The silence of death: war in 1914

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

A Non-Starter for Peace

A Non-Starter for Peace

A non-starter in modern use is, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, a thing or person which doesn’t start in a race or other kind of competition or test. It is a form which was taken originally from horse-racing, as in the very first use of this word in 1865 which the modern OED attests. If the other horses start, a non-starter is left far behind, never having left the point at which the race begins. This was, as history proves, a sense which was easily extended to a range of other domains. Nevertheless, the first edition of the OED, in progress as the First World War began, had been entirely silent on this word and its use. The relevant section, which covered words in Niche to Nywe, had been published in September 1907. While it provided an extensive section on words with non-, non-starter did not appear.

For Clark, tracking words in wartime, the use of non-starter in the Star on 5th September 1914 was therefore doubly arresting – first for the appearance of what seemed an unrecorded form, but secondly for the quite literally eye-catching statement in which it was deployed:

“A non-starter – The Kaiser, who was nominated only two months ago as the next recipient of the Nobel peace prize”.

This was, by early September 1914, a non-starter indeed. Kaiserism had by that point firmly come to suggest war not peace, being widely used alongside militarism and the politics of aggression. The Scotsman on September 3rd provides a good example; here on-going conflict is seen, from the Allies’ side, as a united effort in “fighting Kaiserism or militarism”. Still more prominent were images of the Kaiser as a ‘modern Attila and his army’, here in the Scotsman on Tuesday 8th September 1914. Similar was reference to the ‘New Attila’ in the Scotsman on 17th September 1914. This linked modern history to another unlikely contender for a peace prize. As the article stated:

‘Fourteen hundred years ago Attila and his Huns desolated Belgium, Holland, and Gaul, and then crossed the Alps to Northern Italy’.

As it added, the historical continuities seemed plain:

’now another Attila, at the head of a horde of barbarian Huns, and he and they are following in the footsteps of their ancient predecessors, burning classic cities and peaceful villages, and murdering indiscriminately men, women, and children, trampling the latter ruthlessly under their horses’ hoofs’.

The language was that of outrage and atrocity, and wilful depredation.

In terms of the history of non-starter and its representation, Clark’s evidence would, in this instance, be read by the OED in the scrutiny given to his notebooks around 1930. It was, however, rejected; n the 1933 Supplement to the OED, nouns such as non-flam (‘That is not inflammable’) are clearly inserted in preference. While a short entry does appear in the second edition of the OED in 1989, this contained no evidence in British English before1932, and even this referred to the more literal sense of the term — rather than the metaphorical one Clark had spotted.

Even in 2003, in a draft revision of the third edition of the Dictionary, the first metaphorical use of non-starter was traced only to 1934. Yet, rather than being a post-war locution, its use had, of course, been there all along in Clark’s carefully assembled lexicon of war-time English. Only in December 2009– and almost a century after Clark first recorded the form,– did Clark’s evidence, and the pithy citation on peace and the Kaiser in the context of war, finally make its way into the OED where it now appears in prominent first position under non-starter in the sense:  ‘A person or thing that is unlikely to succeed or be effective, or that is to be rejected or discounted at the outset; an impracticable idea’.

If the Kaiser hence proved a resounding non-starter for peace, the Star’s observation proved, at least in terms of language, a point of significant change, while also confirming Clark’s good eye for language on the move.

** See “non-starter”, OED Online.Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 20 September 2014.

So what is this thing called “war”?

War, with some irony, did not yet exist in the Oxford English Dictionary as Clark began his project of collecting up the vocabulary of what we now know as the First World War. The relevant section of the Dictionary would not be published until 1921. Our modern terminology depends, of course, firmly on hindsight. A first world war, as we now know, was followed by a second. The numerical sequencing offers ominous potential for a third or fourth which, as yet, remain unrealised.

