In part three of their series exploring British Army humour during World War One, Peter Hart and Gary Bain examine how jovial stoicism and a little schadenfreude helped ‘Tommy’ cope with trench warfare

Reading accounts of World War One can generate a remarkably confused picture of ‘Tommy’. At the start of the war, he is pictured as a valiant fighter sent to avenge ‘poor Belgium’. He’s a heroic figure, rarely found without cheery quip or a chorus of ‘Tipperary’ on his lips.

Then, post-war, there was a phase of dour books that sought to emphasise the mud, lice and spattered gore, with ‘Tommy’ portrayed as an embittered brute, incapable of finer feelings, who blasphemed crudely and was dependent on sex and alcohol. The reality was far more nuanced, both ‘types’ exist, sometimes within the same soldier.

It goes without saying that human beings are complicated. There is no set pattern as to how they react to the outrageous stresses of war. Yet there are common traits that we can explore and one of the most interesting is the use of humour as ‘armour’ against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

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