Seeing the invisible foe – keeping the enemy in your sights in early WWI

trench periscope
“Watching the Boche trench through a periscope”, Contributor: John Warwick Brooke

In the autumn of 1914, journalists repeatedly returned to the problem of what the Daily Express termed ‘the invisible foe’. War had become, quite literally, one of entrenched positions. Yet, as journalists pointed out, they could, as a result, be faced with a task of describing a confrontation which was, paradoxically, often removed from the powers of direct observation. ‘It is part of the impressiveness of this war that there is normally nothing to be seen’, as the Daily Express commented in November 1914:

When one talks of the front, meaning the point of nearest actual contact between the opposing forces, one speaks of something which cannot be seen even by a spectator standing (if one were so rash) within fifty years of the leading trenches.

Seeing – and the various exigencies of not being seen – would, as one might expect, bring its own pressures to bear on language, representation, as well as on the material culture of war. Even in the very early stages of WWI, the Words in War-Time archive provides interesting evidence of the importance — and challenges — of seeing the enemy, and the means by which this might be accomplished. An extract from the Scotsman in September 1914 is, for example, used  to document a quest for stalking glasses, a word which was – and remains – unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. Headed ‘An Appeal to Sportsmen by Lord Roberts’, it makes clear use of popular synergies between ideas of war and sport:

There are many sportsmen in Great Britain who, for various reasons, are unable to take to the field for their country. I appeal to those who possess race-glasses, field glasses, or stalking-glasses, to render a real service to those who are going to the front by giving them the use of good glasses (Scotsman 7 sept 1914)

Stalking glasses is carefully underlined. In the diction which is deployed, they provide a means by which prey (whether human or otherwise) may be detected when ‘taking to the field’ — irrespective of whether the ‘field’ in question is one of battle or hunting.

Appeals of this kind — like those for the various comforts which (as other posts have explored) were despatched to those in need — provide other ways in which Home Front and Western Front were repeatedly yoked together. Comforts, however, did not need to be returned; a certain naivety (and undue optimism) is therefore perceptible, at least with hindsight, in terms of stalking glasses and their projected use in war. As the ‘Appeal’ continued, ‘If the owner’s name is engraved upon the glasses, every effort will be made to restore these at the conclusion of the war’. History fails to record how successful this reassurance proved to be.

Getting the enemy in one’s sights would, however, remain a prominent topos. While stalking glasses and field glasses had their uses, they also brought problems. The archive notes, for example, a new form of diction in December 1914. Periscopes and field glasses here unite to form a new hybrid in the material culture of war – the periscope field glass. As a letter to the Daily Express on 22nd December (sent by the M.P Mr. Alfred Tobin) observed:

a very large proportion of the casualties in the R.A. had been among the observing officers, who, when using ordinary field glasses, have of necessity to keep their heads above the trenches.

As Tobin added, ‘the use of periscope field-glasses would obviate this’. There was, he concluded, ‘an urgent need for periscope field-glasses.

Periscopes were, however, already in use – not only at sea on submarines (a domain in which the Words in War-Time archive provides a vast amount of data) — but also on land and in the trenches on the Western Front. An account of an encounter between the London Scottish and the enemy on 18th December 1914 had, for example, already drawn attention to the salience, and success, of periscopes:

as soon as the territorials got into the trenches, groups of crack shots immediately commenced the game of “spotting” with periscopes and field glasses. In a night attack the Germans were driven off with considerable loss (Scotsman, 18 December 1914)

Uses such as these clearly moved beyond the available record of the language as given in works such as the Oxford English Dictionary. The relevant section had been published in September 1905; evidence for periscope concluded in 1902. Its definition, too, belonged to an earlier age; a periscope, the OED noted, was a ‘look round’ (in what was an admittedly rare use). It denoted, too, ‘a variety of photographic object-glass’, or could be used to refer to what were described as ‘submarine boats’: ‘An apparatus used in a submarine boat, for obtaining a view of objects above the water by a system of mirrors’. For Andrew Clark, collecting words for the Words in War-Time archive, the utility of his task was, in these and other ways, all too plain. Within a few months of WWI beginning, periscopes gained a new domain of meaning – in which land rather than sea governed the requisite sense, and in which one looked over the top of a trench instead of an expanse of water. ‘We see everything they do by the aid of periscopes’, an article in the Scotsman on Christmas Day 1914 proclaimed. The heading was equally illuminating: ‘Dalbeattie Solder’s Tribute to Periscopes’. Here,the enemy (‘they’) were indubitably brought within one’s sights.

