Writing war and peace in 1914-15: pacifists, peace-plotters, and peacettes

In terms of language, peace and war exist in a state of mutual definition. Peace, as Samuel Johnson states in his Dictionary of 1755, is ‘Respite from war’. To be peaceable is likewise to be ‘Free from war; free from tumult’. Defining war, it is ‘the exercise of violence’, together with ‘force’ and ‘resistance’ which instead assume prominence in the entry Johnson writes. Peace, by definition, is regained only once war comes to an end.

In reality, of course, things may not be quite so clear cut. Attitudes to war-like activity, as well as to peace activism in 1914-15 can, as the Words in War-time archive confirm, reveal a number of interesting shades of meaning. Militarism and the act of participating in military engagements were, for example, carefully kept apart. Used as a further means of distinguishing enemies from allies, militarism – and the pursuit of war which this implies — was confined to descriptions of the enemy. It was unambiguously derogatory. A ‘deep hatred of Prussian militarism … extends from one end of Europe to another’, as the Daily Express declared on September 2nd 1914. Similar was militarist (a word unrecorded in the OED): ‘Of the German militarist cult the very essence of its absolute supremacy is its claims over all other human considerations whatsoever’, the Evening News stated on September 8th 1914. If military endeavour was an integral part of conflict, values such as “honour” and “justice” would repeatedly appear in explaining British motivations for, and commitment to, continued action and the cause of war.

Campaigns for peace – and for mechanisms by which conflict might be brought to an end –could, however, also acquire negative resonances. Pacifist and pacifism are, for example, defined in the modern OED in ways which suggest an idealistic high-mindedness. ‘Belief in or advocacy of peaceful methods as feasible and desirable alternatives to war’, the entry for pacifism explains; the ‘(espousal or advocacy of) a group of doctrines which reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes, esp. in international affairs’, it adds in further elucidation. Neither pacifist nor pacifism had, however, appeared in the first edition of the Dictionary when the relevant section was published in 1904.*

Relevant examples in the Words in War-Time archive unambiguously confirm the facts of use in this respect, with a range of quotations appearing from the summer of 1914. ‘An up holder of the policy of peace-at-any-price’, Clarke explained, for example, in a drafted definition which he placed by the side of a citation for pacifist from the Scotsman on September 5th 1914. Usage here appeared in a telling narrative by which an ‘inveterate pacifist’ is brought to ‘the conclusion that British intervention in the war was just, and was inevitable’. As both story and definition suggest, words of this kind prompt patterns of interpretation which clearly lie outside those of the modern OED. Pacifism can, across the war, be productive of a range of negative epithets and collocations in which the desire for peace is by no means seen as merely ‘feasible or deriable’  but can, in contrast,be construed as reflective of an improper alignment with enemy ambitions – as well as of a certain ideological treachery. As the Daily Express makes plain in 1915, for isntance, the ‘peril of pacifist piffle’ was to be resisted.  If militarism is therefore seen as un-British, not wanting to fight is hence often made to present conflicts of its own.

Pacifists were, for example, often seen as either bleaters (another interesting coinage of these years, and likewise absent from the OED), as well as dangerously pro-German. Popular equations of pacifism and pro-German, as in the citation below (taken from the Daily Express in November 1915), are, for example, illuminating in their own right:

even where Pro-Germanism and pacifism are most strongly organised, a representative British constituency will have none of them or their works

This sense of collusion is, we might note, equally evident in other new compound nouns which occur. Peace-plotter, another synonym which is absent from the OED both then and now, is reflective of a  similar stance. The connotations are those of the sinister and nefarious; to plot is, for example, very different from to plan, in ways which offer clear testimony of the suspicions which arguments for peace – rather than war — might evoke. Bleaters, who suggested that the war was unduly punitive in its intent toward the enemy, and that more peaceful means of resolution might be considered, attract parallel condemnation. ‘Whining sentimentalists’, Clark pithily notes in an early notebook, elucidating the associative meanings which bleaters acquired in popular discourse. “We have been accused by certain bleaters of taking up a position of unnecessary thoroughness”, as the Star explained in September 1914. It offered a corrective reading in response:

As a matter of fact we are persistent in insisting on the necessity of utterly breaking Germany because we know that unless this is done there can be no certain peace.

Peace crank would be another popular formation, in which crank overtly delegitimizes, stigmatising those who objected to taking up arms in unambiguous terms (this would be particularly prominent in 1916).**

Peacette, another form which Clark records in the first year of the war, offers a further example of this negative positioning. As its suffix indicates, this was, however, a designation specifically applied to women, being coined on analogy with the suffragettes whose active campaigns had ceased with the advent of war. As in the examples below (both of which come from the Daily Express in 1915), peacettes refer to the members of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Women’s Suffrage Movement who intended to attend the Women’s Congress in the Hague:

All Tilbury is laughing at the Peacettes, the misguided Englishwomen who, baggage in hand, are waiting at Tilbury for a boat to take them to Holland, where they are anxious to talk peace with German fraus over a teapot.

