Fireworks at the Front: Brock’s Benefits

War, as many writers have explored, is a profoundly alienating experience, wrenching those who participate in it – whether voluntarily or otherwise – away from their familiar paths and patterns of life. Language, as the Words in Wartime project confirms, was, in many ways, to be part of this same process. A diverse range of words acquired new meanings and senses, or were forced into new combinatory forms and creative combinations; others faced sudden obsolescence or an equally unexpected rise to public prominence.

fireworks at the front
Art by George Weekes, 1914-18. Used with permission of the Weekes family. For more information on George Weekes’ paintings and WWI, see http://www.pmb.ox.ac.uk/content/art-george-weekes-gallery-1-wartime

Language could, however, also be used to familiarize the entirely unfamiliar, offering an at times bizarre domestication of the alien world of life at the Front.  It was by processes of this kind that, as in Edmund Blunden’s later poem ‘Trench Nomenclature’, the shells which rained down on the battlefield could be depicted in terms of the firework displays of peace-time: “Thence Brock’s Benefit commanded endless fireworks by two nations,// Yet some voices there were raised against the rival coruscations”.  Brock’s fireworks had, since 1865 provided free public displays (‘benefits’) which were held once a year at Crystal Palace in London. Transferred to the battlefield, such forms – as earlier news reports attest – could draw attention to the paradoxical beauty which war could offer, here by means of the colours and brilliance of the bursting shells set against the dark skies of the Western Front.

Nevertheless, the irony of such transferred meanings was also plain; the public displays which took place over the battlefields of WWI were staged with a rather different intent, while the benefits which might be conferred were, with typical trench humour,  highly dubious. As the 1972 Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, the diction of Brocks benefits became a staple aspect of war narratives.  Evidence in the dictionary is traced back to 1920, first being attested in Phillip Gibbs’s  Realities of War: ‘They…opened such a Brock’s benefit that the enemy must have been shocked with surprise’, as well as in, say, as Ian Hay’s Willing Horse (1921): ‘The Germans were furnished with bombs which exploded on impact; ours were of the Brock’s Benefit type, and had to be lit with a match’. The legacy of such diction continues across the twentieth century:  as Robert Burchfield noted in his 1972 definition in the Supplement, the sense was that of ‘a brilliant illumination at night, esp. in war, from searchlights, flares, artillery, etc.’.

No evidence, however, derives from the war years themselves. While Brock’s benefits  can vividly evoke the visual experience of battle ( as well as its camaraderie), they are – by the nature of the evidence  available even in the modern OED – attested only with hindsight, and witnessed in retrospective narratives of the war years. Clark’s eye for detail in his notebooks provides therefore what might well be one of the early ancestors of this phrase, dated to September 1914:

‘Captain Berners, of the Irish, who was at the depot, was the life and soul of our lot. When shells were bursting over our heads he would buck us up with his humour about Brock’s displays at the Palace’ (Star 22 September 1914).

While this differs from the collocation which would, in time, later be habitualized, the direct speech which the Star reports contains its salient elements; the ‘Palace’ is ‘Crystal Palace’, and shells are – through the medium of words – transformed, if only temporarily, into Brock’s fireworks which explode without malign intent. As in other aspects of trench slang, humour and the play of words could enforce a sense of solidarity and resistance in which meaning spanned life before the advent of war, as well as the dislocations which conflict would bring.

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States of Siege: language before “trench warfare”

 

In 1914, the entry for siege and related words was a relatively recent addition within the still on-going Oxford English Dictionary. Completed four years before the outbreak of war, this had detailed a range of meanings, though its salience in terms of conflict was plain; as the entry explained, siege in this sense denoted ‘The action, on the part of an army, of investing a town, castle, etc., in order to cut off all outside communication and in the end to reduce or take it’. Supporting evidence in the Dictionary began in 1300 and extended to 1876. ‘The penetrating power of the arms which would now be used at a siege is far greater than it used to be’, as the most recent citation had warned.

As Clark realised, writing war in the autumn of 1914 seemed nevertheless to require some readjustment in the ways in which siege was used and understood. Used in contemporary news reporting, siege took on new resonances and implications, evoking not the sense of enclosure by which towns and castles had historically been surrounded, but instead the state of stasis on a battlefield in which positions — and battle lines —  were, quite literally, entrenched. ‘No longer a battle, but a siege’ as a headline in the Scotsman declared on 23 September 1914. The accompanying article detailed on a form of warfare in which  staying power, endurance,  as well as elaborate defensive positions, were all conspicuous:

It is no longer a battle, but a siege, the Germans having constructed along the hundred miles of front from the river Oise to the Meuse a series of small fortresses, consisting of old forts and disused quarries. Bomb-proof shelters, formed of bags of cement, and subterranean passages connect the basements of the heights of Pommiers with the open country, whereby the enemy is victualled and supplied with ammunition’ (Scotsman 23 Sept 1914)

If we now associate WWI with the familiarization of trench warfare (a term which was, in fact, also omitted from the OED’s first edition)** it was, as Clark’s notebooks reveal, the diction of sieges, and siege warfare, which, as here, would initially assume prominence.  Siege war, Clark later reflected, was a term of striking currency in October and November 1914. ‘We are slowly advancing in the regional of the Vosges and in Lorraine, where a regular siege war has been in progress for two days’, as the Evening News reported on September 2nd. Both siege war and siege warfare presented other absences from the contemporary OED (and indeed, we might note, from its modern equivalent). For Clark, their newness seemed significant — a way of exploring in words a war in which movement seemed all too limited. As in the quotation below, taken from the Evening News, siege warfare is placed in inverted commas or scare quotes — a device which makes visible both the lexical departures (and extensions) which were at stake:

The “siege warfare” of the river Aisne continues (Evening News 25 Sept 1914)

This was, in reality, what would come to be known as the First Battle of Aisne. As the article continues, the ‘battle began on 12th Sept, this is the fourteenth day’. The ‘siege’ — and the military stalemate it invoked — would come to an end on 28th September, when fighting was abandoned without a decisive victory being achieved by either side.

