Unspeakable war? Looking at language in Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others (1916)

A woman chauffeur. IWM (Q30803)

Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others, published in 1916,  offers a striking demonstration of the changes which war had brought – not only in its setting (the novel is based in events in 1915), or in its stance (it is often seen as the first anti-war novel of WW1), but also in its language. If war is, as on p.14, described as ‘unspeakable’, it is the range and diversity of its speakabilities which can instead leap from Macaulay’s pages. If core words remain the same, the narrative — from its opening chapter – sets out a langscape of sense and allusion which would have left pre-war readers firmly in the dark. What, after all, is to do one’s bit (p.9)? And why is knitting, and the knitting of body-belts (ibid; and p.82) suddenly so important?.** What are ambulance cars, and why is a woman driving one in France?

Non-Combatants could, in such ways, often deliberately remind its readers of the sudden foreignness of the present. Ambulance car is a term common in 1914-18, though one which the OED had not – and still has not – included. Betty –who drives it – sends letters home which are marked ‘on Active Service’ – here in uses which, if again common in WW1,  sit uncomfortably even with the modern OED definition of this term (‘direct participation in military operations as a member of the armed forces’).  That such letters can be described, metaphorically, in Chapter 1 as  ‘bits of shrapnel, crashing’ into the world at home testifies to other patterns of change.

As other posts on this site have explored, shrapnel was an early marker of  change in  Words in War-Time, hovering – for the duration, as well as afterwards – between its traditional meaning, here as defined by the OED  March 1914 (‘A hollow projectile containing bullets and a small bursting charge, which when fired by the time fuse, bursts the shell and scatters the bullets in a shower’), and its newer familiarised sense which Macaulay makes use of here: ‘fragments of a bomb, shell, or other object thrown out by an explosion’.  Shrapnel as a more literal referent appears too, used in an account of war trauma, located in a hospital at home. Nervy  (often used as an early euphemism  for shell shock)  serves in the same passage to draw language and time closely together.

‘I hate not having a bath after hospital. But one can’t grudge it to the dear lamb. How do you think he looks, Alix? Rather nervy, he is still. That’s the worst of a head wound. You know Mahoney, Margot, that Munster Fusiliers man with a bit of shrapnel in his forehead? The other men in ward 5 say he still keeps jumping out of bed in his sleep and standing to. The only way they can get him back is to say ‘Jack Johnson overhead,’ and then he scuttles into bed and puts his head under the pillow; only sometimes he scuttles under the bed instead, and then the only way they can get him out is to say ‘Minnie’s coming,’ and he nips out quick for fear of being buried alive.

Seen through the lens of language, Non-Combatants and Others can therefore — a mere two years into the war — offer a telling illustration of Words in War-Time, and the shifting contemporaneities of both use and understanding. Even its title challenges pre-war conceptions  of combatant and non-combatant. Non-combatants in Macaulay’s novel are protoypically bound to ‘war activities’, and subject – even on the ‘home front’ to direct attack (‘June went by, and the war went on …and there was some glorious weather, and Zeppelin raids in the eastern counties’). The newly familiarised diction of Zepps alongside the imperatives of darkening (and anti-Zeppelin blinds) are swiftly referenced in the description of the domestic setting on p.9.  As other contemporary evidence – here from the Daily Express — confirms, non-combatants in 1915-16 faced very different experiential realities from those which might have pertained before:

It is not pleasant, especially for a woman, to think that women and children and other non-combatants may be killed, that homes may be wrecked by bombs, and monuments may be destroyed

Boches, Jack Johnson’s, minnies and peris (the latter, respectively, contracted forms of minenwerfer and (trench) periscope) also appear in Macaulay’s opening chapter –in ways which would equally have challenged comprehension for our hypothetical reader of early 1914. At that point, Jack Johnson was a proper noun, referring to ‘the coloured champion heavy-weight boxer of the world’ (as he was described in the Daily Express) rather than a type of shell – a usage in evidence in the words in War-Time archive from September 1914. A racial and visual metaphor, it derived from the black smoke emitted by the shell in question. Trench periscopes, now less familiar, were widely advertised as commodities which – in 1915-16 – those at home were encouraged to send to their loved ones at the front:

A new and simple trench periscope which has now been invented for the use of our troops in Flanders should do much to lessen the number of casualties from snipers. At each end of the periscope is an adjustable mirror. By raising one end of the periscope above the edge of the trench the observer, without exposing himself, sees in the lower mirror a small but clear picture of the enemy’s operations’.

