(Continued, more or less, from Adventure and the Great War.)
Even though World War I had its share of adventure stories, you’ll note that these are primarily “exonymous”—they’re stories written by people viewing the war from a distance for children not even eligible to enlist. What about the actual soldiers, who were watching civilization crumble to bits first hand, and not just reading about it in the papers? For them was it all the “monstrous anger of the guns” and the “demented choirs of wailing shells”?
In our own time we have discovered a joy much deeper than laughter; it is forbidding others from laughing. But this is a recent innovation, and back in the 19-teens people still believed in laughter. We already established that no one is aware, in the thick of it, that history is happening; by the time they returned to the tattered remnants of their civilization, the veterans would know to write about despair, but before their return they had not necessarily caught on. The result is that a surprising amount of writing from WWI, from the soldiers in WWI, is funny.
Some of Saki’s last stories (last because he died in the war, in 1916) are perhaps the most famous instance, but neither the best nor the most representative. Look instead at Percy Crosby’s war comics.
Crosby would later become the most popular cartoonist in America, a huge influence on both Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes is pretty much just Crosby’s Skippy plus Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby); then he would drink himself into the madhouse while Skippy peanut butter robbed his heirs of their patrimony.
But at the moment he was a lieutenant on the front, sending cartoons home to be syndicated in American newspapers. Neither his art nor his wit was a sharp as it would become in the next decade, but both are solid, and the two book collections of his wartime strips are available free online.
Somewhat less accomplished are the primitively drawn cartoons of cavalryman R.D. Whitcomb, also online. “General prisoner” is about as good as he gets, but he’s trying—trying, he explicitly states in his brief intro, to show people “the humorous side of our soldiers’ life and enable them to laugh for a wee small hour.”
George Steeter is best known for writing the novel Father of the Bride (starring Spencer Tracy or Steve Martin), but thirty years earlier he was a war correspondent embedded (is that anachronistic?) in the 25th Infantry, where he wrote a series of serialized humorous sketches in the form of letters home from a borderline literate private, Bill Smith. I think there are five collections in the series, some published after the war ended, although I could only find four online. The books are solid gagwork.Bill writes his girlfriend requesting that she help him get furlough by telegraphing about her own death and requesting Bill be allowed to “come up for the funeral ‘on or about’ the middle of the month.” Or, on a transport train: “The only reason we didn’t murder anyone was there wasn’t room.”
Streeter included a disclaimer in one volume:
Not for one moment has there been any thought of making light of that splendid, almost foolhardy, bravery which has characterized the American soldier. It was he himself who made light of it, as he did of the whole war, and probably would of doomsday.
Somewhat less light about doomsday was A.P. Herbert, a British seaman during the war, who wrote the first (and arguably the best; sorry, Remarque! we sill love you) Great War novel. But before that (and also after that) he wrote humorous poetry, published primarily in Punch. His wartime poetry, collected online here, is while still funny much grimmer than the American texts above, doubtless the result of so many more years of fighting. His ballade with the refrain “I think I must be going mad today,” for example, is on the one hand a lighthearted monologue from an overworked orderly; with its insistence on must it is also a semiserious threat of madness in the face of war, and this war in particular. His poem (“Chain of Responsibility”) about a general who is angry at the weather and vents on his subordinate, who vents on his subordinate, and so on down to a soldier who kicks a horse, is a standard set of comic frustrations, as you might have seen in the Sunday funnies, but the last line, following the senseless violence against a dumb brute, is: “And one more day is added to the war.” It’s a powerful ending, but it’s not exactly a punchline.
Herbert makes his motivation for light verse in the face of slaughter explicit in his book’s prologue, addressing directly the servicemen he expects to be reading poetry in their spare time (it was a different world):
Yet may you in this jester’s pages
Be sure the battle sometimes ends.
Nor only death the soldier’s wages,
But there are farms and laughing friends,
And wine and wonders and delicious leisures.
And dreaming villages where children dwell—
And if, mayhap, you cannot catch the pleasures.
Believe, at least, it is not always Hell.
Indeed, with the sole exception of his war novel, everything else Herbert would write in his life—poetry, essays, and trivia books about the legal system—would be humorous.
(Herbert was also the last MP from Oxford, serving until Oxford lost its right to have MPs; also also, he coined the phrase: “Let’s not go to the dogs tonight.” It was a full life.)
Right at the beginning of the war, E.V. Lucas and illustrator George Morrow published a parody of the popular German children’s book Shock-Headed Peter, a work that was frequently parodied in those days, Swollen-Headed William, featuring a truculent, obnoxious Kaiser Wilhelm. It’s as bloodthirsty and quick-witted as its source material (Struwwelpeter kills off or mutilates misbehaving children in amusing Bellocesque ways) and gains a lot from a side-by-side comparison. (Struwwelpeter was famous enough even in the English-speaking world at the time that the parallel layouts would have been immediately apparent to readers.)
But for all the fun at the Kaiser’s expense, the book is very sad. In 1914 everyone thought the war would be over by Christmas. Lucas makes it sound rather easy to catch the mischievous Kaiser and adonibezecate his thumbs; the war was to prove to be much longer and much more traumatic than he could have guessed. Even worse is the picture of the French dog feasting on “the finest banquet ever known,” helpfully labeled “indemnity”; this is, of course, the mindset that will lead to Versailles, which in turn will lead straight to WWII. There was no way to know, in 1914, that none of this, none of it should have been funny.
The best jokes, of course, come when you don’t expect them, which is a problem for self-consciously humorous books. “The more I see of this country,” Edward Streeter’s Bill wrote about France, “the more patriotic I get,” which is pretty funny. But Robert Graves seminal memoir of his wartime experiences, Goodbye to All That, gives the same material with better delivery. “No more wars for me at any price!” Graves vows, at the war’s end. “Except against the French.”