Siege warfare of this kind depended on extensive fortifications – and trenches – which brought, as Clark realised, a wide range of other new forms of diction in their wake. If the Scotsman on 13th October 1914 stressed the ‘value of trenches in the present battles’, here too, the OED — and its record of language on historical principles — seemed to have swiftly been left behind. The OED‘s definition had, for example, been written in June 1914 — but could already seem remote from the kind of methods which were being widely deployed on the Western Front:

3. Mil. An excavation of the kind described in sense 2 a, the earth from which is thrown up in front as a parapet, serving either to cover or to oppose the advance of a besieging force. Chiefly in pl. (OED1/ OED2)

In the dictionary,  illustrative evidence began in 1500 and extended to 1879 with an embedded definition from Cassell’s Technical Education: ‘When this excavation is behind the mound it is called a trench’. As the OED  added, trench was ‘More particularly applied to the ditch or excavation’.
For Clark, an article in the Scotsman on Friday 11th September already, however, served to provide a very different set of associations:

The defeat of the Marne has not left the enemy unprepared, and the formidable nature of the defence works, through anticipations of a possible retreat all along the present front … is enabling them to make a firm stand. The enemy’s trenches north of Chalons are a metre (just over a yard) deep, with shell shields every twenty metres, and rest chambers. The multiple lines of the trenches are flanked with further defence works.

Clark drew attention to other unrecorded forms here – neither rest chambers nor shell shields were explained in these senses in the OED. Trenches, as later posts will explore, came to require an extensive and abundant metalanguage. Already in the autumn of 1914, it was clear that they formed a space in which those engaged in the conflict were – both literally and metaphorically – “dug in”, in what would also form a significant shift in language over the course of the war. As a telling first-hand account (from the Scotsman on 21st September 1914) had recounted:

We are slowly beating them back. We have to do it foot by foot, for they have huge guns, and their fire is terrible…Well, we dig ourselves in. We British lads have learned the lesson, and then we go on fighting and fighting until the moment comes when we can make our advance. We crawl up and again we dig ourselves in, and so on.

Siege warfare, seen in these terms, required new lessons which those involved in WWI quickly assimilated in order to survive. To dig in, as used here, was to be a new military sense, later defined in the OED as ‘To excavate a trench or the like in order to withstand an attack or consolidate a position’. Recorded from the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (which was published in 1989), the sense is given as dating from 1917. In reality, as Clark’s first notebooks attest, it was, of course, in use from the early weeks of war; ‘The Germans are digging themselves in upon almost all points of their position’, as the Scotsman stated on 18 Sept 1914. As Clark argued, uses of this kind informed other new senses of words such as entrenched, as well as signalling still other distinctive intersections  of language and history.
**This section of the OED was revised in June 2014; trench warfare is now taken back to 1887, though its use in signifying ‘A protracted dispute or prolonged state of discord characterized by stubborn adherence to established positions, opinions, etc., and persistent sniping between opponents’ is given as dating from 1915.

Women and the war of words; writing gender identities in autumn 1914.

The separate spheres of war, as documented in Clark’s ‘Word in War-Time’ collection, can seem all too plain. If Clark tracks a language of militancy in various ways between 1914-1918, it is clear that militant women, and militant men, were often seen as serving in very different ways. Men dominate, for obvious reasons, in reports which are sent from the Front. Women, as earlier posts have explored, are instead often depicted in terms of their dedicated service on the Home Front— ‘The Ladies Emergency Committee of the Navy League’, as an  extract from the Scotsman  on 14th September illustrates, demanded action of its members in terms of knitting. Defence was relocated to a domestic sphere, from which comforts where to be sent to the Front:

Navy League Wants for our Sailors’. ‘earnestly asks for 5000 woollen helmets and 5000 woollen mufflers for our sailors now in the North Sea’ (Scotsman, 14th September 1914).

Helmets, as Clark observed, offered another shift of use when compared to the first edition of the OED, where helmets were metal, leather, or felt.

As Clark realised, gender, history, and language could nevertheless all intersect, offering other interesting aspects of change. Militancy itself, as one of Clark’s early notebooks shows, was itself on the move, revealing other absences within contemporary histories of words:

Miss Pankhurst … urged the necessity of unity in the face of danger to the country, and said as a militant women she hoped to do something to rouse the spirit of militancy in men. The future of democracy was at stake. What was in the best interest of the state women would do, but it argued no inferiority or diminution to their claim of political inequality if they took no part in the fighting’ [Scotsman, 9th September, 1914].

Militant women, in Pankhurst’s sense, did not exist in the OED, while militancy – given the fact that evidence in the OED stopped in 1876 — also seemed to attest new departures.Women’s non-military roles, however, were often brought to the fore in news reporting. When news does focus on women at the front, they are, for example, often used to focalize the effects of violence and depredation. A particularly telling use of language in this respect, as Clark noted, was the depiction of petticoat troops, soldiers whose advance into war was made by means of a human shield of women and children. As in the Daily Express on Tuesday 15 September, this was made to offer further evidence of German brutality, in an all too negative configuration of the enemy.

