Definitely not over by Christmas

snow at the front
Snow at the Front. Soldiers leaving Reserve Trench (National Library of Scotland). Free Access – Rights Reserved.

One of the most enduring myths of WWI centres on the conviction, widely attributed to the early months of the war, that conflict would all  ‘be over by Christmas’ and peace would have resumed. Given the range of intersections between language and history at this time, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Words in War-Time archive can also offer interesting evidence in this respect. The range of forms which appear through the autumn of 1914 present, however, an early  corrective for the popular narrative of a short war. Instead, as the archive confirms, WWI generated a  range of combinatory forms and constructions in which expectations that a war winter would succeed a summer and autumn of conflict were, in reality, unambiguous.

Even in September 1914, the certainty of a war which would continue beyond Christmas seemed clear. ‘Every one is preparing for a war winter‘, readers of the Daily Express were informed on September 11th, for example. Those who assumed otherwise — including those at the Front — were distinctly rash, as an article in the Scotsman also warned:

the British soldiers are parting with their greatcoats for a few shillings, forgetting they may have to spend the cold of winter in a German prison (Scotsman, Monday 28th September 1914).

For the Scotsman, it seemed indisputable that war had set in for the long haul — as it indicated, any sense of victory was at this stage distinctly premature. Winter would, in fact, emerge as a recurrent topic, prompting discussion of the winter manoeuvres that the Germans were already carrying out  (as reported in the Daily Express on September 28th) or of a new kind of underground war  in which German tactics, and the rise of what would later be known as trench warfare, was already seen as being particularly adapted to survive the coming cold. As the Evening News stated on October 1st 1914:

The Germans are already fighting what may be termed an underground war with winter on the horizon; the men and guns lie buried out of sight. An invisible foe faces us, a foe who must virtually be dug out with a bayonet or blown out with one of our Long Toms.

News reports, in a different kind of myth-making, could, as a result, draw attention to  the kind of consolation to be derived (at least from the Allies’ point of view) from the undoubted expertise of the Russians with large amounts of snow and very low temperatures:

The Russian soldier can sleep in the snow with the same comfort as his bed in barracks, and he is especially trained, as Russian sappers are, to manoeuvre and work in it’ (Daily Express, 28 September 1914).

‘The German army is not trained at all to fight in a severe winter’, the Daily Express announced, endeavouring to convey a sense of further reassurance. Readers of the Evening News in September 1914 would, however, have already noted the diction of the winter campaign, and the enemy preparations that were in fact already being made:

every available tailor and canvas stitcher in Germany is working day and night making thick clothing for the winter campaign (Evening News, 18th September 1914).

Britain, as other news reports in the Words in War-Time archive make plain, was, of course, also thinking on similar lines: ‘it has just been announced that … that the Admiralty are presenting each man in this Fleet with about ten articles of winter underclothing, and Queen Mary is presenting each man with a blue woollen Guernsey, so it looks as if the authorities have in their minds a winter off the German shore for us’ (Star 22 Sept 1914). Winter, and war in winter, was anticipated on a range of levels, and documented, as here, in a diverse array of collocations. These– collectively — work against the sense of a war to be concluded by Christmas, and the mythic  image which, against the realities of both language and history, we still often tend to recall today.

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