Friday 1 May 2015

How the “humorous” magazine Punch saw WW1

Belgium bars the way - August 1914
Amid the many commemorations now in progress about World War 1, “The Great War” as it was known to its contemporaries, there is a strong tendency for us to look back and see events according to the values and views prevalent today. It can therefore be jarring to be confronted with the views that many educated and “establishment” figures held at the time. I was reminded of this in the last week when I looked again in a book I had found some years ago in a second-hand store. This was “Mr. Punch’s History of the Great War”, published in 1919, and it brought together samples, including cartoons, of the “Punch” magazine’s coverage of the war. Founded in 1841, Punch was to continue publication until 1992, with a brief re-animation from 1996 to 2002.

Ireland and Britannia - Punch's view
Often been described as a “Great British Institution”, Punch offered an allegedly humorous and often satiric commentary on the events and personalities of its time and was instrumental in creating both the political and the humorous cartoon in the form we know it today. When one does however look in detail at its material in the late 19th and early 20th century one is struck not only by how wholly unfunny, but often also how downright nasty, it was, especially as regards its perennial targets. These included women (usually foolish), the lower orders (generally naïve), servants (especially stupid) and Irish (often portrayed as chimpanzees in cartoons reminiscent of those in Julius Streicher’s “Der Stürmer”).

Punch’s cartoons during the Great War fell into two categories. The first type were serious, political and heavily symbolic. The most notable from the first weeks of the war, in which plucky little Belgium is standing up to the German bully.  Though many of this sort were later over-pious for modern taste in exaltation of the Allied cause, or too ponderously satiric as regards the Central Powers, the draughtsmanship was of a high order and the odd cartoon of this type still has the power to move or impress.

It is from the second category, the “humorous” cartoons, essentially illustrated jokes, that the modern reader is most likely to recoil.  Here Punch returns to its favourite targets – women, lower orders and Irish – and the humour, if it could be dignified as such, is cruel and even vicious, and when it was not it was frequently insultingly patronising. Even allowing for changes in values over the last century one cannot but think that the butts of Punch’s humour would have been wounded and resentful.  It's hard to imagine any of these cartoon's bringing a smile, other than one of smug superiority, to a reader's lips. Contempt and ridicule is never welcome – and even less so when a nation is supposed to be united in a war effort.

 The reader may draw his or her own conclusions from the random sample I've taken from“Mr. Punch’s History of the Great War”,shown below.

Women: patronised and ridiculed even when volunteering for land-service 
Another woman - stupid, of course - who has volunteered for land service
Irish soldier in the trenches - stupid but at least not simian!
Always good for a laugh - the naive female servant
"Comic" Royal Marine - absolutely hilarious!
The Lower Orders in Uniform - dishonest when not stupid
Women - naive when not stupid
Stupid women - the ever-reliable stereotype
Women and Air raids - another hilarious joke
The Scots recruit - yet another national stereotype
Irish ape's assessment of the cost of casualties
And to finish on a sentimental note...

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