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

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.

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.