“Who’s Absent ?” Being AWOL in World War One — language, identity, and the “absentee”

who's absente
Parlamentary Reecruiting Poster No.125; Imperial War Museum


Language is full of apparently incidental words which nevertheless – given the right circumstances – can find themselves freighted with highly topical meaning. Absentee is a case in point. Used in general to indicate the position of ‘(someone) who is absent from (something)’ as well as in special constructions such as absentee landlord, it would, across the World War One, prove an intriguingly mobile word, being diversified in range and connotation, as well as tapping into prominent discourses of participation and their moral (and gendered) coding

Absentee, was, for example, already an established part of military discourse as war began. For a soldier, being an ‘absentee without leave’ (our modern AWOL) was a chargeable offence. ‘Soldier’s Fatal Fall’ heads, for example, what now appears a somewhat suspicious narrative (in 1915) of the apprehending – and subsequent death – of an absentee of precisely this kind:

Worried by the condition of his wife’s health, a private of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment tramped from Salisbury to Birmingham to see her. He was arrested, taken to Portsmouth as an absentee without leave, and ordered detention in barracks. While in the cell he climbed to a high shelf, and refused to descend. When the doctor was called subsequently he fell, fracturing his spine, and died at the military hospital on Thursday as a result of the fall. A verdict of accidental death was returned at the inquest.

Absentee from Edinburgh’s Battalion Arrested’, heads a similar article in February 1915, detailing the case of William Lloyd who ‘was yesterday charged as an Army absentee’. In both, the negative sense is all too clear; being an absentee was firmly proscribed. Whether this could, or should, be deemed in WW1 a case of ‘French leave’  — ‘in military contexts … to escape or take flight; to desert, to take absence without leave’, as the OED explainsnevertheless served to raise other issues given the dynamics of language, and language attitudes, in a time of war. Surely this should be termed ‘German leave’, the presiding magistrate on one such case exclaimed:

You must not say “French leave” now. It is too good a name for so discreditable an action. You must call it “German leave.”

Absentee could, however, also be used in other – rather different – contexts. Given the war enthusiasm – and the zeal for recruiting in the first few months of war – the absentees of WW1 could, interestingly, equally be used to signify those who had, in fact, enlisted and departed for the Front, abandoning their habitual place of work as they did so. Absentees of this kind were rather different. Rather than being condemned, these were men who had responded to ‘the call to arms’. As such, they merited honour rather than reproach, and are repeatedly described in ways which valorise action of this kind.

Considering the mass of work we have to get through, we are an economically staffed office … we are no less than forty-four short of our normal complement. The absentees are all with the colours. One is in the Navy, and the other forty-three are in the Army

The description above, ironically, derives from an account of the National Recruiting Office which issued the warning that if the situation continued, they may have to abandon attempts to fulfil their statutory duties. ‘Who’s Absent – Is it You?’ the posters of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee had demanded, figuring the absentee as someone who had not enlisted. Yet, from other perspectives, men of military age were – in what might be seen as a different model of Shrodinger’s cat – rendered both present and absent. As the experience of the Recruiting Office confirmed, to be present at home was also to be absent from the Front – and vice versa. Its own absentees (n terms of work) were presumably able to answer the ‘Who’s Absent’ poster with a definitive ‘Not me’. Yet, as the military tribunals of 1916 would find, being an absentee could generate a range of complexities in this respect. Duty might call in different directions, as could the claims of conscience.

Absentee, used in principle in gender-neutral ways as in the definitions given in the opening paragraph– could therefore often be firmly gendered in its popular use across the war. Absentees are prototypically male, accruing a range of male-centred meanings. The same is true of the final sense of absentee to be considered here. This appears in 1916 in the wake of the Derby Scheme and the subsequent move to conscription by which all eligible men of military age were to be called up. Unless they were, for some reason, declared exempt (and provided with the papers to prove it), it was (military) presence rather than absence that was the order of the day. ‘Who’s absent – it is you?’ could, in this light, be a question enforced with rigorous consequences.

Defined as those who had failed to attest or to register their existence, and who thereby remained unknown to the military authorities (and being, by extension, unavailable to fight), absentees of this kind are, at least in terms of language, highly visible across the final years of the war. They represent, in essence, what can be seen as a special case of the ‘military absentee’ – one which is, however, closely dependent on the history of WW1 and the introduction of compulsion — and the obligation to be a ‘citizen-soldier’ — under the Military Service Act of 1916. Absentees of this kind were, we might note, also connotatively different – often been bound up in the public opprobrium of the shirker and slacker, and of those who – for whatever reason – were seen as ‘not doing their bit’.

Twelve absentees of this kind were, for instance, apprehended in a ‘round-up’ in Glasgow in November 1916; another thirty were located in a ‘hunt for absentees’ in a London theatre in September that year; another sixteen were charged in Leeds in the wake of a systematic assault on cafes, music-halls, and cinemas in the city. The ‘absentee lion-tamer’ (who features in the Scotsman in 1916) remains my favourite example. Taken out of the lion’s cage just as the performance was about to begin, the lion-tamer offers a telling illustration of the dialectics of absence and presence which informs the changing diction of the absentee in WW1. Forcibly rendered an absentee for his own performance, he was presented before the military authorities, and charged as an absentee in the new military sense of 1916 (he was, however, subsequently discharged on the understanding that he would now enlist).

Absentee, like many other words in the Words in War-Time archive, can present therefore a somewhat neglected history. Short-lived shifts of sense, or the contemporaneous play of connotation, often escape formal lexicographic records precisely because of their transitoriness. Being AWOL (though now usually explained as ‘being absent without leave’, rather than being an absentee) remains, of course, in use. Other uses are, however, firmly ‘for the duration’, bound into the linguistic responses to a specific set of circumstances which would, in time, also pass away.


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