories, and plays published in the 1914-18 period. She previously completed an MSc at The University of Edinburgh and a BA at the University of Cambridge.

Vincent Trott (Open): American Humour and the Road to War: A Case Study of Life Magazine, 1914 – 1917.

 Abstract: During the First World War, humorous magazines played an important role in galvanising popular support for the war effort across the combatant countries. They also shaped public opinion regarding the war in the United States, which remained neutral until 1917. One of the largest and most influential of these periodicals was Life magazine, which adopted a staunchly pro-Allied stance upon the war’s outbreak and soon began to argue the case for US intervention. Despite the significance of magazines like Life, the importance of humour and laughter during the First World War, and especially in the United States during this period, has often been overlooked by historians. This talk will discuss how Life used jokes, cartoons and satirical articles to influence public opinion during the First World War. It will also situate the magazine within the wider context of American publishing during the conflict, demonstrating how the industry helped to pave the way for US intervention.

Biography: Vincent Trott is Lecturer in History at the Open University, where his research focuses on the history and memory of the First World War, and on the history of publishing and reading in the twentieth century. His first book, Publishers, Readers and the Great War (Bloomsbury, 2017), explores the role of the publishing industry in shaping the memory of the First World War in Britain. He is currently researching humour during the First World War, with a particular focus on satirical periodicals.

Emma Hanna (Kent): Fighting Fear with Humour: Songs and Singing in the RFC/RAF, 1914 –1918

 Abstract: Using song books, published memoirs and officers’ personal papers from a range of archives, the development and dissemination of the songs will be discussed in the context of RFC/RAF squadron culture. This analysis will show that music and songs – many of them humorous – had several key functions for men serving with the RFC/RAF to dissipate fear and anxiety, to maintain airmen’s morale and enhance the squadron’s esprit de corps.

Biography: Dr Emma Hanna is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of History at the University of Kent. Emma has published widely on First World War history including contemporary memory, memorialisation, the media and wartime culture. She is a Co-Investigator on two major research projects: Gateways to the First World War (AHRC, 2014-2019) and Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War: Learning & Legacies for the Future (AHRC, 2017-2020). Her second monograph – on music and morale in the British Forces 1914-18 – will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. 

 Julian Walker (UCL): Populist Satirical Magazines During the First World War

 Abstract: Though Punch is the most well-known satirical magazine of nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, other magazines, aimed at the lower-middle classes, had a much bigger circulation in the period leading up to the First World War. In 1914 there were a group of cheap magazines which, though they joined in the general patriotism, soon began to exploit the war for humour and social comment. Clear targets for satire can be specified: women in uniform; women’s roles in wartime; the family and marriage; and female sexuality. Less obviously, also being satirised are the citizen armies’ identification with khaki, wealthy men’s fascination with chorus-girls, the suffragist movement, flappers and knuts, competition between women within performance culture, and male sexuality. The fact that humour is directed at what might be expected to be seen as totally off limits – atrocities against civilians – questions the sense of the wartime inviolability of national and allied unity. The magazines sometimes appear to be operating with only loose editorial control, with contradictory messages; and regular sections on transgressive sexuality and sexual violence make analysis even more difficult, so that what initially appears to be robust humour reads more as a record of social comment on sexuality, power, and gender and class tension. Though the context of wartime is ever present, there is little topical reference to war events, other than as they affect the Home Front; thus the magazines show a side of the war in which the soldiers are seen through civilian eyes. But they throw up contradictions that confound easy explanations: despite circulation figures possibly three times as high as Punch, the magazines are hardly ever mentioned outside their own circle; the mastheads show soldier readers but the magazines barely mention events or life at the Front, though one soldier slang reference shows there can be no doubt of soldiers’ familiarity with the magazines; aimed at the supposedly respectable lower-middle classes fascinated with performance celebrities, their unrestrained joking about sex looks surprisingly modern; and though openly misogynistic they employed women writers and openly advertised contraceptive products for women. Close examination of these satirical magazines may reveal aspects of the Home Front that look more like post-war Berlin than Lyons teashop London.

Biography: Julian Walker has spent several years researching the language of the First World War, work which has produced Trench Talk (2012), written with Peter Doyle, and the Languages and the First World War project, currently based at UCL. This project stemmed from the international conference of that name in 2014, with two volumes of essays, and a second conference in London and Brussels in September 2018. His Words and the First World War, a contextual study of English during the conflict, was published in 2017. He is a workshop leader at the British Library, and lectures at a range of institutions on the history of printing.

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