“Archibald, Certainly Not!”: Words and Weapons no.4

A British "Archie" in action
Ein britisches Flugabwehrgeschütz in Aktion, 1917. A British “Archie” anti aircraft gun in action, 1917.

George Robey’s rendition of the music-hall song ‘Archibald, Certainly Not’ perhaps provides  an unlikely accompaniment to the First World War. It deals with the comic archetypes of domestic – and specifically marital – strife. The unfortunate Archibald is subject to continual reproof and correction from the moment he ties the knot. Denied a honeymoon, the opportunity to play cricket, or a piece of roast chicken, Archibald’s endeavours are, in each case, firmly curtailed by the refrain ‘Archibald, certainly not’. Even outside the domestic sphere, Archibald is apparently doomed to identical processes of castigation and control:

I once strolled through a field, and there a mad bull came across.
It gamboll’d with me playfully and quickly won the toss!
Of course I sued the owner, and the day the case was fought,
The judge exclaimed when I said, “Sir, let’s have the bull in court!”

“Archibald, certainly not!
Just show what other evidence you’ve got!”
But he cried when I said, “Please forgo it…
Because I must stand up to show it.
“Archibald-certainly not”

The recurrent patterning by which Archibald’s every endeavour is rebutted and repulsed, was, however, to effect an interesting transfer into the diction of the war. As an article in the Evening News in January 1915 indicates, it was by this point seen as yet another component in the lexical ingenuity of war-time English. While the article draws attention in general terms to ‘the ingenuity of the British soldier in inventing picturesque names for the various engines of destruction brought to bear against him’, Archibald  features as an item of specific interest. It designates ‘for some unknown reason’ the  ‘anti-aircraft gun’, the writer explains.  As in so many other cases, the language of Front and Home Front had apparently diverged. Here, a proper name had inexplicably been used to ‘christen’  an inanimate object. Both, admittedly, began with the same letter but at least in this article the transfer is seen as entirely opaque.

Across the Words in War-Time archive, however, the prevalence of this usage is clear. As a further quotation from December 1914 confirms, for instance, attributions of this kind were already part of common parlance at the Front. ‘High-angle guns firing shrapnel’ are ‘commonly known as “Archibalds”’, the Daily Express explains for the benefit of its own readers. Used with reference to the enemy, Archibald offered a ready personification of agency and attack:

So far, “Archibald” has failed to bring down any of the Allies machines, at any rate within German territory, and, though in a few cases machines have been hit by splinters or bullets from his shells, the pilots have always managed to get back to their own lines

Use extended, too, to anti-aircraft guns on the Allied side, as here in March 1915:

It is undeniable that a new spirit, or rather a new confidence, is being built in the hearts of all of us. Our movements have become far more active, new guns and new equipment are being rolled up. A day breaks with the sound of a new gun in a position which even we cannot discover. A Taube is brought down by an “Archibald whose existence was not dreamt of.

The familiarised form Archie, in use from September 1914, further confirms the embedding of this locution in the popular diction of the war. As in the dramatic first-person ‘Story of a Fight in the Air’ which featured in the Evening News in mid-August 1915, the archies are quasi-anthropomorphised, being referred to in ways which elide their human operators:

As we neared the lines the “Archies” (anti-aircraft guns) made more deliberate and better practice, but we managed to outmanoeuvre them’

Archie and Archibald would, in reality, prove striking productive; by 1916, one could archie (as a verb) or be ‘archied’ (as a participial adjective). Archie featured too in a range of combinatory forms, while additional senses also accrued by which archie (and Archibald) could signify either the gun per se (as in the examples above) or, more specifically, the shells which such guns dispatched. As in the example above, writers could occasionally feel the need to offer an interpretative gloss in order to make the desired meaning plain (and especially when the text in question might reach a wider audience).

Nevertheless, the precise nature of that link between Archibald, Archie, and the realities of war could continue to perplex. Why – and how — can a popular song serve to designate a weapon of attack and defence ? In terms of origin, we might, for instance, adduce a letter,  sent in October 1914 by Lieutenant Amyas ‘Biffy’ Borton of No 5 Squadron, which now opens the relevant entry in the Oxford English Dictionary

I claim the honour of having christened Archibald the anti aircraft gun which I have seen mentioned of late in the papers (see OED Online, archibald, sense 1)

History, however, is full of claims by which acts of linguistic creation are made to sit uncomfortably alongside the evidence of earlier use. As the OED demonstrates elsewhere, if Borton’s letter is dated to October 1914, archie is already in use in the preceding month:

1914   L. A. Strange Diary 30 Sept. in Recoll. of Airman (1935) 64   Clouds at 4,000 feet, so that we got ‘Archie’ (the anti-aircraft gun) pretty badly.

