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); butt too, as a form which designates the end of a partly smoked cigarette, is seen as new, and was hitherto unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. It first made its appearance in the Dictionary in 1933, though only in relation to cigars (for which evidence was traced back to the 19thC).

As in the Daily Express on 2nd Sept 1914, morale is depicted as high; in another common locution of war, grousing (grumbling) is seen as unacceptable. Instead, as here, we are told that:

‘Our men fought their corner and faced the hardships of active service without a murmur, and if they were forced back by fearful odds, you can take it from me that the Germans weren’t in any fit state to boast after the fighting was finished’.

A surprising silence can therefore descend on death and injury in such accounts. Instead, it is only indirectly that the reality of war’s impact on the British side is made plain in these early weeks. Wastage as a telling euphemism for losses appears, for example,  in the Daily Express on Saturday 29th August 1914, its chilling implications concealed within an article on recruiting:

‘I may add all wastage of the army in France is being immediately filled up, and there are some 12,000 men waiting for that purpose on the lines of communication’.

In August 1914, this section of the OED had not yet been published, but when it appeared in 1923, no such sense appeared. Instead, wastage referred (and still refers) to ‘loss or diminution by use, decay’, or the negative sense of ‘loss incurred by wastefulness’ – a sense which was clearly not desirable here. It referred too to the action of laying land waste, or from 1919, it was attested in a sense relating to students and the loss of numbers by the failure to complete a course or study. Wastage in the diction of war was rather different – referring to loss through death and injury, to diminution of forces, in a usage which Clark carefully picks out, and which still remains unrepresented in the OED.

Advertising, and the language of ephemera, can also prove its utility in this context. Advertising, as other posts have explored, can act as a ready conduit to social realities and anxiety. The prominent placing of an advertisement for ‘bath chairs, spinal carriages, self-propelling chairs, and hand-tricycles’ in the Scotsman on Saturday 12 September 1914 can, for instance, suggest something of the other side of war, here in other word-forms which the OED had not included. A need for hand-tricycles was in these terms another consequence of war, for which commodities could be proffered. These were, as Clark deduced, tricycles that could be used by those who had been injured in their legs. The form still remains absent from the OED, as does spinal carriage (and self-propelling chair), all of which form part of a diction of injury, disability, and convalescence which also came to be part of the way war was experienced on the Home Front.

Equally telling was the advertisement for mourning-orders which Clark extracted from the Scotsman on September 25th 1914.  Another compound which remained unrecorded in the OED, it serves as witness to the changing forms of supply and demand, as well as the patterns of commodification that war could bring: ‘Mourning-orders have precedence over all others’, the advertisement (for Jenner’s department store) stated. It offered the further reassurance that ‘Jenner’s have always in stock a large variety of ready-to-wear black gowns, costumes, mantles, blouses, and millinery’.

Other news reports inadvertently attest forms which offer eloquent testimony of the casualties that war would bring. An article headed ‘‘The Queen and the Wounded’,which also appeared in the Scotsman in September 1914 hence announced:

‘The Queen has sent helpless-case shirts to the Royal Victoria Hospital’, as well as to the sick quarters at Shotley. [Scotsman Sept 2 1914]

The article intentionally placed patriotic emphasis on the generoisity of the Queen in a time of need, It is, however, the diction of the helpless-case shirts (and indeed, the state of being a helpless-case) which stays in the mind. Absent from the contemporary record of the language as recorded in the OED, these, too, are now typically forgotten as part of the diction of war, and its effects, in 1914. They nevertheless still remains all too resonant of the impact war could in reality have, outside the ‘Boy’s Own’ enthusiasm which other aspects of reportage often preferred to maintain.


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