Some of our chaps could hardly believe their eyes at first, but it soon made our fellows as angry as thunder. We solved the problem by getting these petticoat troops on our flank, when we were able to attack them’

Here, too, the OED was silent. The entry for petticoat had been published nine years earlier. Defined as ‘the characteristic or typical feminine garment’, the petticoat, as the Dictionary explained, hence operated as ‘the symbol of the female sex or character’. Used with reference to men, it operated as a markedly negative term, as in constructions such as petticoat pensioner ‘a man paid by a women’, petticoat-governed, ‘ruled by a women, or hen-pecked’. Petticoat troops, however, was a new departure, caught by Clark’s acute observation of words in a time of war. Here, the petticoats which emblematised female identity mark out the transgressive patterning of enemy power and female powerlessness; women, as Clark observed, formed a living screen, behind which the troops attempted to seize tactical advantage.

Gender and its representation became another recurrent topos in Clark’s notebooks, whether in documenting the casual sexism of words such as granny (used, as Clark noted against an article in the Daily Express,  to denote anyone who might seem to behave like a granny, or, in other words, as he explains, like a women who is fussy and unnecessarily interfering), or in tracking other omissions in the OED such as mother’s help (which Clark found in an advertisement in October 1914). Other readings of gender and gender roles also, importantly, start to emerge. The heading ‘Ladies in Riding Breeches. Work for the Wounded in Belgium’ on p. 2 of the Daily Express on 11 September proved a particularly useful example:

The British corps of lady farmers, nurses, horsewomen, girl motor-drivers, women doctors, men doctors, and dressers under Dr Hartnell Beavis left Ostend to-day for Antwerp on the orders of the Queen of the Belgians

Women in this article are headed for the ‘The British Field Hospital for Belgium’, and are used to exemplify modernity as well as determination. ‘Ladies who are close-cropped, booted, and spurred will ride the horses drawing the ambulance vans, and these, with motor-cars, will dash towards the front, pick up the wounded from the army bearers, and bring them back to the hospital’ , we are informed. Booted and spurred, such women are by no means defined or symbolised by petticoats. For Clark, the article as a whole offered a range of new locutions, from close-cropped to horse-ambulance. To be close-cropped was, Clark pointed out, another compound on which the OED seemed out of date. The OED’s entry represented an earlier era. It offered close-bodied, close–coupled, and close-fisted — but not close-cropped. Yet, as the Daily Express makes plain, close-cropped women – whose hair was cut short – can be used to image a peculiarly feminine motif of ‘doing their bit’ in a time of war: ‘Englishwomen who have sacrificed their hair in their keenness and devotion to their great work were busy getting everything in trim for their start to Antwerp’. Women here were seen as committed to the militant cause of war, and dedicated service at the front, in a form of emancipation which receives thorough commendation. In tracking words in war-time, the diction of gender, and gender-identity, would, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, come to offer yet another productive site of change.

Cyclists still at war: the carabineer cyclists at the Front.

The adventures of the Mechanical Mounted Infantry continued to draw press attention across the autumn of 1914, bringing other new patterns of language in their wake. One form which Clark assiduously noted down in this context was the carabineer cyclist, a combination which was  (and indeed remains)  unrecorded in English dictionaries. As we are informed at  http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/carabineer, for example, carabineer is now a distinctly historical form, and is labelled accordingly. Its definition, however, suggests a history which is by no means in alignment with WWI and the evidence of words in war time which Clark provides. As the entry explains, a carabineer is ‘A cavalry soldier whose principal weapon was a carbine’, Cavalry, if we follow the link, provides the further meaning ‘(In the past) soldiers who fought on horseback’, as in ‘the cavalry charged up the hill; the army numbered around 100,000 cavalry’. ‘In previous wars, horsed cavalry had performed such a role, but cavalry were generally of little use in the trenches of the Western Front’, as a further example avers. Carabineer cyclists are distinctly anamalous in this light.

Such definitions have, of course, their own place in history. The first citation for carabineer in the Oxford English Dictionary is, for example, from Nathan Bailey’s 1721 Universal Etymological English Dictionary: ‘Carabineers, horse-men who carry Carabines’. Later examples in the OED  confirm the continuity of this sense. Nevertheless, if, as modern lexicography suggests, cavalry is traditionally the essence of the carabineer, then extracts such as the one below, taken from the Daily Express on the 30th September 1914, offer rather different readings in which the (German) cavalry is placed in marked opposition to the carabineer cyclist, whose superior skill (and mount of a rather different kind) is clearly made to win the day:

A Belgian carabineer cyclist showed me a cavalry cap, with the familiar skull and crossbones embroidered on the front, which he tore from the body of a horseman after shooting him in a wood near Erpe on Saturday afternoon.

This is taken from a first-person (and first-hand)  report of a war correspondent who, as here, sought to provide an eye-witness account of the realities of events at the front. Against the stasis of meaning which English dictionaries suggest, carabineers had, at least in this context, clearly moved on, riding bicycles rather than horses, even if the gun remains an essential aspect of their armoury. Clark provides another similar example from a news report headed ‘Roadside Battle Pictures’: ‘Another carabineer cyclist pounds along the road, and slows up long enough to shout, “We are to advance.” (Daily Express, 30th Sept 1914).

In 2014, the OED entry for carabineer meanwhile still remains rooted in a far earlier time. First published in 1888, it has, as yet, not been updated, and its most recent evidence dates from 1873. The entry for carbine reveals similar problems of time and change: ‘A kind of firearm, shorter than the musket, used by the cavalry and other troops; ‘a kind of medium between the pistol and the musket’ (Johnson)’. Evidence stops in the mid-19thC, and includes examples such as the Duke of Wellington’s  Dispatches from 1815 (‘I will apply for the Carbines for your Cavalry’) and W. Greener’s  Gunnery in 1858 (Double rifled carbines can be constructed of so light a weight that their exclusive use for cavalry is not far distant’). Nevertheless, as my history colleague at Pembroke confirms, carbines – at least for the British – no longer defined the carabineer in WW1, though – as for the Belgian forces — carabineer (as title) could be used to define particular regiments in the infantry. News reports in the autumn of 1914 frequently refer to carabineers, though carabineer cyclists represent a new departure on both counts, and in ways which extend, of course, to language and the combinatory forms which specific points of history can yield. Entries of this kind provided still more justification for Clark’s self-appointed role in watching language change, and recording the potentially ephemeral forms which could, as here, arise.

