25 April 2013

'Published Daily, Shells Permitting': Soldiers' Newspapers in the Dunedin City Library

Today is Anzac Day, the national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand.* 

As we reflect on the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces, this week's post highlights something that provided a welcome distraction from the duties of active service: soldiers' newspapers.

Better known as troopship and trench journals (and the two are distinct), these periodicals were written, published, and occasionally illustrated, by the soldiers themselves. Some papers were even printed aboard ship at sea. They range from the most basic hand-written news sheets to the pinnacle of professional journalistic and artistic skills, designed to inform, entertain, and improve the morale of the troops who were so far from home. Typically full of wit and black humour, content included official (and unofficial) campaign reports, satirical commentary on military life at sea or at the Front, topical poems and limericks, caricatures (particularly of officers), and other artistic endeavours.

A number of the papers, such as the Mafeking Mail (South Africa, 1899), note their issues were published daily or weekly, 'shells permitting’.

This last half-joking comment reflects another purpose behind the creation of such journals: humour in the face of death and destruction. For soldiers on active duty these journals provided much needed light relief from the horrors of war. To the modern reader, their impact is perhaps best summarised by Professor Graham Seal of Curtin University (Australia): ‘Through this mostly forgotten literature, language and art we can connect with the common concerns of foot soldiers and perhaps understand a little better how they endured the unendurable and why, at its end, many of the survivors experienced oddly mixed feelings of relief and regret’. 

The Dunedin Public Library is fortunate to hold one of the largest collection of these soldiers' newspapers, journals, and official military souvenirs in New Zealand. The collection was begun by Dunedin's first librarian, William Barker McEwan (1870-1933). Showing great foresight, McEwan put out the call for returning soldiers to donate their First World War troopship and trench journals as early as 1915. He made further requests  from the New Zealand High Commissioner in London, Sir Thomas McKenzie, the Dominion Museum, and the Chief Librarian in Cape Town South Africa, where many journals were printed during port-of-call stops. Journals from the Second World War were added by Miss Elizabeth Bryant, who served as interim Public Librarian after McEwan's death. Bryant kept alive McEwan's goal of building one of the best troopship journal collections in the country, and the library maintains an active collection development policy in this area.
Today the collection numbers more than 380 journals and papers. The following is a small representative sample, with most of the examples dating to the First World War when Anzac Day was founded. I had less choice than usual, but with very good reason. The library is currently involved in a project with the Auckland War Memorial Museum to digitize troopship and trench journals in time for the First World War centenary next year, and a number of the library's journals are presently with the Museum.

The Gymeric Times; printed aboard ship bound for South Africa, April 1900
The Gymeric Times was published for troops bound for the Second Boer War, and boasted at having 'the honour of ... [introducing] the first paper issued on board a troopship from New Zealand'.

The Gunner; printed at sea, 1914
Illustration of Kaiser Wilhelm II surrounded by lions representing each corner of the British Empire, with the Russian bear and French eagle in background.

The Grey Funnel; published in London, 1917
 A shipboard artist's impress of the sardine-line conditions aboard ship.

The Digger; published in Capetown, South Africa, 1918
 Cover illustration showing a Kiwi soldier skewering the leaders of the Central Powers.

Napoo; published in Wellington, 1919
 'Napoo' was a slang term for 'to finish; to put an end to; to kill'.

Convoice; printed at sea, 1914
Convoice was a mostly cheerful account of life aboard the Niew Amsterdam. The journal included cartoons by the great New Zealand cartoonist Nevile Lodge (1918-1989), who was on board.


For more information, see Graham Seal's The Soldiers' Press: Trench Journals in the First World War, published earlier this month by Palgrave Macmillan; David Kent's From Trench and Troopship: The Experience of the Australian Imperial Force, 1914-1919 (1999); and Professor Seal's summary of trench journals on the Simply Australia website.
*Be sure to check out the National Library of New Zealand's latest blog post on its war diaries project, written by David Colquhoun (Curator, Manuscripts at Alexander Turnbull Library).

No comments:

Post a Comment