Humor, Entertainment, and Popular Culture during World War One
Edited by Clémentine Tholas-Disset & Karen A. Ritzenhoff
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
Hardcover. xvi+288 p. ISBN 978-1137449092. £62
Reviewed by Jessica Meyer
University of Leeds
In his final 2000 Lees Knowles lectures, ‘Thinking the Unthinkable : The First World War as history’, Brian Bond bemoaned the fact that ‘the gulf between serious historical studies and popular misconceptions, encouraged by the media, may … be widening’,(1) a gap that Stephen Badsey dubbed the ‘Two Western Fronts debate.’(2) Among the factors Bond identified as responsible for perpetuating such misconceptions in Britain, he included the trend for teaching the war as English literature rather than history, with a focus on a small selection of poems, particularly those of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
The two western fronts debate has moved on in the past decade and a half, particularly in light of the work of a range of scholars from both sides seeking to wed historical and literary modes of analysis in creative and enlightening ways. Clémentine Tholas-Disset and Karen A. Ritzehoff’s new collection on Humour, Entertainment, and Popular Culture During World I undoubtedly attempts to add to this literature through both its focus on ‘cultural artifacts [sic] produced between 1914 and 1918 and [its desire] to grasp the actual experience of populations in the moment’ . Yet, despite the impressive range of cultural expressions originating across Europe and the United States examined by the scholars collected here, this volume, by concentrating so firmly on cultural representation rather than reception, often risks perpetuating rather than overturning methodological practices.
This is due, perhaps, to the fact that the editors’ thematic focus on humour as the overarching justification for the volume, as a challenge to what Karen Randell describes in the preface as ‘The way that we discuss this war, … solemn, respectful, and most certainly humourless’ [xii], is something of a straw man. From the cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfather through Oh! What a Lovely War (Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop, 1963) to Blackadder Goes Forth (BBC1, 1989), humour has played a part in British experience and commemoration of the war throughout the past 100 years, even if Conservative politician Michael Gove’s attack on the use of Blackadder as a teaching tool was, unlike Badsey’s critique of the programme, both humourless and ill-informed. Humour and its artefacts have also provided source material for an increasing range of social and cultural historians. In British history, recent examples include the work of Jeffrey Reznick and Ana Carden-Coyne, who have both used cartoons in hospital journals to explore the experiences of military medical patients and caregivers during the war, and of Lois Bibbings, who uses the cartoon images of conscientious objectors in her excellent study of the range of wartime representations of these men.
Nevertheless, what the authors in this new volume do achieve is to focus critical attention on a wide variety of less well-known forms of humorous expression from the war years across a remarkable range of national cultures and cultural forms. Indeed, the principal strength of the volume is the very obscurity of much of the subject matter explored. Lawrence Napper elegantly pieces together the fragmentary remains of the film Alf’s Buttons; Jenna L. Kubly recovers four wartime one-act plays by J.M. Barrie; Robert Crawford turns a critical gaze on the wartime exploits of Chunder Loo, the advertising figure of the Australian shoe polish brand Cobra. Where better-known sources are the focus, as in Konrad Du Pont’s chapter on trench newspapers, an international approach is used to draw out comparisons and contrasts, even if there is little original to say about the overarching significance of the humour of the papers themselves. In all these examples, the showcasing of forgotten and ephemeral cultural artefacts and of the artefacts from unfairly neglected sources demonstrates that the range of cultural narratives available during the war years was more diverse and complex than either the scholarly literature or school teaching of the subject currently reflects.
There are disadvantages to this emphasis on the variety of lesser-known forms of humour, encompassing as it does everything from film and literature to advertising and recipes. The sixteen chapters are all short, leading most authors to focus on narrative descriptions of the texts and images, leaving little space for analysis in many. Where analysis does occur, it can demonstrate the obvious problem associated with explaining humour, in that it can be hard to see how the material discussed is actually funny. And while the international aims of the volume are clear and to be heartily welcomed, the contributions remain dominated by discussions of Allied cultural forms, particularly British and American, with Jakub Kazecki’s discussion of Walter Bloem’s Vormarsch a welcome exception.
The volume also suffers from a rather clunky editorial approach, perhaps best epitomised by the insertion of ‘WWI’ as a contraction for World War I on multiple occasions in the first few chapters and then not at all in the later ones. Such inconsistencies, alongside a number of typos and texts which have either been poorly translated or rely too heavily on discipline-specific jargon, create a distracting barrier between the reader and the subject under discussion.
This is a pity as there is much to be gained from taking a closer look at many of the sources discussed, which do indeed bring to light aspects of wartime culture across the globe which have been neglected by historians and cultural critics alike. While these essays are limited by length, they present an encouraging variety of avenues for further exploration, not least by social and cultural historians interested in locating these texts more fully in the contexts of audience reception, social development and transnational encounter. The authors collected here do a huge service to all scholars in the field of First World War studies in rescuing such a fascinating range of original sources from historical obscurity, even if they do demonstrate that some of the methodological disagreements between the two Western fronts remain far from resolved.
(1) Brian Bond, The Unquiet Western Front : Britain’s Role in Literature and History. Cambridge: University Press, 2002 : 75.
(2) Stephen Badsey, The British Army in Battle and its Image, 1914-1918. London: Continuum, 2009 : 37.
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