Here, too, both language and history in 1914 could offer the potential for other modes of expression to come to the fore.  How exactly this war was seen and discussed in its first few weeks – when its duration and scale were as yet unknown — can therefore be especially interesting.  The Daily Express on Friday 11th Sept was, for example, already contemplating the coming “war winter:  ’Everybody is preparing for a “war winter”’, it stated, in ways which also suggest some problems for the popular mythography by which WWI was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’. German plans for a quick defeat of France had failed. The conflict seemed likely to set in. “War winter”, set apart by its framing scare quotes, is clearly a form which both Clark and the Daily Express regarded as new and distinctive, andparticularly evocative of time and place.

As in the South African or Boer War to which comparison is often made in these early weeks, the geographical limits of conflict can also influence the terms which appear. ‘In the South Africa war we wanted men who could shoot and could ride horses; in this European war we want men who can shoot and ride bicycles, as the Daily Express on September 1st had explained. War here is distinctively ‘European’ — Germany, Russia, France, Britain, and Belgium were, for example, all involved. Conflict had not yet spread across the globe. Language, obsolescence, and history can, of course, all neatly interact in the rise and fall of labels of this kind: the European war would prove ephemeral — not because war ended, but because it transformed into something  far larger. As the Scotsman on 11 September already suggests, its potential is already seen as such that it can be referred to as a great war; it stressed, without reservation, ‘the justice of the cause of Britain in the great war’.

Interestingly, as Clark’s notebooks attest, the diction of the world war, and other associated compounds, also appears within the first few weeks of conflict. The Daily Express on September 1st 1914 could, for example, also move with surprising rapidity into the diction of a war which was already seen in global terms. ‘The result of this world-war may depend on a very slight preponderance of force of either side’, it stated. Here, too, shirking was not an option; the obligation for everyone who could participate was made plain. As the Daily Express warned two days later, here providing another compound for Clark’s growing collection, the enemy was intent on world-dominationWorld-conflict was similar, used in the Scotsman on 15th September, as was world-Empire, which had been used in the same newspaper four days earlier. Such forms can, however, prove false friends in more ways than one. These early compounds with world- are not always what they might seem. As in the last three examples, they deliberately appropriate German habits of word-formation – and hyphenation – on analogy, as Clark observes, with forms such as Welt-politik and Welt-reich. This can, in the popular press, be used to provide a neat linguistic mirroring of the extent of German ambition, and the language in which this was expressed. As Clark realised, German – not English, was the driving force behind such uses, in ways which could prove remarkably prevalent over the early months of war.

As in the Scotsman on Friday 11 September, compounds with world- serve therefore to crystallize the aggrandizing ambition of the enemy, here with the potential to create a world-Empire. Reportage is from a German point of view; context is all-important:

war with France was received with satisfaction, as there were colonies to be annexed. England’s intervention was hailed with jubilation, as indicating the magnificent prospect of world-Empire that success would bring.

A further report in the Scotsman on Friday 18th September makes these critical differences of language and identity plain, setting a world-destiny used of Germany (and German ambitions) against a destiny that Britain must instead seize for the good:

Whatever the world-destiny of Germany may be, we in Great Britain are ourselves conscious of a destiny and a duty. That destiny and duty, alike for us and all the English-speaking race, call upon us to uphold the common rule of justice’

Forms such as these are, in effect, loan-translations – unfamiliarity acts to distance and divide. Newness hence co-exists with another aspect by which aliens (and the alien in other respects) can deliberately be set against apart. Punctuation – often ignored – can, as here, inform a highly critical reading. The Allies were intentionally fighting a European war – citations from German speeches, as reported in the press, stressed instead the desire for a world-war by which conquest might be far-reaching. Like the contrast between German kolossal and BrE colossal — which, as Clark notes, was another strategic and popular, opposition in contemporary accounts– the form of words could act as another image of nationhood, raising other issues by which people are seen to speak – or not – the ‘same’ language. In the words of the Scotsman, ‘we’, as an ‘English-speaking race’ were seeking a war in which a ‘world-destiny’ might not be realised. Language can be used to set up borders which, at least intentionally, put the enemy on the outside.

