English Words in War-time

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

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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. The earliest sense is illustrated below, here in a letter extracted for the archive from the Daily Express in October 1914:

Sir, Will you publish our plea for the War Babies and Mothers’ League ? … Our great object is that the children to be born in Britain during this time of trouble and stress shall be healthy and properly cared for – shall be given that start which is so essential if they are to be worthy citizens of an Empire which is spilling its best blood for justice’.

As Andrew Clark noted in the archive in the adjacent margin, the meaning of war baby as used here was self-evidently “babies born during the war, often with the father at the front’. Further instances which Clark collected confirm the charity, and generosity, which such appeals brought. By December 1914, ‘The War Babies and Mothers’ League’ was sending ‘Greetings and Grateful Thanks to all who have so generously helped them’.

By 1915, however, it was equally plain that war baby had come to acquire a second sense.  This existed in uneasy contra-distinction to the offspring of the kind of legitimate unions on which war baby sense 1 depended. War babies of this second kind, as Andrew Clark explained in a further drafted definition, were instead intended to signify “a girl’s illegitimate child, fathered by a soldier in camp”. They were to be strikingly topical between April and June 1915, acquiring a variety of connotations — many of which were negatively embedded in the consonances which war babies in sense 2 (but not sense 1) were assumed to reveal with the new freedom, and independence, that women had gained. The shifting social fabric which war brought concealed moral as well as physical dangers, as the Bishop of Oxford stressed, for example, in April 1915. War babies in this second sense hence reflected a reality which was ‘terrible to any thinking conscience’:

‘We know …that there was much excitement among our girls. We know that there is a lamentable decay of domestic discipline, so that mothers in town and country often laugh at the very idea of having control over the daughters. It was obvious there would be mischief – and there has been mischief. Let us do all we can, with all the force at our control, to deal with the evil with kindness and without undue publicity’.

Mischief operated as the Bishop’s euphemism of choice though the underlying ‘evil’ also remained plain. By April 22nd, as the archive notes, the Bishop’s plea for the avoidance of ‘undue publicity’ had clearly fallen by the wayside. ‘War babies. Great conference of Women in London’, as a capitalized heading in the Daily Express, set in a 20pt bold font, declared. Further subheadings made the requisite sense of war baby entirely unambiguous: ‘SOCIAL PROBLEM. PROPOSAL TO DEAL WITH IT’. In the lengthy article which followed, the Express explored the wide-ranging ‘problem’ of ‘the thousands of “war babies” expected by unmarried women’. The framing scare quotes could seem all too apposite. War babies appeared as a further banner headline a few days later, when the Bishop of Oxford returned to the fray:

Without paying over much attention to the newspaper controversy on the subject, he could not himself help but feel that the controversy which had arisen under the title “War Babies” indicated a very widespread laxity of sentiment and feeling with regard to sexual matters’.

A further set of associative meanings lay, however, in the wings. Used, as we have seen, to generate the spectre of moral decline, and the new need for renewed rigour (and control), war babies were swiftly to gain other, and more critical, patterns of signification. As the archive illustrates, the war-baby was in a further linguistic (and ethical) about-turn to be predominantly associated by June 1915 with a form of moral scare-mongering in ways which proved illustrative not of the changing statistics of birth and illegitimacy (which stayed during 1914-15 at more or less the same level as preceding years) but, as indicated above, of the attitudinal conflicts which could attend changing gender roles  in the first twelve months of war than of  As the Evening News already reported in late April 1915:

A committee is already at work on this question getting the facts. When it reports there is good reason to believe that “the war baby” will be shown not to be a national problem at all. Already in some districts the Great Baby Rumour has vanished at the first attempt at serious pursuit … It looks after all as if the War Baby will have to take its place among the bubbles of the war.

As here, war baby can find itself not only as noun but also as adjective, thrust into new collocations in which it is paired with rumour, legend, and myth, or as noun, is modified by phantom. “Not so many War Babies?’, the Daily Express would, for example ask on 11th June 1915, in a rhetorical question which no longer required an answer. ‘Imaginary “War Babies”’, is the telling heading of another article, published in the Daily Express one day later. ‘Official Report Disposes of Wild Exaggerations’, the sub-heading affirms. As the subsequent article explored, the currency of the phrase far exceeded the social reality it had purported to represent. ‘An exhaustive “war babies” enquiry made throughout England, Ireland, and Wales’ by the Inspectors of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had, as the Express reported, concluded that ‘The aspersions cast on the character of women and on the conduct of soldiers are unwarranted, and have no foundation in fact. Similar was the verdict of the Evening News on June 11th 1915:

A week that has fortunately seen a great reduction in the infant death rate in London has also witnessed the practical extinction of that curious myth, the war baby.

As a phenomenon of war and language, meaning and the war baby turns therefore in interesting  ways on the problem of legitimacy and illegitimacy. The question of legitimate offspring is central to war baby sense 1, while aspersions of illegitimacy create what proves, in essence, to be an illegitimate construction of the facts, here in relation to available statistics on birth. In reality, just as in other periods before (and since), legitimate and illegitimate babies continued to be born. In a time of war, war baby was applicable to both, though the stigma of war baby sense 2 could, of course, linger on, even after the moral panic had subsided. The narrative history of the war baby offers, however, we might note, a strikingly gendered interpretation of events. Even at the height of the war baby panic, it is notable that blame and attribution centre on a moral decline which is presented in female (but not male) terms. Language, ideology, and history can, in instances of this kind, unite to tell more than might at first appear.

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