Watching change in progress: shrapnel

The aim behind Clark’s ‘Words in War-Time’ project was to look at language, history, and their interrelationship, at close quarters. While the Oxford English Dictionary applied historical principles to language from 1150 to the present day, Clark aimed to look at language, and history, as it happened – testing historical principles in the everyday and as prompted by what gradually emerged as one of the most significant historical events of the twentieth century. A range of words can, in different ways, reveal, and confirm, change in progress (in language and war alike) in the autumn of 1914 – confirming, too, Clark’s intuitions about the salience of observing language in a period of unprecedented historical change.

Shrapnel, mentioned briefly in an earlier post, was, for example, particularly interesting in the changing patterns of use that Clark’s early notebooks reveal. This had, in fact, been one of the most recent entries in the OED as it then existed.  The relevant section of the dictionary had been published in late March 1914; as the image below illustrates, the history of shrapnel was tracked from 1806 when the inventiveness of General Shrapnel in the Peninsular war gave his name to this new mode of attack and defence. Shrapnel, the OED wrote, was ‘A hollow projectile containing bullets and a small bursting charge, which when fired by the time fuse, bursts the shell and scatters the bullets in a shower’. As this definition indicates, the shrapnel is the casing, and the contents are the bullets. Constructions such as shrapnel shell, as in the quotations from 1870 and 1890, make this meaning particularly clear.

IMG_0881

Tracking language in use in September and October 1914, this meaning of shrapnel, as Clark demonstrates, is, as expected, often in evidence. An article headed ‘The Battle of Soissons. A View of the Fighting’, which Clark took from the Scotsman on the 16th of September described, for example, the paradoxical beauty of war:

As a panoramic scene the engagement was beautiful. The day was cold and clear. The city, particularly the cathedral, stood out in bold relief in its little valley, while the shrapnel exploded above it in balloon-like floating white puffs. Occasionally black smoke rose where the siege shells burst.

In this account, shrapnel – just as in the OED — is a single entity which explodes, scattering its contents to fall with intentionally devastating effects on those below. Other comments in the same article make this sense particularly plain:

the French shrapnel exploded low and accurately’

My first view of the fighting was shrapnel bursting about the beautiful two-steepled cathedral’.

Yet, at the same time, another transferred use also starts to be perceptible in Clark’s notebooks. Here, shrapnel instead comes, by a process of semantic extension, to designate the contents of the shell rather than the shell itself. By the 28th of September, for example, the two senses co-exist, as in the following extract from the Scotsman:

As soon as the French infantry deploy their ranks and appear in the open they are met with showers of shrapnel, which also is not as deadly as it looks from a distance. Then follows the hurried “tat-tat-tat” of machine-guns from the woods and spinneys, and then the long rattle of musketry from the trenches along the ridges.

As in this highly visual account, the showers of shrapnel fall from the shells which have already exploded; meaning is taken in directions which the OED entry of six months before had conspicuously not included. As Clark realised, equally significant in this respect was the rise of new compounds (in both adjective and noun) such as shrapnel splinter  and shrapnel bullet. These serve to consolidate the patterns of semantic transfer at work, making plain the shift in the physical form that shrapnel is assumed to have, as well as its changing orientation of sense:

we have a lovely little hutch … just room for three to lie down, and the top is shrapnel-splinter proof. We have had one or two bits landing on it. [‘Stories of the Fighting’, Daily Express October 20th 1914]

In the case of these arrows and bullets it is sufficient to release them, without any initial momentum because the speed which they gather in flight, due to gravity, ensures their reaching the earth with considerable velocity, which increases in proportion to the height of the aircraft… In the case of shrapnel bullets, weighing, say, twenty to the pound, this would mean a striking energy of 160 foot pounds’ (Daily Express 19th September 1914)

Mme. van Dessalaere was struck in her right leg by shrapnel bullets, and her recovery is not expected … shrapnel struck her down (Daily Express, October 7th 1914)

Shrapnel in the last two examples is transferred to the bullets  which fall with lethal force to earth; in the former, it  is a ‘splinter’ – designating the ‘bits’ that shells contain rather than the shell per se (although this may, of course, also signal the ‘bits’ of the disintegrating shell). As the final example confirms, however, shrapnel can also be used without the specifying bullets to indicate the mode of injury and attack.

As in the quotation from the Scotsman above, sense-divisions of this kind also  came to contribute to common images of the ‘rain’ or ‘hail’ of shells in contemporary accounts of the life at the front. ‘The moment a few battalions had crossed, shrapnel began to rain in on our men as if from the blue above’, as the Evening News noted on October 1st 1914, in an article entitled ‘Heroic Royal Engineers’. Another similar example occurs in the Daily Express on October 20th 1914:

‘We spent two days in the trenches under a rain of shell fire, and we got quite clever in judging the distance at which their shells would burst by the hum of the blooming things’ [‘Thrilling adventures in the Retreat from Antwerp’, Daily Express, October 20 1914]

In the autumn of 1914, Clark can therefore reveal the play of  meaning and changing familiarization of this word as both noun and adjective. For a time, in popular comment in the autumn of 1914,  shrapnel can ambiguously designate both whole and part, projectile and the hostile contents of the shells which sailed overhead. By the end of October, the OED entry of six months earlier was therefore distinctly out of date. History – and language – had moved on. Shrapnel had not only one sense but three. If meaning begins, historically, in a single type of shell, it swiftly extends, during the terrible familiarization of WW1,  to denote the contents of that type of shell. As war advances, however, it can, in turn, lose its reference to this specific shell-type, designating, more broadly, the devastating contents of bombs, together with the kinds of widespread injury they cause, as in compounds such as shrapnel wounds, shrapnel injuries. The meaning ‘Fragments from shells or bombs’  is ‘Now the usual sense.’, as the modern OED notes, dating such use to October 1914. ** As Clark confirms therefore, while General Shrapnel — in yet another eponym of English — gives his name to this spherical projectile, it was language in use along the front, and by soldiers rather than generals, which instead gradually changed the patterns of signification which remain in use today.

