Being under fire: flammenwerfer and liquid fire in 1915

under fire
L’enfer. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 4415; http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/16659

To be under fire is perhaps an inevitable condition of war. Across the Words in War-Time Archive, the phrase appears with striking frequency, appearing in sources which report on action from the Front as well as in the purple prose by which, early in the war, the ‘sublime comradeship’ of war could, as in the extract below, be extolled:

Comradeship! It is a wonderful word, a binding of soul to soul, heart to heart in a bond that death alone can sever. Comradeship, which breeds simple faith, fine endurance, noble self-sacrifice rising to self-obliteration. What a splendid virtue! To see it on the battlefield, under fire, is to see it transfigured, consecrated into the sublime (Daily Express 10 Sept 1914)

Outside rhetorical positioning of this kind, fire occupied a prime place in military diction, whether in assessments of firepower (‘the total effectiveness of the fire of guns, missiles, etc., of a military force’, a word first used in 1913 according to the OED) or in offering accounts of fire-trenches – another form which antedates WW1 (it is dated to 1909 in the OED) but which was swiftly assimilated into the complexities of trench warfare after 1914. Fire-screens (in uses still unrecorded in the OED) and fire-steps become—among a range of other forms — other common components in narrating conflict at this time:

A major led his men instead of using them in the conventional fashion as a fire screen, and was shot down before he had gone twenty feet. A mere handful of soldiers had followed him, and these, too, were mown down by machine guns (Daily Express, 1915-03-02)**

From the beginning of the war, fire – as ‘flame’ rather than with reference to the various projectiles which might be used — had, however, also been used as weapon per se. A propensity to use flame was, for example, often depicted as a further manifestation of German barbarity, underpinning the characterisation of the enemy as firebugs in the sense ‘an incendiary’ or someone who was, by definition, inclined to use arson. Arch-firebug (in a particularly Germanic compound) was similar, while carbonize, as other posts on this site have explored, likewise comes into marked prominence in early news reporting (and atrocity propaganda).

Being under fire could, in such instances, be rendered strikingly literal. That the newly devised Black Maria was ‘intended to set things on fire’ is, for example,also carefully documented in Andrew Clark’s examination of the new words and meanings of war, while words such as fire-lighter take on newly specific senses in recounting German methods of attack:

Quantities of “fire lighters” – so indispensable to a German army on the march – are stored with tins of benzine one of the military depots on the outskirts of the city. It would be an easy matter for a brigade of these well-trained incendiaries to set Brussels ablaze from end to end in an hour.

Following came the bearers of heavy tubes of petrol fitted with sprays, with which they drenched the woodwork and furniture of each room thus exposed, then the firelighters with their long torches, smeared with a substance which makes them glow like live coals and emit an intense heat without flame.

Dated to September 1914, the firing of Belgian cities such as Louvain is thereby depicted as a two-stage process. Fire-lighters (sense 1) are devices which spray petrol which are used to prepare the ground. Then come the fire-lighters (sense 2) — the ‘well-trained incendiaries’ who, bearing ‘long torches’, ignite the fuel.

As other articles explore, however, still more terrifying was the conflation of these two stages by means of a single weapon. This yielded another new word together with a range of associated synonyms. As the Daily Express explained to its readers in July 1915, for example, it was the flammenwerfer  which was used to direct ‘liquid fire’ not at  physical structures such as buildings or streets, but at soldiers in the trenches. Continue reading

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Banned words: ‘No-Treating’ and the language of war-time prohibition

treating2
Copyright. Imperial war Museum, 1916. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/29729

‘Crime of asking “What’s yours?”. “No treating” rule for London’ states an arresting headline in the Daily Express of 20th September 1915. The article centred on what had become a highly topical issue across the summer of 1915, as well as on its linguistic consequences. Images of prohibition framed words and deed alike, while ‘treating’, and the associations of pleasure and generosity which this suggests, gained a new and highly prominent antonym.

By 1915, treats of various kinds arguably offered a sense of respite from the widening conditions of war-time austerity. Treating and no-treating had nevertheless assumed highly specialised – and negative — meanings as usage in September 1915 makes plain. Here, too, language in the Words in War-Time archive neatly demonstrates the process of change.

Treat, as noun and verb, had, for instance, been comprehensively defined in June 1914 in an entry published in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. To treat, it had explained, was ‘To entertain, esp. with food and drink’; it was to show hospitality to; to regale, feast, esp. at one’s own expense, by way of kindness or compliment’. If negative meanings were possible, these were highly restricted, being limited to treating for the purposes of ‘bribery, as at an election’. Relevant senses in the entry for treating itself were closely similar. As under sense 5, treating was ‘Regaling, feasting, entertaining; spec. the action of providing a person (wholly or partly at one’s own expense) with food or drink at a parliamentary or other election in order to obtain (or in return for) his vote; bribery or corruption by feasting (illegal in Great Britain since 1854 by 17 & 18 Vict. c. 102, §4)’.

The OED’s male pronoun (‘his vote’) as used within this entry deftly reveals other aspects of language and history which would also come to change by 1918. The language of treating, however, moved rather more quickly, narrowing in popular reference across 1915 to a set of negative meanings in which provision referred exclusively to alcohol, and generosity was firmly proscribed. Continue reading