Being All-British: language and the politics of advertising in WW1

For Clark, advertising — even before war began – had seemed to offer fertile territory for anyone who might be minded to investigate the interactions of language and society. Brand names and the language of persuasion easily exploited other aspects of language and identity, playing on common anxieties and aspirations. As Clark noted, adverts played with meaning in markedly creative ways. War, however, quickly brought other new elements into play, mobilising particular patterns of meaning and connotation to good effect. Nationhood, patriotism, and purchasing could dovetail with precision.
Being All-British, for instance, emerged as a newly prominent locution. This was, and remains, a form unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. Its appearance as a new and hyphenated compound from the first days of WWI nevertheless acted, as a range of clippings in Clark’s notebooks indicate, as a guarantee of quality which was closely aligned with new issues of identity — of both product and purchaser —  in a time of war. As soon as Germany invaded Belgium, commodities on the Home Front, as Clark observed, could be made symbolic of conflict in a wider sense. Buying products manufactured in Germany was popularly conceived as a form of patriotic betrayal, demonstrating a now untenable support for the enemy as well as evoking what was often referred to as ‘Teutonic taint’. Meaning, and use, of relevant words could shift dramatically, as in the ‘“Made-in-Germany” riot ‘which the Daily Express reported on September 26th 1914:

“The appearance of a van laden with cases conspicuously marked “Made in Germany.” created a lively scene yesterday outside the premises of a toy dealer in High Holborn…Soon an angry crowd of nearly a thousand had gathered’

One of the offending cases was set on fire, while the toyshop (outside which the van had parked), denied all knowledge of the consignment. The police were called to sort out the fracas which ensued. For Clark, this provided a new compound adjective, with markedly negative connotations – being ‘Made-in-Germany’ as applied adjective was self-evidently not being read by the assembled crowd as a signifier of quality (as it might have been before the all too partisan politics of war intervened). Instead, as the ensuing ‘riot’ confirmed, it was a form which, displayed on a set of packing cases, was able to evoke widespread opposition and distrust.
In contradistinction, as Clark observed, diction which proclaimed the absence of ‘Teutonic taint’ was deployed as an effective weapon in what seem a widespread war of commodities on the Home Front itself. Advertising for Lyons Tea in September 1914, for instance, made insistent use of this compound as it sought to gain tactical advantage over possible competitors: Lyons, as readers were told, represented an: All-British Company with All-British Directors’, as well as ‘14,000 All-British Shareholders’, and a product which was delivered to ‘160,000 All-British Shopkeepers selling Lyons tea’. All-British likewise heads an advert for Icilma cream (‘made in England by a British Company employing only British workpeople’). This statement was guarded by the visual image of two soldiers in profile, defending product and purchaser alike from any untoward – and unpatriotic — associations. All acted as an intensifer in both quantitiave adn qualitative ways.
Non-native names – like, say, the modern use of French — had, at least in pre-war days, intentionally conveyed the exotic and sophisticated. Yet, in terms of language and the play of connotation, this could now misfire; the non-native might easily prove a liability. Advertisements for Icilma in September 1914 as a a result carefully reminded readers of the links to Arabic rather than German for the name under which it traded: ‘The word “Icilma” is a trade mark, composed of Arabic words, meaning “Flows the water”, as it explained, with reference to “the beautifying Icilma Natural Water which is contained in this famous toilet preparation’ . ‘No other toilet cream contains this wonderful Natural Water’, it stressed. Its purity was thereby guaranteed in more ways than one.
The advertising of Hovis bread on September 12th 1914 conversely suggested an act of patriotic defamation in this respect. War could, it seemed, be fought on many levels, with diverse forms of attack and counter-attack.As the advertisement declared:

‘It having come to our knowledge that a rumour has been spread abroad that this Company is of German origin, we desire to state that this Company is and always has been BRITISH in its composition, is under BRITISH control and employs only BRITISH LABOUR.

It offered a reward of one hundred pounds ‘to anyone who can supply the Company with information leading to a conviction of the person or persons originating the false report’.  Clark’s intuitions on the value of advertising– and its language — would, as his later notebooks confirm, prove highly accurate. Across 1914-18, war – in word and image — could exploited for commercial advantage in a range of sometimes surprising ways.

