Monday, September 14, 2015

It's A Gas

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
Everyone knows that war is serious business, but so, in its own way, is humor.  There are a number of competing theories about humor, its mechanisms, and its functions.  People frequently use jokes to defray tense social situations, resolve cognitive dissonances, and talk obliquely around difficult issues.  During World War I, magazines for both civilians and soldiers relied heavily on humor. 

1915 cartoon pokes fun at the rush to marriage among Europe's soldiers.

World War I began in the summer of 1914, but the United States did not enter the fighting until April 6, 1917.  From the start, the official policy was that of neutrality, but many people took sides based on familial and economic ties.
As far as many Americans were concerned in 1915, domestic issues were more important than the war.
Towards the start of the war, the British navy established a blockade around German ports to keep them from receiving food and war supplies.  They began first turning around and then until President Wilson protested.  In retaliation for the blockade, German U-boats began sinking trading and passenger vessels bound for Britain.  On May 7, 1915, they sunk the RMS Lusitania, killing 1,198 civilians including 128 Americans.  The American public opinion turned sharply against the Germans and after several threats from the president they agreed to stop attacking passenger ships.   The resumption of U-boat attacks in 1917 was one of the major reasons for America’s declaration of war. 

Traveling by boat meant taking your life in your hands.  Hilarious, right?
In October of 1915, President Wilson lifted a ban on loans to the warring nations.  He argued that the loans, and the purchases of food stuffs and manufactured goods paid for with the loans, would help bolster the American economy.  By the time America entered the war in 1917, its private banks and investment firms had lent $2.25 billion to Britain and France and another $27 million to Germany. 
1915 comic poking fun at the Allie's demands for American loans.
Upon entering the war, America drafted 2.8 million men into military service and, by 1918, was sending nearly 10,000 of them were arriving in France daily.  In keeping with the British tradition, these soldiers published humorous magazines including Yank Talks and The Gas Attack filled with cartoons, poems, stories, and jokes.  Soldiers used them to complain about and poke fun at their food, clothing, NCOs, Officers, and military protocol.  In some cases they also drew attention to some of the more ludicrous aspects of their lives in the trenches. 
Two American trench magazines, 1918.
British comic by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather

For more information about historical humor, come to this afternoon’s Out to Lunch lecture “Hey, That’s Not Funny” at 12:05pm.  You bring your lunch, we’ll bring the cookies and comedy. 

1 comment:

  1. very interesting article regarding humor and published magazines or other articles to help ease some of the tensions of the war years