Extracts such as this demonstrate the ready familiarity of this shift in sense, suggesting that by late 1914 it had already been consolidated into popular use. Trench periscope meanwhile came into existence as a more specific synonym which made explicit the circumstances of its use .As contemporary advertising confirms, while eloquent descriptions of cold, hardship, and isolation served to prompt the despatch of a variety of comforts to the Front, the provision of trench periscopes could play on rather more serious concerns for both safety and protection In what proved a highly effective form of commodification:

 A new and simple trench periscope which as been invented for the use of our troops in Flanders, should do much to lessen the numbers of casualties from snipers

As this advertisement from February 1915 proclaims,. such numbers could, of course, only be lessened were the trench periscopes to be purchased (and at an eminently reasonable price of two shillings and sixpence). Failure to purchase would, by inference, leave loved ones at the Front open to the enemy’s gunfire – and forced to render themselves vulnerable by peeking over the parapet while their more favoured colleagues deployed trench periscopes in enviable safety. As Clark stressed, the blandishments of advertisements in a time of war were worthy of study in their own right. ‘A LIFE-SAVER. BAYNES-PARKER PERISCOPE’ states a similar advertisement in the Daily Express on 14 April 1915. A mere four shillings, it stressed, ‘will probably save your friend or relative’s life’. Such pressures must have been difficult to resist.

Particularly interesting in terms of language is the role which periscopes in trench warfare came to accrue. By June 1915, the periscope could be made a vital part of the drama – and suspense – of heroic deeds of war as recounted to those at home. An especially good example comes from the Scotsman in a narrative included in Notebook 35 of the Words in War-Time archive. It recounts, as the title indicates, ‘A HEROIC DEED. A WOUNDED OFFICER RESCUED UNDER GERMAN FIRE’ (in reality, the rescuing of Lieutenant martin by W. Angus of the 8th Scots Battalion, on June 11th 1915). Here, the periscope – used by the enemy – is anthropomorphized, conveying a distinct sense of malevolence when seen from the perspective of the wounded soldier, lying in no-man’s land or, indeed, from that of his would-be rescuers:

His very closeness to [the Germans] his him from their view, but already they must have heard his moans, and knew he was there, for the ugly neck of a periscope, with its ghoulish eye, reached over their trench and leered at the poor wounded soldier below … Slowly and horribly it turned and swayed and leered at us too, and then back to him. Hell itself can produce nothing to match the dreadfulness of that horrid periscope.

Use by the Allies produced no such ominous overtones, at least when reported by the British press.

As such evidence suggests, by far the most dominant sense of periscope in news discourse (and popular comment) between 1914-18 was therefore that which referred to its role in trench warfare. Modern comment tends to distinguish between periscopes (on submarines) and trench periscopes (in trenches). Usage during the 1914-15, as the Words in War-Time archive suggests, reflected instead a different pattern of use – one in which trench periscopes and periscopes were, indeed, typically synonymous.**  Periscopes as used on the battlefield often needed no further elaboration. ‘Life and Death Routines in the Trenches’, a headline in the Daily Express states, for instance, in February 1915: ‘Cinema Pictures taken under Shellfire’. The article describes, in words, the routines that cinematic techniques were able to capture by other means, providing an enduring visual record. Tellingly, we are made to focus on the emblematic images of the wet and sodden trenches and, in turn, on anothr by now quintessential image of the war in which the ‘men huddle below the parapets, gazing through their periscopes, or sniping at invisible Boches’.  The OED‘s revised text, updated in 2005, meanwhile, we might note, records evidence for this shift only from January 1915. Here, too, history — and the ‘historical principles’ of the Dictionary — diverge.***

** Periscopes on the battlefield could also signify periscopic sights which were fixed directly to bayonets, though the Words in War-Time archive doesn’t provide evidence for this use in 1914-15.

*** Revision for OED Online in 2005 provides a citation from D. O. Barnett in 1915, from a letter dated 23–5 Jan.(In Happy Memory 51): ‘I had a man with a periscope spotting for me, and he registered some near things for the Bosch’s face. The evidence which had been included in the Supplement in 1933, when many usages of the war were given for the first time (1917 A. G. Empey Over Top: 303 ‘Periscope, a thing in the trenches which you look through’) is now omitted. The fact that Clark’s evidence was read for the Supplement, but in most cases omitted, continues to create problems.


One thought on “Seeing the invisible foe – keeping the enemy in your sights in early WWI

  1. The Pathe film archive online has some nice early film of a trench periscope in use.

    Am I right in thinking the Scotsman description of the ‘ghoulish’ German periscope is a bit reminiscent of the war machines in HG Wells..?

    More generally it is worth remembering that the Germans had a far more advanced optical industry in 1914 than the British so this was an aspect of trench warfare where the British were forced into a desperate effort of catch up. The appeal for stalking glasses probably reflects this.


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