The Wilfredian League of Gugnuncs

Over the years I have collected masses of ephemera (or “Army Crap” as my wife refers to it) relating to the Great War. One of the first items I bought many years ago was a small enamel badge which said “On War Service 1915”. These badges were issued to men who worked in factories doing essential war work so they could avoid being chased down the street by women bearing white feathers. Having got one for 1915, it seemed only right to collect ones from the other years of the War and so an obsession was born. I have, over the years, collected several hundred badges, some of which are relatively common, some of which are extremely rare, but I find them beautiful things.

The main badge makers during the Great War were Thomas Fattorini and Sons of Birmingham and JF Gaunt from London. The craftsmanship and skillful design of the enamel works is something that one just wouldn’t find these days and in many towns and cities, factories would compete against eachother to see who could produce the finest badges. Some of them are real works of art, for example this badge from the La Bassee Shell Factory which is made of 18 carat gold! One of the rarest in my collection is the badge on the right from the tiny Almeric Paget’s Military Massage Corps, a private organisation of just a few hundred members who provided massage and physiotherapy to wounded men to aid their recovery.

While rummaging through the collection the other night I came across the badge at the top of this post, a blue enamel piece measuring about 1″ in diameter with the ears and eyes of a cartoon rabbit and the letters WLOG. This is definately one of the quirkier items of my collection and the letters stand for the Wilfredian League of Gugnuncs. There is a connection between this badge, the club it came from, and the Great War.

The Wilfredian League of Gugnuncs was the name given to the fan club of a famous comic strip which first appeared in the Daily Mirror in 1919, and related to the adventures of a trio of anthropomorphic creatures called Pip, Squeak, Wilfred. Pip was a mongrel who had been found wandering on the Embankment in London, where he was rounded up by the Dog Catcher and sent to a dogs home. Kind hearted Uncle Dick (based on the cartoon’s creator Bertram Lamb, the creator of the cartoon and editor of the children’s section) took a shine to Pip and rescued him for half a crown. Squeak was a talking penguin who had been born in South Africa but somehow ended up in London Zoo, where Uncle Dick heard her singing a song to a child and so adopted her as well. About a year after Pip and Squeak appeared in the paper, they were joined by Wilfred a long-eared baby rabbit whose only words were “Gug” and “Nunc”. Where Wilfred came from is a matter of some debate, but it is believed Squeak found him trying to catch butterflies in a cornflower field. Pip and Squeak became surrogate parents to Wilfred and a comic strip legend was born. While Lamb wrote the stories, the cartoons were drawn by Austin Payne, who was an accomplished artist. Having served as an officer during the Great War it was Payne who came up with names for the characters. As an officer, Payne had a servant or “batman” who worked for him, who for reasons unknown was universally referred to by the nickname “Pipsqueak”. Wilfred was Payne’s much loved English Sheepdog.

The cartoon was hugely popular and saw the production of Annuals and special editions, and in 1927 a fan-club was formed which children, for a fee, could become members of. Known as the Wilfredian League of Gugnuncs (after Wilfred’s only known utterings) over 100,000 children became members . The society produced the enamel badge above for its members, and organised summer camps on the South Coast, concerts and charitable fund raising events. The club rules included being kind to others and never, ever, eating rabbit!

Such was the popularity of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred that their names entered into military history when the three war medals issued by the Government became affectionately known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.

The medals, the 1914 or 1914-15 star, British War Medal and Victory Medal were awarded to all soldiers who served during the Great War. The 1914 star (known colloquially as the Mons Star) was awarded to men who fought in France or Belgium between 5th August and the 21st November 1914. These dates represent the day after Britain’s declaration of War against the Central Powers and the final day of the first battle of Ypres. There were about 380,000 of these medals awarded in total. The 1914–15 Star was instituted in December 1918 and was awarded to officers and men of British and Imperial forces who served against the Central European Powers in any theatre of the Great War between 5 August 1914 and 31 December 1915, provided they had not already received the 1914 star. These medals were never issued singly, always being awarded with the War and Victory medals. Officers had to apply for their medals, whereas the rank and file had theirs issued automatically after the War. The medals became known irreverently as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, Pip being the star, Squeak the War Medal and Wilfred the Victory medal.

It wasn’t just medals however. The Royal Air Force named three of its training planes Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, and during the Second World War the RAF radio-navigation system was known as Pipsqueak.

The cartoon was published until 1955 when Pip, Squeak and Wilfred were retired out to clover, their gentle adventures and innocence no longer capturing the imagination of post WW2 children in the same way. The next time you see a set of WW1 medals, doff your metaphorical hat and maybe whisper a quiet Gugnunc to yourself.

One response to “The Wilfredian League of Gugnuncs”

  1. This I found fascinating I’ve listened to the footsteps if the fallen from the start and am now getting so much knowledge from the brilliant podcast keep up the good work

    Liked by 1 person

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