English Words in War-time

Writing the refugee in WW1: language, identity, and use.

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Tommies helping refugees to get into safety. Fotocollectie Eerste Wereldoorlog 1914-18. Frankrijk; http://sws.geonames.org/3017382. Free Access – Rights Reserved. NL-HaNA_2.24.09_0_158-1211. Nationaal Archief, Den Haag

Refugee was to be another prominent word in the Words in War-Time archive. This had, in fact, been another relatively recent entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Published in 1905, the entry had tracked usage from 1685 to 1879. Yet a conspicuous absence attended refugee as used in the context of war. In the OED as it then existed, refugees sought a place of safety as a result of religious or political persecution; historical examples in the Dictionary made reference to the French Hugeunots who came to England in 1685 (after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes) and refugees who emerged after the ‘American revolutionary war’ and who ‘claimed British protection’. Various sub-senses documented refugee as used with reference to migrating birds, or to mean a fugitive, or to indicate someone who was simply running away from justice.

None of these senses seemed, however, to match the realities of language in the autumn of 1914. Instead, as the Words in War-Time archive demonstrates, it was war, and the wide-ranging geographical displacement it brought, which came to occupy the prime sense of refugee. Constructions such as war refugee could, of course, appear in the early months. Here war as adjective particularised and explained, making overt the context (and cause) of this new and enforced pattern of migration. We can find careful documentation of the activities of the war refugees committee on September 12th 1914 while in the Evening News on 15th October, there are prominent advertisements for a ‘matinee tea in aid of war refugees’. ‘No fewer than six one-act plays are to be performed by well-known actors and actresses in aid of the war refugees’, the Evening News likewise stated on 18th September 1914.

The scale and familiarization of refugees – some 200,000 were in Britain by Christmas 1914 — meant, however, that adding war swiftly became redundant. There were ‘thousands of refugees on the roads flying from the enemy, carrying all their worldly possession on their backs’, the Evening News reported on 19th September 1914, here in a letter from Corporal Street, written from headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force. ‘The refugees paced up and down, sat on the chairs and the deck seats, read French papers. The lawns were like the terrace of a fashionable French watering place in the height of the season’, the Evening News likewise noted on September 8th 1914, describing a newly cosmopolitan Folkestone. For the duration of the war, being a refugee would, in reality, signal a highly specific set of circumstances — as well as a specific set of connotations in which both innocence and German aggression were neatly polarised. Refugee in WWI is a word which is often transparently made to occupy the moral high ground (in ways which can, of course, form an interesting contrast with uses of migrant today). As in the Scotsman on October 30 1914, it is the refugee as victim of German militarism who tactically – and succinctly — enhances the heroism (and virtue) of the iconic ‘Monsieur Atkins’:

there are other and more worthy tributes to our splendid soldiery which have been paid them by those French and Belgian troops beside whom they have fought, by those refugees – men, women, and children – who have learnt to appreciate the kind heart, the ready hand, and the abundant generosity of “Monsieur Atkins”

Copyright. Free Access – Rights Reserved Identifier. 1_2069849. Royal Library of Belgium

Recruiting posters would make use of similar dynamics. As in the injunction to “Remember Belgium”, it was the consequences for vulnerable civilians for whom ordinary life was torn apart which was often brought to the fore. “Do you want Your Women Violated ? Your Children Mutilated, Yourselves Shot Down ? The Germans have done these things to Men. Women and Children in Belgium, they will do the same to you and yours if they come here. EVERY BRITISH SOLDIER is the bodyguard of every Woman and Child. WILL YOU join the New Army and become a BRITISH SOLDIER’, as a poster from the British Maritime League states in the archive for 1915.

For refugee, a range of associated forms would, by extension, assume a temporary currency in the English of 1914-18, whether in the detailing of reception authorities (those who were to welcome the refugees into safely, and organise their accommodation), or the new forms of comfort which might be required in this respect. As in the Evening News in September 1914, ‘working parties‘ on the home front were, for example, urged to construct refugee sets which, as the article explained, ‘compris[e] a child’s frock, a child’s petticoat, a little boy’s day shirt, and a woman’s blouse’ for the benefit of those newly resident in Britain. Refugee could emerge as a wide-ranging modifier in ways which were unprecedented before the war.

Language and languages, as the archive confirms, could, however, also emerge as wider site of interest in this respect, deftly imaging both solidarity and resistance across the war. It was, for example, not only Folkestone which revealed a new cosmopolitanism as war advanced. Instead multilingualism could be made a marked feature of the British press so that, as the front page of the Daily Express announced on October 23ed 1914, ‘Owing to the large numbers of French and Belgians now in this country, Furnished Room and Apartment Advertisements will be translated into French free of charge’. A column headed ‘Voor Vlamingen. War News in Flemish’ would, in similar ways, make a regular appearance in the Evening News (and, in turn, in the archive itself). “I took The English news into one boarding house, where twelve refugees are staying, and pointed out the news to them. It would have done your heart good to see their faces when they saw a bit of news in the own language’, as a correspondent to the Evening News extolled in September 1914:

There are a number of Belgian refugees here and in other parts of England .. who cannot read a word of English, and they only meet very occasionally any one who can talk to them in French or Flemish. There’s must be a very lonely life, even with the kindness everyone shows to them.

As Andrew Clark later commented, his admiration for acts of linguistic charity of this kind had probably led to its documentation in the archive in a more extensive form than might strictly be justified. But, as he stressed, it remained a striking innovation in English journalism, as well as one which was profoundly resonant of the ways in which language, languages, and war might come to intersect. As Clark explored, geographical and linguistic displacement could work together; refugees could, of necessity, find themselves in nations in which the language was by no means their own. Conversely, as Clark also noted, patterns of silence could be equally telling for language in a time of war. If the Daily Express moved into French, and English advertisers began to offer their own wares in Flemish (see e.g. ‘A Flemish Advertisement for Belgian readers’ for Scott’s Emulsion which appeared in the Evening News on 18 September 1914), the Belgians Clark encountered in the parish of Great Leighs and its environs asserted a point blank refusal to let German pass their lips, irrespective of the fluency they might possess in what was now indeed regarded as an alien tongue.

These nuances of language and usage habitually escape dictionaries and the formal record of language they provide. Clark’s sense of contemporaneity in making the Words in War-Time archive can instead remind of the topicalities of meaning, as well as the connotations that words – and indeed languages – could lose and gain. For refugee, later revision of the OED has provided a corrected and corrective version. War as a contributory factor in creating refugees is given an earlier history, being tracked back into the Renaissance, and forward to the present day – even if a single citation takes us to the usage of WW1, and the period which Clark documents with so much detail. Absent, however, from the OED are the local and particular meanings which refugee acquired in WWI and its aftermath in ways which, as Clark records, clearly affected the ways in which the word was used and understood at this point in time.

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