WW1 and the language of place: from Louvain to the Dardanelles

dardanellese
Men of the Lancashire Fusilier Brigade, 29th Division, before disembarking at W. And V. Beaches. May 5th-6th, 1915. Copyright: Imperial War Museum. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196079#sthash.1oj4ylTJ.dpuf

War can, all too easily, throw maps into disarray, relocating boundaries and reassigning territory whether lost or gained. Language too, as earlier posts have explored, can present other challenges for cartography. Name and renaming can take place, both formally and informally, in the light of on-going events. In WW1, newly adopted place names such as Petrograd can, for instance, eradicate what seemed unduly Germanic connotations in the earlier St Petersburg. ‘Foreign fields’, to misquote Rupert Brooke, could, in other ways, become — if not “for ever England” — then at least a temporary place of habitation, signalled by ironic appellations such as “Hyde Park Corner” or “Buckingham-palace Road”. Trenchland, a term used in the Daily Express in May 1915, could, as the Words in Wartime archive confirms, require a highly creative A-Z.

Names could, however, be used with even more freedom. Louvain, for example, was early appropriated into allied propaganda as a symbol of German depredation, and the associated conflicts of culture and kultur. If Louvain continued to designate a particular place on the map, this was now located in occupied Belgium as well as reduced in size; almost 12% had been destroyed, including the eighteenth-century university library, together with the books, manuscripts, and incunabula it had contained. As both place and name, Louvain, for the duration of the war, was freighted with meanings which deliberately evoked German barbarism and violation. To germanise, as the Daily Express noted in 1914, had, in this respect, gained “a new definition for the dictionaries of the future” –that is “to burn, destroy, raze to the ground, wipe out, reduce to a shapeless mass of unrecognisable rubbish; see also Louvain, Namur, Rheims, Arras, etc”.

Louvain could, by extension – and with equally negative intent – also be used as a verb in its own right. As in the heading “Louvaining in Galicia” which appeared in the Daily Express in December 1914, this was restricted to German activity. As the associated article added:

two German corps which are subjected to severe pressure by the Russian forces are wandering about in all directions, trying to effect communication with the main army, Louvainingand looting on their way’.

“To Louvain”, as here, is to ransack and pillage, amplifying the widespread imaging of piracy which also attended popular constructions of German identity at this time.

REMEMBER SCARBOROUGH! E.Kemp-Welch 1914 ENLIST NOW PUBLISHED BY THE PARLIAMENTARY RECRUITING COMMITTEE, LONDON. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/14989#sthash.e4JPUfK
REMEMBER SCARBOROUGH! E.Kemp-Welch 1914 ENLIST NOW PUBLISHED BY THE PARLIAMENTARY RECRUITING COMMITTEE, LONDON. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/14989#sthash.e4JPUfK

Proper names of this kind, as well as their idiosyncratic extensions, are typically excluded from formal lexicography though, as the Words in War-Time archive illustrates, such forms can be very useful in exploring the localised meanings of both place and time. Scarborough, for example, assumed similar transformative senses in early propagandist use. The injunction to ‘Remember Scarborough’ in early 1915 was, for instance, not intended to evoke memories of a small British sea-side town and its suitability as a holiday destination (as it might perhaps today). Instead, as associated iconography confirmed, Scarborough (attacked in December 1914), drew on a sense of threatened civilian innocence and human vulnerability as set against German ‘frightfulness’ in bombing areas remote from any battlefield. The ‘meaning’ of Scarborough was highly topical, drawing – as feminine pronouns also stressed – to tropes of gender and violation which ‘the rape of Belgium’ had already made familiar. “As a reminder of the nature of the enemy with which the nation has to deal, stricken Scarborough directs the attention of the world to her shrapnel-splashed streets and walls” and “shattered roofs and gables, the twisted iron beams, the wrecked interiors, and the list of the dead’, as the Scotsman explained in December 1914.

What the Dardanelles was to ‘mean’ would, by the spring and summer of 1915, offer other possibilities in terms of the linguistic geographies of place. Continue reading

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Babies and “War-babies”: writing language in history in 1914-15

war baby.medium
A British soldier’s family of three. The Army Children Archive, Copyright: Creative Commons.

Baby can be a surprisingly prominent form in the discourse of early WWI. As earlier posts on this site have explored, it can, compounded with –killer and -killing, be made to act as a resonant image of German ‘frightfulness’ and its deployment against the innocent and vulnerable. ‘Scarborough’s Scorn for baby-killers’, as a headline in the Daily Express announced on December 22nd 1914; ‘The mere discussion in this country of the desirability of making air raid reprisals on German towns has been sufficient to inspire numerous earnest appeals to the Kaiser to put an end to the baby-killing activities of the Zeppelins’, the Express added in a similar mode in October 1915. Elsewhere in the Words in War-Time archive, baby can be used in depicting the surrogate family bonds of trench and army life. ‘It is odd that the N.E.D. [i.e. Oxford English Dictionary] has no heading or quotation for ‘baby’ in the sense of youngest member of a regiment’, a note in the archive states, providing plentiful evidence for contemporary usage in this respect.

