The bombshells of WW1: women, words, and weapons

black maria
‘Plug Street’ (Ploegsteert) Village : An Unusual Compliment To One Of Our Airmen: A ‘Black Maria’ To Himself – Copyright: Imperial War Museums.

The naming of weapons runs through literature as a commonplace of heroism and of war. Arthur wields Excalibur while Beowulf uses the sword Hrunting against Grendel, and gains Naegling from  his lord Hygelac. J. R. R. Tolkien, Professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford from 1925, and a soldier in WW1 form 1915, appropriated this literary heritage in the Lord of the Rings, creating a range of expressive names and epithets within his text; modern fantasy fiction (and its online forms) has likewise taken over this convention with marked enthusiasm. That soldiers in WW1 should also refer to weapons by names or descriptive epithets can, in a number of ways, be placed in this same tradition. As earlier posts have explored, a range of identities – from Jack Johnsons, woolly bears, to coalboxes — can be mapped on to types of shell, drawing on a range of visual and other metaphors.
Even here, however, certain differences are plain. In Beowulf and the Hobbit alike, weapon names are strongly individualised; weapon and name are passed down within heroic culture, part of a process of collective memory and understanding. Names evoke respect and reverence, while descriptive attributes are positive, drawing attention to lineage, prowess, strength, and/or aesthetic qualities. Though there are exceptions, the creative appellations of WW1 are, in contrast, applied most memorably not to personal possessions but to the array of devices that the enemy deploys. The expressive potential of names is, by the same token, subversively redirected; German bombs, as we have seen, can be made to evoke the clouds of dusts emitted by coal boxes in domestic settings, or, as for Jack Johnsons, can draw on telling images of the ‘other’ which delegitimise in different ways. As the Words in Wartime archive often explores, the tone is that of irreverence, and lack of respect.

the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell foiled with high explosive, which detonate with terrific violence, and form craters large enough to act as graves for five horses. The German howitzer shells are 8 to 9 inches in calibre, and on impact they send up columns of greasy black smoke. On account of this they are irreverently dubbed “coal boxes”, “Black Marias,” or “Jack Johnsons” by the soldiers. Men who take things in this spirit are, it seems, likely to throw out the calculations based on loss of moral so carefully framed by the German military philosophers.

This post, however, will examine another strand within this pattern of naming and renaming – one by which female names can be appropriated, and women rendered quite literal bombshells. As in the extract above, for example, Jack Johnsons are accompanied by Black Marias (the terms are, in reality, synonyms, if aligned with different gender identities) while, in other patterns of evidence in the Words in War-Time archive, we can encounter Big Berthas, Sloppy Kates, or – in the Dardanelles in the spring and summer of 1915 – the questionable charms of Asiatic Alice or Asiatic Annie. Minnie as a sobriquet of the German minenwerfer offers another comparable form.
Bombshells of this kind are, of course, remote from their later figurative usage, deployed in the 1930s film starring Jean Harlow in which the heroine’s ‘killing looks’ are equally metaphorical. An article headed ‘At the Front on a Motor-Cycle’ which appeared in the Daily Express on January 27th 1915, evoked, for example, the sinister sense of shells arriving home:

another “portmanteau” or “black Maria,” or “sloppy Kate” (wuff-wuff wuff, the last basso profundo) finds its billet.

Asiatic Alice” had spotted us, and sent over high explosives at one minute intervals’, an article in the Scotsman in September 1915 likewise states, here in a first-person account of war under the heading ‘At the Dardanelles. Experiences of Scottish Regiments’. Spotting played, with grim irony, on another new use of war in which to spot was both to catch sight of, but also, and more dangerously, to register the position of the enemy – a use well documented in the autumn of 1914, especially in terms of air reconnaissance. Being spotted by Asiatic Alice is by no means a pleasant experience; in the article, the sense of anthropomorphization is marked, as is the intended malevolence.
Similar is an earlier article in the Scotsman from 10 August 1915. This also offered, as it proclaimed, ‘Soldiers Stories from the Battlefields. Vivid Pen Pictures in the Diary of an Officer’. As part of this claimed authenticity, it dwelt extensively on the distinctive voices of the guns:

‘No wonder the men get to know them and say, “There goes Annie from Asia,” or “Black Maria”’.

