Cigarettes and Solace: Writing the Comforts of War

‘I trust that the appeal will receive the generous support it deserves so as to ensure that our brave soldiers and sailors in hospitals and convalescent homes will not want for the solace which means so much to them’

In the Ambulance: A VAD lighting a Cigarette for a Wounded Soldier © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3051)

By 1914, smoke was, of course, a well-established noun. The relevant entry in the first edition of the OED (in a section published in 1912)  had traced usage back to Old English, Nevertheless, the only example of the sense ‘cigarette’  came from Walter Besant’s 1882 novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men.Smoke meaning ‘tobacco’, the OED further declared, was ‘now rare’ if not in fact ‘obsolete’. The most recent example was located in 1853. Yet, as the Words in War-Time archive confirms, the war years would instead bring a striking prominence to cigarettes, smoking, and smokes  as part of popular discourse. ‘Our heroes who are fighting on land & sea, seem well provided with smokes”’, another missive from a tobacco fund declared, for example, in July 1915. A similar level of charity was, as it emphasised, equally requisite at home:

But what of those in hospital…with long hours of weariness & pain before them ? They need a smoke too, more now perhaps than ever before’.

Health warnings in WW1 can hence focus attention on deprivation and need, and on necessary provision rather than on targeted injunctions to break bad habits. An appeal for ‘Smokes for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors’ from the summer of 1915 stresses, for example, the great ‘Need’ of the injured in this respect. A matron of a Military Relief Hospital at Woodcote provides appropriate testimonial, and medical authority:

‘I cannot tell you how the men appreciate your kindness. However ill the may be, their faces seem to light up at the sight of a cigarette’

Smoking could threfore acquire a range of distinctive – and positive – sense-associations. Happiness, well-being, and consolation all unite, alongside altruism and benevolence,  ‘Rhymes of the Times’, in an extract Clark gathered for the archive from the Evening News in June 1915, provides a particularly good example. Given the title ‘Wounded’, the text focusses on the pain of the injured soldier. We are invited to image the ‘Poor lad !’ who is ‘white to the lips/ And … scarcely can speak for pain’.

That strangled whisper is hard to hear,

But one of his mates bends more near,

“Now, mate, say it again !”.

As the poem confirms, It is, however, smoking (and the provision of tobacco) which lies behind the diction of the comforter which appears. This, as the poem continues, is the real remedy for distress– and which might, through the reader’s generosity, be provided in the hour of need:

A fag ?” Just a moment’s search

And they find him his anodyne.

A match flares out while a kind hand slips

The longed-for treasure between his lips

Strengthening the heart like wine !

A queer little gasping sigh.

But note the lines are smoothed from his brow.

It’s a long hard struggle with pain, no doubt,

But he’s made up his brow to fight it out.

And he’s found a comforter now!

For the Words in War-Time archive, such texts were fertile resources. As in the section above, fag — which Clark defines as a cigarette (especially a cheap variety) — was also unrecorded in the OED as it then existed. ‘I received the “fags” quite safe, and you don’t know how much they were wanted out here’, another extract in the archive (taken the Evening News in October 1914) states. Comforters were equally interesting; in the OED these typically took divine form, or were used to designate long woolly scarves or cordials or quilted coverlets. The cigarette as comforter could perhaps be placed, Clark conjectured, under the sense ‘one who or that which comforts or consoles’.

Yet comforter in 1915 also drew on highly topical meanings by which comforts (packed in boxes, and in which tobacco was a regular component) were sent the Front, bringing solace and comfort of a distinctive kind. As the ‘poem’ confirms by its end, its real role is as an advertisement in which charity and cigarettes are firmly aligned. The reader is directly addressed:

Wouldn’t you like to think

You helped on his evil day

The lad who is helping your fight out there

And now has his burden of pain to bear?

Come then, you need but pay!

The diction of the tobacco fund, if still unrecorded in the OED, was another common collocation of the war years. The ‘Cigarette and Tobacco Fund’ of the Daily Mail, for example, aimed ‘to send a parcel of tobacco to every solder at the front every week’; this ‘provides the only form of happiness possible to our brave men in the fighting line’, it affirmed (Daily Mail, December 1st 1914). Readers can in turn be invited to number themselves among the smoke-senders – a new and positive formulation of identity which appears in advertising for the Weekly Despatch Tobacco Fund (‘the organisation which gives the largest possible value in cigarettes and tobacco for the money subscribed’, as it persuasively advanced). In giving to a tobacco fund, ‘the whole nation has constituted itself the friend of the fighting man’, the associated advertisements proclaim.

As other texts confirm, smoking can be actively laden with positive — and meliorative — associations. Cigarettes can be designated as nerve soothers and nerve tonics, capable of fostering the coolness under fire which is, in contemporary advertising, made to connote exemplary masculinity. “I’ve found an A1 nerve soother”, an advertisement for Cavander’s Army Club cigarettes states in 1915. The direct speech is credited to a despatch rider on active service; smoking is neatly synthesised with heroic endeavour, and reinforced by references to ‘doing the “outside edge” round Jack Johnson holes, and [with] Boches a mile or two ahead or in the rear’. Nerviness is replaced by the kind of nerve which was, in the rhetoric of action, repeatedly commended. A further advertisement for the same cigarettes  deploys the fictional persona of a flight commander, here in other words which prove richly suggestive of WW1:

‘”I want a cigarette that does not make me nervy, no matter how many I may smoke. This is really what every service man needs, and when I look over the old bus, before going up to strafe a Zepp or for a little diving or banking exercise, I appreciate a cigarette that suits me!’,

We might, however, also note early evidence of a more negative diction which is also gradually coming into existence outside heroic claims of this kind. Early indications of its addictive potential are plain in the cigarette habit which the archive records. ‘Our officers (says a correspondent) brought the cigarette habit back with them from the Crimea, where they learned it from the Russians’, as an extract from the Evening News in October 1914 stated. The diction of a potential anti-tobacco tobacco offers similar evidence, attested in the archive in an extract from the Daily Express in February 1915 (and, tellingly, in an article which also comments on the  prevalence of the conditions known as smoker’s heart and smoker’s throat in these early months of war).

Nevertheless, the dangers of smoking could also be explored in ways which are densely embedded in the experiential realities of war. The archive provides, for example, interesting early evidence on cigarette cough — another combination which remains absent from the OED:

“The corporal who as with me had a ‘cigarette’ cough and I was in fear and trembling lest he should attract the attention of the Germans’ (Daily Express, September 19 1914).

Here Andrew Clark attempts a definition, noting that coughs of this kind were short and hacking, just as if someone had caught their breath at the first whiff of a strong cigarette. Yet as the framing narrative in the Daily Express makes plain,  the real danger is seen as coming from without rather than within – a cigarette cough might draw unnecessary attention, not to one’s state of health, but in ways which might alert the enemies who lurk all round.


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