** The revised OED entry can be seen at shrapnel, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 1 December 2014.

Shattering the nerves: sound effects in WWI

Nerves – and the importance, as well as difficulty, of keeping one’s nerve — was a recurrent image which runs through reports of war in the autumn of 1914. To have nerve was to be commended; the word had been used figuratively in denoting bravery, vigour, and force since the Renaissance. The specific sense ‘coolness in adversity or danger; boldness; courage, assurance’ is documented from 1809 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet, by the eighteenth century, nerve could also point in other, diametrically opposed, directions. Used in the plural, nerves suggested not valour but nervousness, a heightened sensitivity to events which by no means augured well in a time of war. Nerve and nerviness could, as a result, work in mutually exclusive ways. If nerviness is documented only from 1916 in OED Online (being attested in Vera Brittain’s letters),** the reality of language practice in WWI, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, was very different. Already in August 1914 readers of the Daily Express were reassured about the calm fortitude of the British Expeditionary Force. ‘No ‘nerviness’’, the headline on 27th August proclaimed, in a sense which the following article also elaborated:

There is no trace of that “nerviness” so noticeable among the recruities of the early days of South Africa.

Such certainties could, however, be called into question as war advanced. That modern warfare was an attack on the nerves –as much as the body — was often made plain. Long before the term shell-shock come into use, journalists – and soldiers –repeatedly drew attention to the debilitating effects of the sheer noise of battle, by which nerves could be racked and shattered, and in which an ‘attack of nerves’ might overpower even the strongest men. As Clark notes, for example, idioms in which the nerves were shattered attained marked familiarity across the autumn of 1914 and into 1915. If shatter the nerves remained (and remains) absent from the OED (the relevant section of the Dictionary was completed in March 1914), Clark again provides carefully documented evidence –tracking a responsiveness of words to war, and the unprecedented contexts it brought into being:

The effect on the nerves is terrible, and I suppose it intended to shatter the nerves of our men. Only the strongest can stand it for long, and most of us found it best to stuff our ears with cotton wool or tear up out handkerchiefs

as a first-hand account in the Daily Express of 2nd September 1914 proclaimed. ‘Noise seems to count for a lot with the Germans’, another report (in the same newspaper) laconically observed on 19th September 1914.

A similar observation appeared in the Evening News on September 2nd:

It’s the quantity, not the quality of the German shells that is heaving effect on us, and it’s not so much the actual damage to life as the nerve-racking row that counts for so much.

The noise of battle – and the extent of mechanised warfare across a front which, even in early September, stretched, for instance, from the Vosges to Peronne (as the Scotsman  reported), was unparalleled. Shells and shrapnel repeatedly scream and screech across the skies (in a range  of new collocations of English), testing the nerves as well as bringing danger in other forms: ‘The scream of shrapnel did not daunt us and, yelling and shouting, we became frantic and so did our horses. The rifle fire was soon silenced, as we must have ridden down the German infantry and cut them to pieces’, as an article in the Evening News stated on 29th September 1914. ‘The shells screeched hour after hour’, the Scotsman notes on 17 September 1914. The men were faced by a ‘terrestrial thunderstorm’, as the Evening News commented on 19th September 1914, attempting to suggest somehwar of what modern battle was like.

Trying to convey the reality of war on these terms was challenging, requiring other distinctive forms of ‘word-imagery’ and ‘word-pictures’ to make their way into use. As Clark notes, a strikingly expressive vocabulary can appear. This, too, often remains absent from the OED:

As soon as the French infantry deploy their ranks and appear in the open they are met with showers of shrapnel, which also is not as deadly as it looks from a distance. Then follows the hurried “tat-tat-tat” of machine-guns from the woods and spinneys, and then the long rattle of musketry from the trenches along the ridges

as a lengthy and descriptive article in the Scotsman stated on 28 September 1914. This confirmed, too, a new (and newly familiarised) sense of shrapnel, by which it came to be understood as ‘fragments from shells or bomb’s, rather than explosive shells per se). Shrapnel was documented in the OED in this sense from October 1914 (in a section revised in June 2014). Here, too, Clark’s evidence antedates the formal record of English and its history.

News discourse, as Clark notes, could strive for a marked sense of the onomatopoeic in this respect.

The rattle of the machine guns supplemented the noise of the naval guns. Then the field artillery added to the chorus. But all this noise could not drown the irregular rat-tat-tat of the infantry’ [ ‘British Squadron off the Belgian Coast: Shelling the Germans’, Scotsman 21 October 1914].

Likewise, the Daily Express on September 2nd draws attention to the ‘r-r-r-r-r–h of the Maxims’, while ‘the peculiar zh-zh-zh-zh of the shrapnel’ featured in the Daily Express on 14th September 1914. ‘You could hear the mitrailleuse ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta’, wrote a journalist in the Daily Express on October 17th 1914, describing an ‘air-duel’; similar was the click-click-wh-wh-wh -of the murderous machine’, here in attempts to evoke the flight of an ‘aerial pirate’ over Paris in the Evening News on 3rd September 1914.