Other familial imagery of babies in a time of war is perhaps more disturbing. The introduction of baby howitzers offered, for example, a form of familial narrative based on the deadly progeny (and fertility) of modern war. ‘New Terror for the Trenches’, as an article in the Evening News proclaimed in November 1914, While, as it commented, “the huge howitzers which were used in the reduction of the Belgian forts were, perhaps, the most surprising feature of the Teuton’s artillery equipment”, a new baby howitzer now promised to deliver twelve-inch shells from three inch guns. If with rather different resonances, the same diction could, of course, also be applied to British weapons. As in the extract below, this offers telling illustration of the shift of meaning which a change of orientation can bring:

The different types of our own ordnance also all have their designations. A certain heavy howitzer whose dull boom is easily distinguishable above the reports of any other piece is affectionately termed “Mother,” while another is, somewhat inappropriately called “Baby”. (Evening News,January 1915).

It is, however, human fertility, and the conflicted issue of the war baby, on which this post will focus. This, too, was to be a distinctive use of the early years of WW1, not least in the contrastive senses it came to acquire. War baby demonstrates a clear narrative of change in the first year of war. Continue reading

Gas-fighting: from gasphyxiation to gaspirators

gas attack on western front
A German Gas Attack on the Western Front, photographed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Rights © IWM (Q 12286). Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205247812;#sthash.t4RMRguA.dpuf

Gas-fighting was another new form which appeared in the wake of events in April 1915 when over 150 tons of chlorine was released by German troops at Ypres. Over  the spring and summer of 1915, language would, in turn, neatly construct what we now term chemical warfare into both offensive and defensive processes.These were aligned with equal neatness onto enemy and ally, perpetrators and victims. Only in September 1915, at the Battle of Loos, would the British appropriate gas-fighting as an offensive strategy (at which point, as we will see, the diction of gas, gas war, and gas-fighting would all shift in interesting ways).

Between April and June 1915, a range of new-forged compounds in the Words in War-Time archive such as gas-poisoners (used in the Scotsman in May 1915) and poison-dervishes (located in the Echo in April 1915) firmly draw attention to German agency, and the barbarism and immorality which this, by implication, involved. Dervish, seen from modern perspectives, offers a particularly loaded model of civilisation and otherness while collocations such as scientific savagery, scientific murder, and scientific torture confirm the departures at stake in rendering chlorine, documented  by Humphry Davy in 1809, into a lethal weapon. Here, too, meaning came to change under pressures of war. Continue reading

Words, weapons, and WWI No.3: Gas! Gas!

gas warfare
Gas Warfare in WW1. Attack photgraphed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reservedhttp://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205288286

In the Words in War-Time archive, gas is yet another word for which linguistic productivity – and the potential for wide-ranging physical assault – would disturbingly unite in 1914-15. Written before war began, the relevant entry in the OED had documented modern uses in which gas was used to light domestic space and gas-engineers were ‘engaged in the making of gas, or in regulating its supply’ — ‘especially in theatres’, the Dictionary added. It tracked, too, industrial, as well as medical and scientific applications. The diction of war and conflict was, however, absent. The familiarity attested by Wilfred Owen’s ‘Gas! Gas!’ (in his ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ of 1917), and the salience of gas as a weapon of attack, remained unknown. Only in 1933 was the entry changed and the Dictionary brought firmly up to date. ‘First used in the war of 1914-18 by Germany on April 22, 1915’, the 1933 Supplement states with striking specificity; gas, it confirmed, now signified asphyxiating gas and poison gas. A range of collocations – gas shells, gas mask, gas bomb (among others) – all attest to the legacies of a changing langscape of war.
The Words in War-Time archive offers its own narrative of this transition from innocence to the realities (and diction) which came to accompany this particular facet of ‘modern war’. If anxieties were expressed about gas and the effects of war in August 1914, these could, for example, centre on an envisaged disruption in the supply of gas mantles (another form which, as the archive confirms, was as yet unrecorded in the OED). As a headline in the Evening News announced on 8th Sept 1914, ‘A famine of gas mantles is threatened’:

Mr. J. Thacker stated that one could hardly prophecy what would happen next .. Seventy-five per cent of mantles were imported from Germany

Nevertheless, language can also offer interesting correctives to the image of gas in WWI as a defining aspect of German frightfulnessper se. Continue reading