We might, however, usefully note that both Louis Strange and Amyas Borton were part of the same air squadron in 1914. Seen from the point of view of language, this already offers testimony of a shared and communal usage, as well as one already established in a particular domain. More interesting -or problematic – is the fact of its subsequent diffusion. Both Archie and Archibald come, of course, to be used well outside No 5. Squadron, and the cohesive diction of a particular group.

It is here then that we might return to music hall, and the ways in which language (and catch-phrases) might easily percolate from Home Front to Western (and other) fronts and back again. War offers its own precedents in this respect; the catch-phrase by jingo, affirms, for instance, similar rites of passage in the Boer War. While “We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do” served as the refrain to “MacDermott’s War Song”, it also gave rise to a new abstract noun, as well as associated adjectival and adverbial forms. Music hall  was productive of other popular locutions in WW1 too, as in references to Harry Tate – a popular performer — in designating the BEF (Harry Tate’s Army) as well as ‘Harry Tate’s Navy’ in referring to the Dover patrol (and its supposed ineptitude). In-jokes, catch-phrases and popular cultural forms of this kind offered fertile ground for linguistic play;  if they offer, on one hand, the basis of a ready repartee alongside  the shared sense of belonging and group identity, they can, on the other, readily move outside their original contexts of use.

Seen in this light, ‘Archibald, Certainly Not’ clearly also shared in a certain cultural priming – forming part of what Bailey (1994)  describes as the ‘knowingness’ of popular culture, in ways which might draw on the kind of commonalities of knowledge, and forms of cultural competence,  mentioned above.‘Archibald, Certainly Not !’, first sung by Robey in 1909, continued, for instance, to form part of his on-going music-hall repertoire. Particularly interesting, however, was Robey’s own use of modern technology, in his decision to record the song in 1911. While ‘The cussed Hun has got my gramophone’ might feature as part of war-time advertising for portable gramophones in the trenches (here in an advert for Decca; see Doran and McCarthy, 2014), it was plain that the ‘Hun’ by no means had all the gramophones nor, like the devil, did it have all the best tunes. ‘Archibald, Certainly Not’ may therefore indeed have originated on the Home Front, but – both verbally and as part of the material culture of music in the war – it thereby secured far wider use and recognition.

In terms of its transferred meanings, Archibald’s discourse of repulse and rebuff hence offers an interesting correlate for the successive acts of resistance to German attack. The enemy’s anti-aircraft guns, as Borton suggests, might easily prompt the retort ‘Archibald, Certainly Not’ — not least as one neatly evaded the trajectories of fire. As in other practices of renaming, enemy opposition can symbolically be cut down to size; figuring the German guns as the hapless Archibald both undercuts the enemy, while affirming a rightful repulse. Yet, as transferred to British Archibalds or allied anti-aircraft guns/ shells, repulse can move in the other direction. As as in Robey’s song, Archibald’s ‘pluck’ and determination (as well as his successive and undaunted ventures) can signal a stalwart refusal to capitulate. As in another popular idiom of WW1, he is by no means downhearted. Fortitude and resilience might yet win the day. Archibald could, in such ways, prove intriguingly polysemous, drawing on and appropriating forms of popular culture in ways which percolated across 1914-19, as well as remaining a well-established leit-motif of war and war-writing in later texts.


Bailey, P. (1994), ‘Conspiracies of Meaning: Music-Halll and teh Knowingness of Popular Culture’,  Past and Present (1994) 144 (1): 138-170. doi: 10.1093/past/144.1.138

Doran, A-J and McCarthy, A. (2014). The Huns have Got my Gramophone. Advertisements from the Great War  (Oxford: The Bodleian Library)






One thought on ““Archibald, Certainly Not!”: Words and Weapons no.4

  1. Jingo actually dates back to the 1877-78 straights crisis with Russia. By the Boer War the term jingoism was already beign used by Liberal critics of Conservative militaristic imperialism. ( Incidentally i remember reading Bailey’s article as a first year undergraduate!)

    Harry Tate is interesting – this was the slang for the RE 8 reconaissance aircraft- I’ve always assumed that was rhyming slang.

    There were a lot of Music Hall references embedded in soldiers culture. Perhaps the most famous was the song ‘Fred Karno’s army’ sung to the hymn tune of ‘The Church’s One Foundation’ with the line ‘We cannot fight, we cannot shoot what f…ing use are we’

    The Fred Karno comedy troop was famous for starting the career of Charlie Chaplin.


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