Modern war-reporting can, of course, use not only print and the form of the written word, but also sound itself. In broadcast news, we can be offered an experiential directness – the war-reporter not only speaks directly, but the sounds of war can provide an all too evocative backdrop to events. Writing war in 1914 was very different; the BBC – and national radio — would not, for example, be formed until after the war. If we have war reports (and sound recording) for WWII, it was print which dominated in WW1. News reporting can, as a result, often engage with a determined attempt to covey the sounds and texture of war in ways which are highly distinctive. As a later post on this site will explore, however, other media were already starting to emerge. ‘The Cinemagraph is going to be a damning witness against the Germans in this war. The Kinemacolour pictures … reveal to those who cannot see it with their own eyes, the full tragedy of Louvain and the other towns destroyed by the Kaiser’s shining amour’, we are, for example, informed early in September 1914. ‘Pictures’ and ‘word-pictures’ would, in this respect, importantly come to co-exist. As Clark noted, this visual language was also absent from the OED as it then existed, offering still further scope for his documetnary ventures in the war of words.

** See nerviness OED Online (revised Sept 2003),sense 2: ‘The quality or condition of being nervous.

1916:  Vera Brittain Let. 1 Sept. in Lett. Lost Generation (2012) 248.  “To have the face of a leader of men strong almost to unscrupulousness combined with an almost entire absence of self-esteem, and an excessive reserve & nervy-ness & shyness, is certainly an incongruity”.

Branded words: On not being German

Advertising, and the constructed nature of brand-names, was a topic to which Clark frequently returned in documenting ‘Words in War-Time’.  Even before war broke out, Clark had started to collect relevant examples, arguing that – for the linguistic and historian alike – these could be seen as a rich (and often neglected) resource of information about the embedding of language in culture and society. If the Oxford English Dictionary maintained a steadfast opposition to evidence of this kind (disallowing proper names as part of the legitimate territory of lexicography and the history of words), Clark again deliberately moved in a different direction. The notebooks gave him useful autonomy to explore language and meaning, and its responsiveness to on-going history, as he wished.

As previous posts have explored, the specific circumstances of war often rendered language a highly effective means by which patriotism or other issues of national allegiance could be claimed – or rejected. Consideration of form and, in particular, of word-forms which – rightly or wrongly – connoted German identity, could attract particular attention in this respect. The popular press, for example, repeatedly appropriated German patterns of spelling, placing German kultur against English culture in ways which intentionally rendered the former a by-word for savagery and barbarity. If kultur and culture derive from the same root, being, in reality, shared and cognate forms,** they could nevertheless be rendered antonyms in popular discourse — see e.g. the heading ‘More “Kultur”’, which in the Daily Express on 21 September 1914, accompanying an article (and an all too telling image) about the devastation of Rheims Cathedral.

The currency of other lexemes such as Teutonised – or non-Teutonic – both of which Clark records in his notebooks from September 1914 – easily reveals the identity politics at stake. Being Teutonised (a form still unrecorded in the OED) was, as another article in the Daily Express confirmed, seen as highly negative – suggesteing unwarranted alignment with the enemy in ways which are firmly delegitimised. Being, or being seen as, germanophile (here in another form which gained newly negative connotations — Clark records its use from September 11 1914) was, in similar ways, by no means seen as desirable.

An extensive anti-German lexis could, in such ways, became another aspect of the war of words. Notions of being pro-German, or Hun-like (both of which Clark also documents from September 1914) would all be used to mobilise highly negative feeling. The Hunite – recorded in the Daily Express on 19th September (and absent, then and now, from the Oxford English Dictionary) –  emerges, for example, as a highly effective way of labelling, and stigmatizing, the presence of unwarranted German sympathies, not least as indicated by a less than whole-hearted supported for the war effort or, still worse, by qualms about war per se. ‘Chiding the Hunites’, the heading of the article states. As the OED records, the suffix –ite was far from neutral: forms in which –ite appear, it states, ‘have a tendency to be depreciatory, being mostly given by opponents, and seldom acknowledged by those to whom they are applied’. To use language reflective of what the Express termed ‘odious Germanic taint’ could be seen as highly problematic – prompting, as we have seen, a range of acts of renaming and redefinition.

One of Clark’s particularly interesting examples in this context was the advertising campaign taken out in the autumn of 1914 by Krieger, the brand name of what was given as ‘the electric carriage syndicate’. Here, as the company realised, form and meaning could intersect in newly problematic ways. Krieger was, in some ways, ahead of its time – its electric vehicles offer early prototypes of a technology being explored and extended today. Clark noted the collocation electric carriage (also absent from the OED) as a combination of marked interest; if ‘carriages’ looked back to the past, ‘electric’ offered a new sense of modernity (as well as extending early designations of the car as ‘horseless carriage’). Nevertheless, as war began, the suspicion that, for Krieger, its name (and hence its products)—might also be seen as overly ‘Teutonised’ (and, indeed, ‘Germanophile’) was a source of self-evident concern. Krieg, as the German word for ‘war’, seemed less than ideal as a defining element in the name by which the product was popularly known, not least given the prevalence of similar Germanic forms – such as kriegspiel or kriegsmetall — in other contemporary (and highly negative) news accounts.

For Krieger, a range of advertisements therefore swiftly appeared, proclaiming British national identity and unimpeachable patriotic credentials.

‘The above company has been, from its formation in April 1903, a British Company’,

as readers were, for example, reminded. More to the point, perception of its association with German krieg is depicted as misguided in the extreme. Visual similarity was, it stressed, a false friend indeed; only in error, we are informed, could the brand names be read as krieg plus er, with its disturbing associations of militarism and aggression. Form — in both speech and writing – is strategically repositioned, while recent history clearly demanded a set of history lessons of its own. In the advertising which appears in autumn 1914, the name loses its hard Germanic /g/ and gains a small but suggestive é acute.

