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.


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.


One thought on “Watching change in progress: shrapnel

  1. ‘Shrapnel-splinter’ possibly a bit more tricky than that. I’d read that as bits of the casing rather than the contents of the shell.

    In terms of who uses it in which sense – I think the distinction is probably between the artillerymen firing the shells and the infantrymen who were under fire. This would make sense because in the early nineteenth century the British had a monopoly on ‘shrapnel shells’ and in the later nineteenth century were generally fighting non-European enemies who lacked artillery. So 1914 would be the first occasion when British troops came under ‘shrapnel’ fire regularly rather than firing it at their enemies.

    ‘Rain of fire’ and ‘hail of fire’ – that is interesting and I’d never thought about it. Brings to mind both Barbusse and Junger (‘Storm of Steel’) – I suspect there would be an interesting comparative dimension to this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s