A dismal group of Peacettes are waiting at Tilbury for a boat to take them to Holland for their international chirrup with the German fraus

The framing rhetoric is strikingly dismissive, while a calculated irony attends the formation of peacette — and the implied feminine illogicality by which suffragettes (who had earlier embraced militant action in their campaigns to get the vote) now campaigned for peace as newly converted suffragists.*** ‘Deeds not words’ had been the suffragettes’ motto; campaigning by words for the absence of deeds cuould, as here, deftly evoke stereotypical images of female inconstancy. Peacette capitalised, too, on the negative connotations that –ette as suffix might bring. As the OED confirms, -ette is on one hand a diminutive, suggesting something which is, by nature, smaller and less effective. For the Daily Express, this trivialisation is reinforced by its specification of ‘teapots’ and the intended ‘chirrup’ with German fraus. Domestic detail and the international stage are made strange – and incompatible – bedfellows. The fact that –ette, in other forms of contemporary use, served to mark out the less authentic (and by implication, less sincere or serious) is equally important. Just as leatherette was a fake version of leather, so too, by implication, the ‘peace’ which the ‘peacettes’ offered was seen as unreal, and, perhaps more pertinently, unrealistic.

Similar derogatory intimations appear in other contemporary compounds. Peace-prattlers – also from the Daily Express in April 1915 — conjures up similarly belittling images of women, words, and war. As always, words about words are revealing. To prattle, as the OED notes, is to ‘To talk in a foolish, childish, or inconsequential way’. To prattle about peace, is, by implication, to misjudge the situation, and its proper resolution (which lies, in dominant readings of this type,  in action rather than ‘prattle’). Linguistic and lexical misogyny unite.Pacifism in manifestations of this kind is systematically discredited, setting the stage for the range of pejorative terms which appear in later 1915-16 as part of the controversies which conscription, and its own patterns of resistance, would bring..
*The first evidence of pacifist and pacifism in the modern OED is dated to 1906.
** Peace crank, and the extensive derogatory lexis which came to surround conscientious objectors, will be discussed in more detail in a later post.
*** Suffragists and suffragettes had been divided by their commitment (or otherwise) to militant action as a way of securing the vote. See http://blog.oup.com/2013/04/suffragette-word-origin-evolution-etymology/


4 thoughts on “Writing war and peace in 1914-15: pacifists, peace-plotters, and peacettes

  1. A lot of possible responses to this.

    Clark’s perjorative view of pacifists as advocates of ‘peace at any price’ would not have been accepted by some who were willing to accept the label ( and there is apparently some debate in the Edwardian period about whether to use the term ‘pacifist’ or ‘pacificist’, Martin Ceadel resurrects the latter in the 1980s to describe those in favour of peaceful solutions who are not in all circumstances opposed to war). Of course one thing that is striking is that a lot of the pre-war peace movement in Britain and elsewhere accepted the necessity of a war against German militarism in 1914 as a indispensable pre-requisite for the abolition of war.

    The gender dimension of this is interesting as well, vigorous opposition to the war was a bit thin on the ground in the first year and although Labour Party figures were attacked as ‘peace cranks’ they often had ambiguous positions which down played their opposition. Although the majority of pre-war Suffragettes ( WSPU) back the war ( famously in organizing the ‘women’s right to serve march at the behest of Lloyd George) a minority do not. Similarly a significant minority of the pre-war ‘Suffragists’ (NUWSS primarily) maintain their pacific internationalism. So both groups reconfigure in 1914-15. Of course in serving the state the majority of Suffragettes are also dropping their violent actions so in this sense they become, by default, ‘Suffragists’.

    Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia’s ‘pro-war’ sister returns from France where she had fled arrest. But her rationale for supporting the war is itself striking, she argues that Prussian Militarism was the ultimate manifestation of MALE violence and therefore needed to be opposed by violence. In some respects that rationale is very consistent.

    Pacifism of course becomes more of an issue as the war continues and particularly over the introduction of conscription.


    • Clark’s definition is pejorative but, as he explains elsewhere in analysing definition as a methodology, the aim is to define in the light of language attitudes and the connotative values that words assume rather than inscribing his own agenda. From a descriptive point of view then, the negative values are therefore those which can be extrapolated from the word in use, This play of highly contemporary connotation is, as Clark was aware, often elided in formal lexicography. As in the diction of peace-plotters (and other later forms which will feature in the blog), news discourse — in another form of the war of words — can construct certain ideological positions by means of language in which, as here, arguments for pacificism are negatively construed, bringing what we can see as a form of intended cultural prescriptivim into play.


  2. Again – no argument with this – Clark is mostly spot on that the language attitudes and connotative values ascribed to ‘pacifism’ at that particular moment are highly negative and it is only a fairly small ( and perhaps we would say retrospectively brave) group who were willing to embrace the term. This hasn’t entirely gone away – see the way that Paxman, partly through being genuinely quite absorbed in the language of the time got in trouble for referring to conscientious objectors as ‘cranks’ !


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