Words, weapons, and WWI No.2: Woolly bears and whizz-bangs

By January 1915, Andrew Clark was by no means alone in his sense that language and war were intersecting in particularly fruitful ways. As an article in the Evening News, which Clark carefully extracted for the Words in War-Time archive, comments:

woolly bear
A woolly bear ? Explosion over a trench. Bibliothèque nationale de France @Public Domain marked.

The ingenuity of the British soldier in inventing picturesque names for the various engines of destruction brought to bear against him is well known, and with the development of new weapons the number of nicknames in use has been extended until they form a language which is most bewildering to a stranger.

The article was headed ‘Tommy’s Slanguage’ in ways which drew attention to the lexical creativity which already seemed particularly in evidence on the Western Front. Slanguage, a blend or portmanteau of slang and language, was — perhaps predictably — another form which drew Clark’s own attention, not least since, as he quickly established, it represented yet another absence in the relevant section of the OED (which had been published three years earlier, in September 1911). Slanguage was thus doubly valuable for the Words in War-Time project – as a word about words it had an obvious thematic pertinence. Moreover, as in Clark’s early emphasis on the kind of word-pictures which would be vital in reporting and recording war, slanguage was described in terms which drew attention to the visual and picturesque quality of the coinages which had, within the first months of war, already come into being.
Some elements of this changing discourse of war have already been discussed in earlier posts. In terms of weapons, Jack Johnsons and coal boxes, as the Evening News likewise observed, presented striking metaphors for what were, in other respects, terrifying ‘engines of destruction’. Other words discussed in the article include the woolly bear as well as, with a certain grim humour, the ‘German Undertaker‘ which was used as a locution for the enemy’s trench mortars or minenwerfers. Like the designation Jack Johnson, the image of a weapon as a woolly bear can suggest a certain incongruity. Woolly, after all, connotes softness instead of targeted destruction, in a tactility can seem oddly inviting. Here, too, metaphor is at work; while coal box references the black smoke emitted when the shells from the relevant howitzer hit the ground, the woolly bear offers a visual metaphor for the vast unfurling clouds of smoke which, as the extract below indicates, appear when shells of this kind detonate in the sky, shedding their hostile contents:

a certain type of German shrapnel is known as “The Woolly Bear,” from the thick white smoke emitted when it bursts.(Evening News, 14 January 1915)

As another news report, also from January 1915 explains, the woolly bear was a type of the “Einbeitsgeschoss”, or universal shell which, developed by Krupps, combined shrapnel contents with a high-explosive projectile:
The shells of the 8.27 in. and 11.2 in. howitzers are indiscriminately termed “Jack Johnsons,” “Black Marias,” and “Portmanteaux.” But it is without doubt the “Einbeitsgeschoss” of the 4.13 in. light howitzer, burst by time fuse, that goes by the name of “Woolly Bear”. (Evening News, Thurs 28 Jan 1915). If early new reports had described this phenonemon (see e.g. the accounts of the German attack on Reims, in the Evening News on 19 September 1914: ‘German shells, in clouds of white smoke, could be seen bursting right over the houses’ ), they had done so without the evocative desingation that the woolly bear acquires by 1915.

Such “woolliness” was visual rather than tangible. Bears, after all, remain savage and highly effective predators. Like the Great Bear, also visible in the sky (and vast in size) , the woolly variety was best appreciated from afar.

As a later extract in the Words in Wartime archive illustrates, the plight of the ordinary soldier, sheltering in his trench while innovatively named missiles of various kind fly over his head, can be depicted with marked eloquence:
‘Tommy, crouching under the parapet of his trench while “whiz-bangs,” “coal-boxes,” “Jack Johnsons,” “woolly bears,” and all the rest of the infernal brood scream and crash around, has nothing to do but think’ (Daily Express 29 July 1915).
Here, the inverted commas emphasize the creative patterns of naming and renaming which are at stake. No explanations are, however, provided; the senses, at least in general terms, are assumed to be sufficiently familiar – and familiarised to readers on the Home Front. For woolly bear, Clark’s evidence in the Words in War-Time archive again proves its value, tracking the use and diffusion of this term to good effect. While no entry exists for this sense of  woolly bear in the OED in 1914 (the section containing words in W still remained unwritten), the modern OED dates its appearance only from July 1915.
Whizz- bangs (as in the extract above) — as well as the related zip-bangs — are other forms which also make their appearance. Slanguage here relies on the self-evident onomatopoeia, as well as providing ironic reference to the pyrotechnics (and weapons as fireworks) which are elsewhere immortalised in the diction of Brock’s displays. The whizz of Victorian fireworks was a well-established feature – used in Punch, for example, in describing the fictional adventure of ‘Mr.Brock’ and a cab-driver on a foggy night when fireworks – and the whizz they emit – are used, unconventionally to guide the way’).*** The Words in War-Time archive records the use of whizz-bang from 18 June 1915, in the Daily Express, describing a war souvenir, here in terms of ‘the time-fuse of what the soldiers call a “whiz-bang”’. A further example is recorded from the following day, in a ‘Letter from the Front’, reprinted in the Daily Express. As in other examples of this sub-genre – which was very popular within newspapers at this time, not least in the way it could provide apparently authentic witness to life at the Front – language mediates between Western and Home Front, explaining and clarifying the facts of war:

There are various other kinds of shells; ‘whizz bangs’ are distinctly disconcerting, and some of the trench mortars make an awful row, but I would rather face any of them than high explosive’ (Daily Express 19 June 1915).

Evidence in the OED — in an entry revised in June 2014 — dates such use to 1915, and the publication of Ian Hay’s fictionalised memoir, The First Hundred Thousand.
Zip-bangs, as an alternative locution for the same shell, appear in a further ‘Letter from the Front’, this time ‘from a Private in the 7th London Regiment’ which appeared in the Star on 19 June 1915:

‘The Germans shelled us well with small high explosive shells, which we call “Zip-Bangs.” Two came ever together, and hit ten of our boys. Two out of the ten have died, but the others, so far as we know, are doing very well’.

While it might be tempting to see this as a local and one-off formation – it does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, either then or now – related forms appear in other texts, as in the extract below, from 1916 in which zip-bang (precisely like whizz-bang) is used to evoke the swift movement of the shell, and its subsequent explosion:
“Hardly had I gone ten feet, when a “seventy-seven” shell, arriving without warning, went Zip-bang, and, turning to crouch to the wall, I saw the sentry crumple up in the mud. It was as if he were a rubber effigy of a man blown up with air, and some one had suddenly ripped the envelope. (HENRY SHEEHAN. (SSU2) “La Forêt de Bois-le-Prêtre” in A Volunteer Poilu, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1916).See http://www.ourstory.info/2/b/2b2.html.
Clark’s zeal in collecting up the echoic – and creative — formations of war still provides, however, early evidence in this respect, suggesting that – just like Jack Johnsons (variously known as portmanteaux and Black Marias), whizz-bangs could also gain alternative designations – alongside, of course, their more prosaic identity as shells fired from 77 mm field guns.
***. Punch: ‘At last—whizz! Away went a couple of rockets a-rending the fog, reg’lar red-and-green beauties’. See http://www.gutenberg.org/files/45439/45439-h/45439-h.htm

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