Etymology, in turn, is made to validate not the all too negative German krieg but instead an identity in French by which Krieger derives not form Krieg plus er, but from a ‘Monsieur Kriéger’, a Frenchman, resident in Paris, where

‘the original Kriéger Company was formed, and from whom the London Krieger company purchased its patents’.

Form was renegotiated once more – Kriéger, once French, had become British by losing its distinctive é, as well as gaining a different pronunciation. Commercial and linguistic assimilation had worked together. With the advent of war, the accent was, however, to be put on success in quite literal ways. Advertising campaigns carefully stress the allegiance which the small but significant é confirms. Krieger was carefully distanced while Kriéger could, as potential purchasers were reassured, be bought without qualms. French diacritics could get a new lease of life in English. Language, yet again, could be used with tactical intent — here, in what one might nevertheless see, as a strategic exercise in damange limitation.***

Notes

**Culture derives, as OED confirms, from Latin cultūra, and was borrowed into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French after the Normal Conquest. Originally used to refer to literal cultivation of the land, German ideas of culture (signifying the ideas, customs, etc. of a society or group) became prominent in English after the eighteenth century. See culture (n.), OED Online.

*** Modern parallels can be found in the suddenly negative connotations of ‘Isis’ as a company name, as reported in the press in November 2014. This, too, can prompt issues of identity and subsequent rebranding.

The comforts of war

Comfort, as Clark noted, was a term which moved into marked prominence in the autumn of 1914. The word had, of course, long existed, being borrowed — here in other manifestations of war, language, and their intersection — from Old French confort after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The native equivalents (frefran, to comfort; frofre, comfort), used throughout Old English, had gradually been displaced. War, just as in later years, could bring both loss and gain when seen in terms of language.

Comfort in WWI assumed however, distinctive new meanings. Its long-standing existence as abstract noun – variously signifying, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, aid, consolation, solace as well as relief (especially in periods of want or distress) — could, as a range of articles in September and October 1914 confirm, acquire a strikingly materiality. Comfort can be manufactured and despatched, consumed and worn. A letter in the Scotsman on Thursday 11th September 1914 drew attention, for example, to the changing use of this term:

“Your readers may have observed that the formal sanction of the Admiralty has now been given to the supply of “comforts” for the men of the fleet’.

Here, the framing quotation marks set the new form apart, registering the departures which comforts of this kind present. Home comforts existed, by definition, within the intimacy, warmth, and protection of the domestic space. In this light, those serving in the Admiralty or at the Front were, of necessity, comfortless, rendered remote from consolations of this kind. The warmth of home was displaced by far more testing physical conditions. Comforts (usually appearing the plural) were, as a result, often seen in a tangible and physical form; they are items which will bring comfort, allaying the physical deprivations of war. Early uses in Clark’s notebooks focus in particualr on the sense of warmth, stressing comfort as a commodity that can be manufactured at home, before being despatched to those in need.

The letter in the Scotsman, for instance, carefully specifies the forms which comforts in a time of war might best take: ‘the articles which at the moment will be most use to officers and men in ships afloat are cardigan jackets, 44 inches chest; jerseys full size; Balaclava helmets, mufflers 2 yards long, 10 inches wide, fingerless gloves, mittens’. Such comforts will, quite literally, warm the recipient. Doing one’s bit in a time of war would, by extension, assume interestingly gendered forms, as a further article in the Daily Express makes plain:

‘The admiralty authorities have issued a list of knitted articles that are specially required by the sailors during the cold weather, and there is no doubt that wives and mothers will be only too glad to set to work to provide these necessary comforts’ (Daily Express, 21 Sept 1914).

Here, the inverted commas of comforts have disappeared. The word is assumed to be familiarised, together with the actions it required. Against sailors and the ‘men of the fleet’ who work for the national cause, the article evokes a set of home-workers, engaged in working parties, where dedicated industry and application of British women must also play their part. Knitting recipes, it declared, were clearly ‘invaluable at the moment’; Clark noted down this new compound (still not in OED), noting too the diction of the home-worker (as well as cardigan jackets – both of which offered other absences within the OED as it then existed).**

The war effort, as here, could clearly take many forms. Across Europe, a shared image of female endeavour would be a subject of comment, as well as patriotic endeavour. ‘Every female in Germany between twelve and eight is busy knitting– in the streets, in omnibuses, in doctors’ waiting-rooms, in tea-rooms, everywhere. They knit bandages, wristlets, and the like, for all the soldiers in the field’, as the Daily Express had commented on Fri 11 Sept 1914.  The need for comfort crossed national boundaries, and political divisions. Wristlet, as Clark observed, was another unfamiliar word, as well as another novel form in which comfort might be manifest. Lumbago belts and body belts presented other forms unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. The image of a surprisingly home-spun army – on both sides — can be pervasive.

So too can a sense of the pressures, and moral obligation, placed on those at home at contribute in this way. ‘The Government intends to have every soldier provided with a belt to ward off those chills which cause so many deadly ailments on a battlefield’, an article in the Scotsman on 28th October 1914 declared: ‘it behoves every person to do their utmost to provide these comforts with as little delay as possible, and so assist these brave men to maintain their health, and enable them to withstand the rigours of the coming winter campaign’. If those at the Front fight the literal enemy, those at home were to aid in combatting cold as another enemy that might bring defeat as well as death. Endeavour is made reciprocal,

Here, too, expectations of a lengthy campaign – and a coming war winter – are plain. War is made a collective enterprise in which anyone and everyone should contribute. Comforts meanwhile, as later posts will explore, would expand to include a wide and increasingly diverse range of commodities.***

**Home-worker (defined as ‘A person who works at home, esp. as distinguished from one working in a factory or office’) would eventually be recorded in the OED, in a separate entry, in September 2011. Evidence would be traced back to 1843, though the entry is silent on uses between 1902 and 1973. The distinctive senses of WWI, with their commitment to voluntary industry in a shared war effort, arguably also remain absent in this definition. Cardigan jacket still remains absent.

