The right weather for war? From war-weather to Zeppelin barometers

 

ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNS NIGHT SKY
Evening Quarters : The look-out at Cannon Street Anti-Aircraft Station;

[Imperial War Museum. See http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/11270].

The idea of war-weather as a specific locution is prominent from the beginning of World War One. As for Maude Gonne – writing, from France, to William Butler Yeats in August 1914 – this could rely on traditional metaphors by which nature is seen as reflecting or embodying human states of mind.

Though we are in such a quiet place, so far from the war, the weather is really  war weather  strange thunderstorms, & floods — a house was nearly swept away yesterday, the people say they have not seen things like that since 1870 during the war. [italics in original]

For Gonne, war-weather functions as pathetic fallacy – as in Shakespeare’s King Lear, a storm can  signify far more than a set of atmospheric conditions, offering portents of human violence and disorder.  Foreboding, fear, and the sense of impending conflict in far more visceral ways underpin Gonne’s words.

Metaphors of a slightly different kind appear in documenting the war-weather of conflict per se. The ‘thunder’ of guns or cannon, or storm of bullets were, of course, already well-established figurative transfers. These continue into trench warfare and descriptions of the Western Front, as in an extended account of the thunderstorm of war which appears in the Scotsman in the winter of 1914:

 I have spent two nights – in this deserted and luxurious chateau, over which a thunderstorm seemed to pass almost every hour of the day and night. There were times when it raged furiously, and made the forest bellow with fright, times when it sounded like a distant echo, times when it roared at the very gates of the chateau

Other extended figurative senses of hail, rain, shower, deluge, and storm can also appear. ‘Sense 3. transf. and fig. A storm, shower, or volley of something falling like hail, esp. of shot’, the entry for hail, for instance,  states in the Oxford English Dictionary. Here, the definition — as the mention  of ‘shot’ confirms –  references older forms of warfare (the entry was written in 1898, and has, as yet, not been updated).  Nevertheless, in keeping with the status of WW1 as ‘modern war’ (another locution in use from the early days of conflict), the metaphorical identities of war-weather  in 1914-18 were, in turn, often modernised too. ‘Shot’ does not appear. Instead shrapnel (in a sense unknown when the relevant OED entry was published in March 1914), or minenwerfer or gas-shells can all appear in contexts of this kind. Tornado  and hurricane bombardment would, in similar ways, make their own way into the discourse and diction of modern war:

The enemy poured a deluge of shrapnel and high explosive shells from their heavy guns, and to escape annihilation our men had to fling themselves into depressions, or take cover in the dead ground of the slopes of the hills (Scotsman, October 1914)

As soon as the French infantry deploy their ranks and appear in the open, they are met with showers of shrapnel (Scotsman, September 1914)

the Allemands were not going to let us have it all our own way, and at four o’clock they started a hail of shell-fire, which is supposed to have been the heaviest during the whole war for the area concerned’ (Evening News, May 1915)

It seems an artillery duel is progressing and our battery opened fire with the so-called ‘hurricane’ when one shot follows another without any interval – like a musical arpeggio (Daily Express, December 1914)

War-weather , in all its manifestations, demanded extreme fortitude, and the British “Tommy’s” capacity to withstand conditions  of various kinds attracted repeated commendation in this respect.

‘He is smart and natty in his get-up, kindly in his demeanour, can fight like a lion, and stand all kinds of war weather’

War weather can, however, also be used in quite literal senses, and in ways which became especially pertinent for Britain in 1916. That certain types of weather could be advantageous for attack, and specifically for attack by air, had, for instance, received comment from early in the war. As the Daily Express had noted, here in describing an aerial attack on Ostend and Ghent in September 1914:

The Germans chose a clear starlight night for this marauding expedition. There was very little wind, and the journey over the unconquered portion of Belgium was made smoothly and at high speed.

Suggestions  that Britain, too, might be subject to attacks by air had earlier prompted caustic charges of Zeppelinphobia (a word used to suggest an unwarranted and groundless fear). By 1916, however, Zeppelin attacks were  all too real, as was air raid itself (as noun and adjective) used in the specific sense of an attack made on non-combatants by enemy aircraft. While the deterrent effect of air reprisals remained a popular topic of debate, notions of air defence (in another new formation of the war) are therefore also of marked interest for language and history alike. Knowing the right weather for war could, in this light, be highly topical. As the Daily Express concluded in February 1916:

 The Zeppelin only comes over on certain nights, when the glass is high or stationary at a fairly high point. These nights have almost all a close resemblance to each other. They are still, windless, dark, and preferably misty or cloudy. On such nights aeroplanes are useless, and guns are difficult to aim without any exactitude’

The introduction of the Zeppelin barometer, as part of this advice to private individuals, offers another telling intersection between language and the material culture of WW1. The ‘glass’ in the Daily Express citation above refers to air pressure as indicated by a conventional barometer. Yet readings of this kind, as an article in the Evening News explained, could easily be adopted for the unprecedented circumstances of modern warfare, offering guidance for private individuals as to the plans for shelter they might need to take.  In contrast to the military metaphors in use on the Western Front, ‘rain’ as indicated by the marking on a Zeppelin barometer was distinctly reassuring. If the barometer needle pointed to ‘rain, ‘much rain’ or ‘change’ , it was safe to conclude that ‘No Zepp’s coming’, the Evening News informed its readers.

‘Fair’, in the war-weather of 1916, instead became highly inauspicious, prompting the advice ‘Zepp’s may come’.  Weather that was both ‘very dry’ and ‘set fair’ was, it continued, most dangerous of all: ‘Zepp’s Coming’ was a possible conclusion. Anti-Zeppelin precautions for  air defence were to be taken seriously. As in the image above, a clear night demanded heightened caution.

Public measures for air defence will be discussed in a  later post. Private measures of this kind provide, however, confirmation of the value of incidental details in the texturing of war in the language  of WW1. Andrew Clark’s war-time diaries record, for example, many comments of precisely this kind, with a meticulous observation of air pressure and visibility in ancipation of possible attack. Tracking war-weather could become yet another routine of life on the Home Front.What came to be known as Zeppelin nights preset us with telling details for the understanding of war experience, and its inscribing in war-time use. Zepp, with its contracted and colloquial familiarity, likewise confirms its  assimilation into the vernacular English of 1916.

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