Recruits and shirkers: identity politics in the early days of war

Parliamentary Recruiting Committee; L. S. and Co. Austrian National Library. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved

To recruit, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, has long been in use in English. The first evidence of its military sense occurs in 1655; the corresponding noun was recorded from 1626. Yet, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, the early weeks of war quickly brought other aspects of use into play. Here, too, Clark’s interest in ephemera of all kinds again clearly worked to good effect. Gathering up evidence of lexical and material culture alike, he quickly sent a set of recruiting posters for safe storage to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Meanwhile, in his notebooks, he commented on recruiting poster as a noun, finding only silence when he tried to look it up in the OED as it then existed.**

In the context of WW1, a recruiting poster was, Clark explained, a printed bill which invited recruits to join the army, He provided a clipping from the Daily Express on August 29th 1914 in careful illustration. The language of recruiting, as Clark’s first notebook records, would in fact neatly mirror the highly public pressure to join up, and ‘do one’s bit’. As the Scotsman reported on Saturday 5th September 1914, Edinburgh had recently witnessed both recruiting marches and recruiting parades. For Clark these confirmed two new combinations which also remained – and remain – absent from the OED, Continue reading

War on two wheels – the Mechanical Mounted Infantry

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 4893);

If ‘war in the air’ was early recognised as a salient feature of the events – and language – of WWI, then war on two wheels was another which also regularly surfaced in Clark’s first notebooks. As in combinations such as cyclist-detachment, cyclist officer, or cyclist troops, the bicycle was another vehicle of war which was often praised for its modernity – and evidence of progress — in contemporary accounts. From our perspective, this can perhaps surprise, revealing something of the innocence of these first weeks of war when tanks (and their own accompanying language, still lay in the future, as did the diction of gas as a form of attack). Clark noted down the following example from the Daily Express on 1st September 1914, which neatly set out the historical imperatives of change in this respect:

‘In the South Africa war we wanted men who could shoot and could ride horses; in this European war we want men who can shoot and ride bicycles, the Mechanical M.I’.

Thie “Mechanical M.I”, as other cuttings explained in full, was the Mechanical Mounted Infantry. The Daily Express, as Clark observed, provided a useful definition too, for the advances apparently being made in this respect:

‘primarily the cyclist is an infantryman, a trained solder mounted on an iron-clad steed that moves on at an easy twelve miles an hour and requires no feeding or watering, no veterinary attendance, and no two days to four days rest’.

Clark here picked out iron-clad as another new use, especially in this applied sense. It meant a cycle, as his annotations explained.
Like war in the air, accounts of the military engagements – and utility – of the cyclist troops could,  also prove remarkably partisan. A report from a cyclist officer which appeared in the Daily Express on 1st September 1914 (in a clipping included in Clark’s first notebook) noted, for example, that ‘the cyclist troops of the Allies have already been in action and the new arm, the “mechanical mounted infantry,” even at this early stage of the great war, has “made good”’. As it added in further commendation: ‘it may almost be said to have scored a triumph’. For Clark, this neatly provided a trio of interesting forms, none of which had –or indeed have since — made their way into the OED.
The use of cycles by the enemy could, however, attract comment which was more critical – even if, from Clark’s point of view, it was equally useful in demonstrating the introduction and use of words. ‘It is really a comic idea to send a cyclist-detachment into Russia’, as the Daily Express – perhaps with some reason – recorded on Saturday 5th September 1914. ‘127 cyclists had been taken prisoner’, it reported: ’three squadrons of German cavalry, supported by a company of cyclists, were cut up by Russians’. The ‘poor cyclists have a very bad time on the Russian roads’, it stated in apparent sympathy.
As in other respects, Clark’s record of words in time can here vividly remind us of certain aspects of history which have perhaps faded in popular memory (as well as of combinatory forms which dictionaries such as the OED do not record). As history itself proved, however, the use of cycles as an active force in war – viewed with optimism in these opening weeks — would be equally subject to change and obsolescence as positions became entrenched, and a very different style of war came to the fore.

