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

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. As in the Scotsman in June 1915, there can be a clear attempt to construct meaning in ways which align the Dardanelles and Gallipoli with great British victories of the past such as Waterloo or the battle of Omdurman (1898) in the Boer War:

The landing in Gallipoli must be remembered. It was one of the great incidents even of this great war. It will bear comparison with the greatest deeds of British soldiers in the past. It will endure side by side with them in the glorious records of the British army and in the memory of the country.

Advertising, too, was quick to size on the potential of this new front, and its expected connotations of triumph and heroic valour. An advertisement for Michelin tyres in the Scotsman in April 1915, for example, placed its iconic Michelin man bestriding the Dardanelles in a modern correlate of the colossus of Rhodes, dwarfing the battleships in the sea below and aircraft above. ‘To leave nothing out a sea-plane of disproportionate size is’, as Andrew Clark notes in the archive, ‘placed in the ‘Gulf of Saros’. As the attendant by-line on the advertisement proleptically states, ‘Michelin Tyres, like the allied fleets, overcome all obstacles and open up all roads’.

In the archive, the meanings assigned to the Dardanelles (and Gallipoli) were nevertheless to remain highly conflicted. On one side, as the Michelin advertisement already suggests, is the diction of a triumphant heroism achieved against all odds. Meaning is positive and celebratory. ‘Thrilling account of the landing at the Dardanelles’, the Express trumpets. ‘British troops have crowned themselves with equal laurels at the southern end of the Gallipoli peninsula’, another article declares in May 1915; this is a ‘splendid’ story, the writer continues, in which ‘operations could only have been brought to a successful conclusion by the most devoted heroism and self-sacrifice of our officers and men’.

Conversely, a “Letter from the Front”, printed in the Scotsman on June 7th 1915, provides useful Illustration of smashing up as noun, alongside other aspects of the currency of the Dardanelles and the meanings it might acquire in contemporary use: “Our battalion has had an awful smashing up; nearly all our offices are killed or wounded, and there is only about 200 men left’, as the letter revealed. Death-strewn, describing the beaches at Gallipoli, is another (unrecorded) compound adjective which Clark picks out, as is daredevilism – an abstract noun for the qualities required to survive, a word last attested in 1886 in the OED. ‘Landing in a death-trap’, the sub-heading of another article announces. Death-trap, earlier illustrated in the OED by citations fixed in the historical past, or used figuratively (in reference to particular educational establishments: “ the Board schools are death-traps”, as the Spectator averred), clearly acquired new and by no means figurative salience in 1915. As Clark clearly felt compelled to add, the Dardanelles is a ‘name of grievous meaning’ and equally ‘grievous … memory’:

‘It is to be desired that no trite eulogy on the men’s courage will avert strict enquiry and bring home to the officials responsible the guilt and infamy of wasting gallant lives in a frontal attack on a position of enormous strength, held by Turkish soldiers under German officers, i.e. splendid troops directed by expert skill’.

‘The expedition was condemned from the first, and ought never to have made the attempt’, as Clark writes against another vainglorious account of the difficulty of landing troops on open beaches under constant fire.

In terms of language and history, the Dardanelles would, for Clark and the archive, nevertheless remain of value. Amphibious warfare, used in the Scotsman in June 1915, confirms another important aspect of war and the kind of lexical trajectories which were advanced at Gallipoli. Similar was a range of new compounds with sand, such as sand-smothered, sand-plastered, or sand-bred. As the archives make explicit, however, it was, in fact, another new word of WW1 which was already recognised as of prime significance in this respect . As the Scotsman announced on August 15th 1915, for example, “One may search in vain for the name Anzac, yet it is a word bound to prove imperishable in the annals of the British Empire”. Even if no dictionary entry for Anzac (as either noun or adjective) as yet existed, it was, as the headline of the article confirmed, indubitably “a new name that will live’:

The Australian and New Zealand Divisions landed here, and have dug themselves into an environment quite without parallel in the whole story of military achievement … The name needs explaining. It is arrived at by piecing together the initial letters of Australian-New Zealand Army Corps. Let every Englishman add it to his memory of the undying glories of his race.


Anzac was added in to the OED in 1933, with a citation from the Daily Mail in 1916: “Anzac is a word that bids fair to be reckoned among the immortals”. Clark’s antedating in the Words in War-Time archive has recently been antedated in itself in the revisions for OED Online published in June 2014. This takes currency to back to April 1915: C. E. W. Bean Diary 25 Apr. 67   Col. Knox to Anzac. ‘Ammunition required at once.’ See Anzac, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 24 June 2015.


3 thoughts on “WW1 and the language of place: from Louvain to the Dardanelles

  1. Predating the war one of my favourite examples of a place name becoming a verb is Mafeking (used to refer to the excessive patriotic commemoration which had greeted the relief of the town during the Boer War). At the start of the First World War it is sometimes used to point to an absence of enthusiasm ( newspapers sometimes comment that there had been no ‘Mafficking’).

    Trenchland is interesting and evocative. Ross Wilson’s book on Landscapes of the Western Front pp.164-170 has some interesting stuff on naming of places in the trench network.

    Regarding Scarborough, it is striking that the focus is on Scarborough even though there was more damage and there were more casualties in West Hartlepool during the same raid. I think the reason is self evident, it was precisely because Scarborough was a loved and well known holiday destination as opposed to an industrial town. Similarly Louvain was not the worst treated Belgian city but had a particular resonance as an intellectual centre.

    Anzac is interesting because it quickly takes on three overlapping noun meanings- the original one of the Corps (ANZAC) , a place Anzac Cove which can be referred to just as ‘Anzac’ and finally individual Australians and New Zealanders serving in the corps. Of course it also becomes an adjective.
    Sometimes care is needed – it is worth remembering that not everyone who eventually served at ‘Anzac’ was an ‘Anzac’ there were British and Indian soldiers there as well!

    The name oddly really establishes itself after the Corps itself is disbanded at the end of 1915 ( after that the Australians and New Zealanders serve separately in France although the linkages partly re-emerge in Egypt Palestine as the ANZ mounted division). Anzac Day ( commemorating the landing at Anzac Cove) is celebrated in both England and France from 25 April 1916. Charles Bean, the British born Australian correspondent/historian edited the ‘Anzac book’ in 1916 which sold 100,000 copies.

    The romance of ‘Anzac’ ( even in Britain) has to some extent blinded posterity to the wider reality of the campaign in that the ANZAC was a small subsiduary part of a much bigger allied force. We tend to forget that more Frenchmen died at the Dardanelles than Australians and vastly more British soldiers.

    Clarks words about enquiry echo a growing public demand to investigate what had gone wrong and indeed there was a major enquiry, the Dardanelles Commission held behind closed doors in the summer of 1916.


  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


Leave a Reply to Gerald Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s