English Words in War-time

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

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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, As Clark’s clippings reveal, they resonate with the atmosphere (and enthusiasm) of the early days of war, and the era before a very different language – that of conscription, and conscientious objectors – came into play. The quality of being recruitable was another word which struck Clark’s eye, as in a report of another recruiting meeting which he read in the Scotsman on September 11th. Extolling ‘the justice of the cause of Britain in the great war’, the article extolled too the calibre of the men who came to listen – and volunteer:

it was gratifying to see, too, how many of the audience were young men of a recruitable age’

Absent from the OED as it then existed, this seemed to Clark another word which was worth recording, embedded as it was in what could seem a national scrutiny of identity in terms which reflected whether one was able – or willing – to fight. Enlistable – yet another form still absent from the OED – was similar.

‘Having in view the great national crisis, … it is the duty of every able-bodied man of enlistable age to offer personal war service to his King and country, and that every Rugby footballer of the present day comes within the scope of Lord Kitchener’s appeal’,

as the Scotsman declared on September 1st. An article on 5th September in the Star, which Clark also records, reveals the unconcealed jubilation of those who led such campaigns: ‘It’s a treat for a recruiting sergeant to be alive’, we are informed, here in the words of one such sergeant:

‘now it is just the right material that’s offering: the young unmarried fellows,of decent physique’.

Lord Kitchener’s appeal for men to make up a New Army was, in this light, strikingly successful. Other anxieties about not being enlistable or recruitable – and the public consequences this might bring – had, however, also started to emerge. By the end of August 1914, the more opprobrious diction of the shirker had, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, tellingly made its appearance.

“I think it would be desirable that every man within the age limit who has come forward and has been refused should be entitled to wear a badge to show that he is not a shirker’ (Daily Express August 29th 1914)

Shirkers, as here, were not merely those who did not work, but – in a pattern of meaning which rapidly spread in popular use – the terms was to be used for those who would not fight, and who remained — irrespective of the blandishments of recruiting posters, parades, or meetings — entirely unwilling to be recruited. War, as here, could provide a battleground for identity politics as well as nations. As the Daily Express contended, there seemed a real need — even by August — to devise some way of differemtiating those who were willing to fight — but who were for some reason not enlistable — from those who were enlistable but by no means willing. As it concluded:

‘Let every other eligible man in the country walk about without a badge showing clearly that he is a shirker in his country’s interests’

it suggested the provision of a badge for those who had not been allowed to enlist. Rendered badgeless, real shirkers could, in effect, be named and shamed.

The visual opprobrium that the writer desired would, as Clark confirms, swiftly make its appearance:

‘Every man who can fight is wanted, and wanted at once, For the Order of the White Feather there will soon be no room in our land’,

as the Daily Express proclaimed on 1 Sept 1914. As Clark explained, the construction to show the white feather had long been in existence – it was, as he noted, the proverbial expression for those who were deemed to lack the necessary courage. The First World War nevertheless gave the opportunity for the proverbial to be literalised. As Clark notes with scarcely concealed disapproval, white feathers were indeed given out to those men who seemed enlistable, but who were not at the front, as a badge of dishonour and shame. As the Star reported on Saturday 5th September, the white feather brigade had, ‘in the cause of patriotism’, already become far too active. Asquith too had, it reported, expressed his disquiet  at tactics such as these. As we will see in Clark’s later notebooks, and the language that these record, such hopes were, however, to be in vain.

** A new entry in OED Online (dated 2009) now provides the history and use of this term, taking it back into the nineteenth century and forward to 2007, even if its use in WWI does not receive specific mention. See “recruiting, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 11 September 2014.

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