Trench Humour

The Forty-Niner, the magazine of Edmonton’s own 49th battalion, is a publication that was intended to build solidarity among the men and sometimes has the feel of a university newspaper with insider jokes. It also provided news about the boys to families at home because, as noted in the first issue, “soldiers are proverbially poor letter-writers.” It includes information about promotions, marriages, deaths and injuries as well as progress of the war.

There are some excellent articles and cartoons, many of which exhibit black humour. This is not unusual since the men faced death daily and witnessed the sometimes brutal injuries and deaths of their friends.

Volume 1, No. 4, 1915 of the Forty-Niner has a tongue-in-cheek article titled “Regulations for the Trenches” that is the epitome of such humour. It purports to be an “Extract from Daily Orders, part 77, subsection 129 X.Z.V., paragraph 33, quarter section 19, range 56, meridian 23 W.” Of course, farm boys would immediately relate to the description of homestead locators as part of the orders. The regulations are as follows:

  1. It is to be distinctly understood that on no account is anyone to swim in the trenches unless clothed in the regulation bathing dress.
  2. Boots, gum, thigh, when issued for the purpose of keeping mud off the uniform are to be used as such, and on no account is one allowed to pull his feet from them and leave the boot in the trench.
  3. Real estate in “Nomans ground” is placed there for the express purpose of allowing one to dig for souvenirs, and on no account is one allowed to use it for any other purpose.
  4. Special precautions should be taken to avoid all traps, dead-falls, snares, etc., and should covers of opera-glasses be seen lying about a party of twenty men should at once be detailed to remove same.
  5. Constitutionals after dark are on no account to be indulged in. Officers will please take a special note.
  6. Should a shell fall short of the trench and cause no casualties, a signal to that effect should at once be communicated to the enemy. A signal suggested is that of placing one’s hat on the end of the rifle and waving same violently to and fro.
  7. Recreation rooms are provided in the advanced sap, and a demonstration of the pyrotechnical art will be given at frequent intervals, attendance at them is optional.
  8. Men while on duty in the trenches will always appear at the dinner-table in a clean and shaven condition, and will supply their own food.

Excellent cartoons reinforce the ironies of war and men living on the edge but still expected to behave as “gentlemen.” The issue includes a contest in which readers are asked to identify one of their numbers in a sketch by Geo Brown, their “brilliant” cartoonist, with the winner receiving 20 volumes of the Forty-Niner and the runner-up receiving 10 volumes [the current issue was number 4]. The deadline is given as 31st July, 1932.