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.


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