**** Lumbago belts (still not in OED) clearly required more ingenuity in their construction. The article recommends use of  ‘a work undershirt or a set of men’s pants, the sleeves or legs of which, as the case may be, are worn round the waist, and fixed with webstraps or buckles’ such that ‘the main part of the garment’ is ‘allowed to hang down the back like an apron’, in order to protect against the cold of war.

The lights are going out all over London

 

darkness crop 2
Image shows searchlights over a darkened London. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

In modern English, the institution of the black-out remains of one of the well-known practices of World War Two, attested in the Oxford English Dictionary in quotations such as ‘I slept right through the ‘black-out’ on August 10th’ (taken from the Architectural Review in 1939), or, still earlier, as used in the Lancet in 1935 which reported that there were ‘Compulsory ‘black-outs’ in districts where experiments were being carried out against air attacks’. Nevertheless, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, the black-out had its own antecedent forms in World War One where, as earlier posts have explored, ‘war in the air’ was seen as bringing new dangers not just to those at the Front but also to the civilian population at home.

Sir Edward Grey’s famous comment, at the outbreak of war on 3rd August 1914 that ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe’ could, in this respect, take on an unprecedented literalism. Here, too, other productive intersections of language and contemporary history emerge. Grey’s words easily prompted a metaphorical currency by which the trope of WAR IS A FLAME often appeared — hence war is something that might flicker out in the Scotsman on 7th September 1914 (‘The employment of field artillery will be another of those matters in which we shall want enlightenment as the war goes on or flickers out’) or, conversely, might flare up (the Balkan States are on the ‘verge of a flare-up’, it noted three days earlier). Nevertheless, as teh words in war-time project reveals,  the diction of light – and its absence – could also figure in far more practical ways in the autumn of 1914.

Clark’s notebooks, with their close tracking of change in progress, can be particularly interesting in this respect. As his entries confirm, it is in fact  the desirability of the lights going out — at least in London — which early appears as a matter of marked concern. The language – and reality – of aerial attack again assumes prominence:

‘aerial observations have shown the glare of unshaded shop lights to be potentially dangerous by facilitating aerial attack’,

as an article in the Scotsman records in October 1914. As Clark notes, the profession of ‘illuminating engineer’ – used in the Daily Telegraph and the Scotsman in October 1914, and unrecorded in the OED of Clark’s day, also assumed a new salience. ‘Illuminating engineers are finding much food for thought in the present state of partial lighting of London at night’, the Scotsman stressed on 13th October 1914. If the black-out of later years reflected the complete absence of light, the diction of partial lighting and the policy of ‘semi-darkness’ and ‘light restriction’ – other forms which Clark records as absent in the OED as it then existed – can therefore widely evoke the ways in which language and historical response change in tandem given the perceived threat of attack in a new and modern war:

‘The conditions of semi-darkness’ have been ‘wisely enforced by the authorities with the aim of thwarting any night attack by air on the Metropolis’ (Scotsman, October 13th 1914).

The new language of  ‘Light restriction’ as a precaution again attack is,documented on 23rd September in the Scotsman, though the fact that this was used to illustrate other aspects of the German ‘lie bureau’ at work is made equally plain: ‘Londoners will doubtless be interested to hear that, according to the Neue Frei Presse, the restriction for their electric light is attributable to a lack of electric carbons’.The consequences of what came to be known as the “lights-out order” were evocatively described in an earlier article in the Daily Express on September 11th, offering other locutions which Clark seized for his record of words.

 ‘The cause of the curfew gloom was a notice from the Commissioner of Police asking that bright lights should as far as possible be dimmed’.

As the article noted, the lamps had indeed gone out: ‘London was darker last night than it has ever been since electric light became popular’. As an article in the Evening News likewise commented on 28th September 1914, the capital became ‘more like a provincial city every week’. As part of the  enforcement of ‘semi-darkness’, London moved, gradually, from the brightness of arc lights through the use of glow lamps (which Clark noted from the Daily Express on 11th Sept 1914), and into a deepening ‘gloom’ as winter advanced, and regulations were enforced with greater stringency.

The silence of death: war in 1914

death
Casualties after a charge [France]. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood. The British Library. Copyright Public Domain marked
 

On the other side of recruiting was, of course, the action that had to be performed, and the realities of combat and war. The diction of war-reporting in the British press in this respect often evokes a sense of jolly camaraderie in these early weeks — the derring-do of ordinary men who are united as ‘pals’ and ‘chums’ in heroic ventures abroad, defending the innocent, and fighting for honour and justice, and, as in the Star on the 5th September 1914, never quailing even when placed before ‘bullets thick as bees’. This language is vivid and colloquial, often constructed in direct speech, as here in reporting another episode of conflict in the Daily Express in September 1914:

Who was the coolest man under fire? I am safe in giving the biscuit to young Tommy Brown, who lay in the trenches smoking a cigarette while he picked out the blue devils coming up to the attack. He had to throw his “butt” away in the end to engage a couple of Germans with his bayonet, but he came through’

Reading the popular press in his endeavour to document the words of war, Clark notes down locutions such as take the biscuit (not in the first edition of the OED as it then existed), and the commendatory sense of cool (dispassionate, controlled; unmoved by events). The Germans are blue devils (forming part of a wider trope in which war is often seen as hell); Continue reading