This feminizing, and personalization, extends, too, to the pronouns used:

‘A Black Maria comes trundling along, whistling in a meditative sort of way, and you can hear her at least four seconds before she gets to you’,

as a letter from Lieutenant Denis Oliver Barnett reported on New Year’s Eve in 1914. One possible antecedent for Black Maria lies in the American police vans used since the mid-19th century — which would, of course, quickly take you away whether you wanted it or not; even earlier reference to a famous black racehorse called Black Maria has been suggested, While blackness remains a salient component,  it’s clear that, as in the letter above, Black Maria can be imaged as a predatory female whose designs are best avoided. Just as for Jack Johnson, blackness is transferred as a visual metaphor to the smoke by which shells of this kind are distinguished.

The Big Bertha guns produced by the Krupp factory work within a similarly gendered pattern, even if the antecedents here are undtoubtedly clearer. The gun is named ‘after Bertha Krupp, the only daughter of the later Friedrich Krupp and wife of the Herr Krupp von Bohlen’, as the Daily Express explained in 1916, here in an article stressing the negative resonances of Krupp’s ‘factory of Death’. Attention, however, focussed on guns of this kind from early in the war. ‘Bertha – die fleissige’ (Bertha, the Zealous) was the popular name of ‘Madam Krupp von Bohen’, the Scotsman commented, for instance, on October 30 1914 in an article on ’The Big German Mortar Gun‘. This, as it added, had been used to destroy the forts at Liege with devastating effect: ‘a dozen [shells] suffices to destroy the most solid fortress’. Bertha’s strength and industry was self-evident.

Often referred to as ‘Busy Bertha’ in English in a direct loan-translation, this was also more popularly referred to as ‘Big Bertha’ (an epithet also used in German, with rather different connotations, to commend the impressive size of the gun that had been produced). As in contemporary uses of frightfulness, German and English could easly produce linguistic ‘false friends’ in this respect — even in rendering the same construction. ‘Big’ as modifier plus female name is by no means commendatory in English, offering other patterns of subversion (and morale-boosting mockery)  in referring to guns/ Bertha Krupp.

In terms of a gendered grammar of names for weapons in WW1, it is Big or Busy Bertha which nevertheless provides the basic pattern by which, in relevant collocations, a female name was often selected as the second element while a modifying adjective (Asiatic, sloppy, big) provides the first. The original loan translations for fleissige Bertha are also presumably the source of the kind of alliterative pairings which were also often reproduced, as in Asiatic Annie, Asiatic Alice or, later, moaning minnie. What we might note, however, is that — in contradistinction to the richly evocative descriptors we find in Old and Middle English — weapon names of this kind are often negatively coded, drawing on defeminized images of size, or the aesthetic disharmony of slovenliness (sloppy), or a transgressively gendered alacrity in dispensing death rather than nurture. Gender can, by extension, offer another way in which the deadly potential of enemy weapons can, at least in terms of language, be cut down to size — the fondness for diminutives (Minnie, Annie, Kate) is likewise of interest in this context. Familiarization, as in other domains, is made a ready means for contempt.



One thought on “The bombshells of WW1: women, words, and weapons

  1. This got me interested in ‘Asiatic Annie’. Refers to a battery of heavy guns on the Asiatic shore opposite Cape Helles. But sometimes confused with a different battery on the peninsular itself near Suvla and Anzac. This battery positioned on the Anafarta Ridge was more usually known as ‘Farting Annie’ (for obvious reasons).
    Gendered anthropomorphizing of weapons operated in a slightly different way for weapons on ones own side- it is striking (and I think revealing) that the first British tank was named ‘Mother’.


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