Disguise has a long history in war. Whether in the Trojan Horse described by Homer, or in Baden-Powell’s various military deceptions in the second Boer War, it is clear that, where conflict is concerned, things are not always what they might seem. In WWI this would, of course, lead to the new domain of camouflage, another innovatory lexical use which is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary from 1917: ‘The act of hiding anything from your enemy is termed ‘camouflage’, as the Daily Mail informed its readers on 25th May 1917 . Camouflage — in principle and in practice — was, however, clearly already being described three years earlier, as an extract from the Star in the Words in Wartime archive is able to confirm:
In the matter of sniping the Germans, thorough as always, are well prepared. Some of their sharpshooters are armed with rifles having telescopic sights, and are equipped with small bullet-proof shields, the latter being painted in cubist patterns in futurist colours in order to obtain concealment by confusion [Star, Wed 16 December 1914 p.6],
In such early experiments, visual patterns act to conceal — and confuse. The identity of that which is camouflaged is not easily apparent. Disguise can bring tactical advantage and perhaps resounding success.
Language, as the Words in War-Time archive reveals, can often be made to play a similar role, skewing presentations in one direction or another. As an earlier post has explored (**), compounds such as lie-factory and fiction-factory can assume prominent roles in emphasizing the duplicity of German propaganda and news reports (at least when seen through British eyes). Truth and falsehood can be strategic as well as moral antonyms, mobilised to claim the moral high ground or to undermine the enemy.
An article in the Daily Express, recorded in one of the early notebooks, provides a case in point. It was presumably included in the Words in War-Time collection because of its evident play with language as part of both attack and defence. As the article confirms, conflict can be a war of words in a surprising variety of ways. ‘”VE VOS VILTS”. GERMAN RUSE SPOILED BY A WELLERISM’, the title of the article states. It refers, in essence, to a ruse de guerre – here in another term for military trickery which was well-established in English from the mid-eighteenth century. Ruse, in the heading, is used in this special sense; a ruse de guerre, as the OED explains, is ‘A stratagem; esp. one intended to deceive an enemy in war. Hence: a justifiable trick or deception’. Legitimate – and illegitimate – uses had been further elaborated by the Geneva Convention of 1907. While ambushes and unexpected attacks were indeed sanctioned as justifaiblet, other actions – such as the ruse by which an enemy’s clothing might be assumed as part of military disguise – were not. It is this, at least in part, which is detailed here:
One of the most illuminating stories of a German ruse is told by a wounded non-commissioned regiment who had returned to Colchester..The front ranks of a German regiment which was advancing against a British position were dressed in uniforms taken from dead and wounded of the Wiltshire Regiment (Daily Express, September 29th 1914)
Yet the article turns not just on the appropriation of items of clothing, but on manifestations of voice too. If uniforms can be assumed with apparent ease, the native language can’t. Rendered visually identical to the remaining Wiltshires, the Germans initially advance unopposed. Only when they speak does the disguise slip; in the narrative of this encounter, language proves their downfall.
The British officer who saw them approach was suspicious, and as a precaution gave the order “Fix bayonets.” From the advancing ranks came a shout:
“Leedle mistake ! Ve vos not Shermans. Ve vos der Vilts.”
Here, the account, presented as a witness statement from a soldier convalescing at home, makes effective use of both English and German language stereotypes. On one level, ‘Ve wos der Vilts’ plays on easily recognised images of German infelicity in speaking English, and the /v/ /w/ confusion which often results. Yet, as the reference to Wellerism in the title suggests, the Germans are also made to evoke other — and particulary British –stereotypes of identity. If they speak ‘English’, their representation hence draws on a wide-ranging tradition of cockney speakers such as Dickens’s boot-cleaner Sam Weller (from The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836)) whose v/w/ confusion had long been a touchstone for comedic effect, evoking laughter as well as lack of authority. ‘Two coves in vhite aprons – touches their hats ven you walk in’; ‘A vidower he vos, and fat enough for anything’. Goes through the archvay, thinking how he should inwest the money’, as Sam variously states (all examples from Pickwick, Chapter 10).
For the Germans, linguistic disguise is therefore made to slip in a variety of ways – dressed like men from Wiltshire and self-identifying as such (‘der Vilts’), the Germans are instead represented as sounding like outdated Victorian cockneys, with all the low status and comic connotations which such steretypes suggest. By the same token, they also, of course, confirm their true identity — by the early twentieth century, wellerisms of this kind are no longer in use, and language (‘Shermans’, ‘leedle’, as well as v/w ) swiftly gives the game away. As the wounded soldier (who recounts this history) comments in another manifestation of laconic trench humour — and marked understatement, ‘the Germans wilted’.
Other aspects of double meaning are, however, at work too in what is, in effect, a highly nuanced use of language within the reporting of war. Wellerisms, for example, had come to be associated not with just the spoken form of Sam Weller’s speech (and his enunciation of vos (was) and ven (when)), but instead, as the OED confirms, primarily conveyed the idea of ludicrous comparison, in what was, in fact, another marked characteristic of Sam Weller’s speech**. Here, as the event proved, the comparison was ludicrous indeed. German infelicities in speaking English provoke — at least with hindsight — comedy rather than fear. The serious threat is, quite literally, removed. The Trojan horse fails, and the enemy is swiftly despatched. As in more recent events, humour proves an interesting weapon, delegitimizing ideas of power through particular tactics of representation.
While no new words are involved here, the article remains therefore of marked interest in the archive because of its reflexive play with words, as well as its consonance with a wider set of tropes (German dishonesty and cowardice, patriotic British defence) which appear in a wide range of other contexts across the years of war. It is, of course, not a direct transcription, nor — by the same token, can it be assumed to be mimetic. But it offers acts of representation in which language use is critical, in ways which effectively divide ‘them’ and ‘us’.
**See “Wellerism, n.”. OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 20, 2015. It is defined as:’An expression or form of speech used by or characteristic of the Dickens character Sam Weller or his father, Tony; (usually) spec. a kind of a proverbial expression in which a statement, such as a familiar saying or proverb, is given a humorous or ironic twist by being incongruously or punningly attributed to a particular speaker, typically in a specific situation’. A typical example is given from 1839 Boston Morning Post 9 Jan. 2/2 Wellerisms.—‘It does one’s heart good to look at you,’ as the fox said to the chickens, when he found he couldn’t get over the barn-yard wall, to eat them’.