War in the air: Aug-Sept 1914

‘War in the air, so long the dream of the imaginative novelist, has become a terrible reality’, the Scotsman noted in September 1914, here in another clipping which found its way into Clark’s archive of words. For Clark, as his notebooks record, flight would serve as a particularly telling domain of language and history, providing — from the early days of war — compelling evidence of wide range of new collocations and constructions. New identities proliferated; attack, as newspapers reported, might now come from aerial enemies while a new breed of soldier-aviators were early recognised as important in the directions war might take. ‘We shall no doubt hear more of the desperate missions our fancy has usually associated with the work of the soldier-aviator’, as the Scotsman noted on August 18th 1914; ‘Precautions have been taken with a view to possible visits from aerial enemies at night’, it likewise recorded on September 8th, in a report on Paris at war.
Nevertheless, as Clark’s clippings demonstrate, explaining — and describing — these new realities of conflict could be difficult. Did one use aerial raid or air raid in documenting war in the air? Both appear in early pages of Clark’s notebooks, describing attacks on Paris and Rheims. ‘Interesting Details of the Aerial Raid’, the Scotsman announced on 24th September, for example, describing an ‘air raid’ made by the British on the German frontier.** The OED, as then published, maintained a conspicuous silence; the relevant sections had been completed in 1884. Here an aeroplane was ‘a semi-transparent fabric of the nature of a thin crape’, while an aeronaut was ‘One who sails through the air, or who makes balloon ascents; a balloonist. Clark’s evidence on aviator, aeronaut, and airman, of aviation school, aeroplane service, and aerodrome swiftly confirmed, in this respect, the language – and history – of a very different time. Similar was airmanship (‘’it was superb airmanship’, the Evening News stated on September 3rd). This, as Clark explained, referred to the ability to manage an airship (rather than ‘skill in managing a balloon’, as the OED had earlier stated). Such changes reflected on-going history with marked specificity.
As Clark explores, the framing diction of airships (which were likewise absent from the first edition of the OED) would, in this respect, come to inform a range of nautical extensions as journalists strove to report the events taking place across Europe. Attack by ‘a fleet of airships’ had, in fact, also long been the territory of the ‘imaginative novelist’ , as H.G. Wells’s novel War in the Air (1908) confirms. Yet as in the Scotsman on Saturday September 5th,, these terms were to be familiarised in fact rather than fiction, as in reports of the German aerial fleets which sailed across the sky in search of objects to attack: ‘Leiutenants Zalin and Rheinhardt of the aerial fleet have been awarded iron crosses for distinguished achievements’, the Scotsman noted; ’German Air Fleet to attack Paris’, it stated two days later. Aerial piracy becomes, by a further extension, another prominent image in these early days of war. As a range of clippings in Clark’s notebooks confirm, this could convey the ruthlessness and depredation which piracy had traditionally connoted, while simultaneously being transplanted to the conditions of strikingly modern warfare. ‘The aerial pirate stopped in its swoops, and turned so suddenly I wondered it did not break amidships’, an illustrative clipping from the Evening News on 3rd September states.
Such forms also, of course, effectively demarcated the conditions of war in other ways. An aerial pirate was, of necessity, an enemy’s airship, as Clark confirms in his accompanying definition; it was, he added, one bound moreover on an errand of destruction’. A pirate here meant a ‘pirate-ship’, he clarified, rather than those on board. Piracy here defined the enemy – the activities of the allies demanded a different, and far more legitimatized, diction. Yet at stake on both sides was, of course, the conquest of the air – another combination which Clark early picks out in use, here in the Star on September 5th: ‘the conquest of the air has served to cloak the most infamous stain in contemporary history. It has demonstrated that the means of flying, in the hands of barbarians, have brought into prominence their savage, terrible, and ignoble brutality’.

** This still antedates, if by four days, the evidence of the modern OED. The entry for airmanship, in OED Online, likewise omits evidence for the war years, moving instead from 1879 to 1937 in ways which occlude the changing senses which are at stake. See “airmanship, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 3 September 2014.