The cost was given as 2/6; 3s 6d ‘covers the whole cost of sending one of these invaluable instruments to a man in his trenches in Flanders. Boche (with its varied spelling across the war) was another coinage in common use by 1915 in pejorative designation of the German enemy.

Macaulay’s novel, set on the Home Front, does not provide explanatory glosses for the diction it deploys. Even if forms had their origin in trench slang and the diverse contact phenomena of the front, they had often quickly percolated into wider and familiarised use. A reported ‘Letter From the Front’, included in Chapter 1, is densely reflective of the diction of trench warfare, itself another collocation of WW1, complete here with mention of strafing and the evening hate, of the wire, Blighty, and going over the top:

My company is in the trenches now; commodious trenches they are, the best in the line, but rather too near the people opposite for comfort—they’re such noisy lunatics. It’s eight o’clock now, and they’ve begun their evening hate; they do a bit every evening. The only creature they’ve strafed to-night yet is a brown rat … We’ve had poor luck to-night; the Tommy who was sent over the top to look at the wire was made into a French landlord, and our sergeant-major stopped one with his head, silly ass, he was simply asking for it. It’s my belief he was trying to get back to Blighty, but I hope they won’t send him further than the base. You would like to see the dawn coming over this queer country, grey and cold and misty. I watched it through my peri for an hour. The Boches lay perdu in their trenches mostly, but sometimes you’d see one looming over his parapet through the mist’.

Macaulay’s density of representation is striking – whether in mention of Alix Sandomir’s mother whose activities evoke the negatively charged representation of peacettes and pacifists in dominant manifestations of war-time thinking (‘She was called by some a Pacificist, by more a Pacifist, by others a Pro-German’), or in the opacities which, for a pre-war reader, might well have surrounded the comment, in Chapter 1, that Alix’s aunt Eleanor, was ‘pinning tickets on clothes for Belgians’. Refugee, recently defined by the OED in an entry published in 1905, had  not included the potential for the displacement of large numbers of people from their own country in times of war. Belgian had meant merely someone who was a national of or resident in Belgium. Yet, as in Non-Combatants, far more is connotatively at stake. The Belgian or refugee can, as in contemporary invocations to ‘Remember Belgium’,  be used to focalise issues of German ‘frightfulness’, here in yet an another war-change. To be Belgian is, Macaulay notes, to be ‘an unfortunate and scattered people’. Indeed, in the novel, one is sitting, knitting, in the room where the novel begins. As the Times journalist, Michael MacDonagh had reflected in August 1914:

‘How productive of strange experiences is this state of war! There seem to be almost every day at Victoria railway station the arrival of parties of Belgians who are pouring into England in tens of thousands, torn from their homes and flying before the unprecedented advance of the Germans: a spectacle unparalleled, perhaps, since the flight to this country of the French Huguenots after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes about 230 years ago. That was due to a religious persecution. There have also been cases, more recently and on a much smaller scale, of foreigners obtaining asylum here on being embroiled in political troubles in their native lands. But this is the first instance, I think, of the exodus of a large section of a country’s population because of invasion by a foreign Power — a foreign Power with whom they had no quarrel’

As his comments make plain, he had used the varied elements of the  OED definition as far as it went – but after that, current English use (and its associative meanings) had clearly moved on.

Seen in this light, Macaulay’s novel can, on one level,  appear as an intriguing time-capsule — one which is  replete with a wide range of words and meanings, of connotative values and shifts of sense, which were of very recent use in English, and can, at times, need to be read in their own time to be fully understood. Alix’s refusal to knit, and her condemnation as a female slacker in Chapter 1, is, for example, no light censure (see e.g. Olive Dent’s constructions of shame, selfishness,  and female slacking in A V.A.D. in France; this can easily be paralleled elsewhere).

More interesting perhaps is Alix’s alienation from the war-words which others widely deploy across the novel. If war-time English is not shared with the past (and, in many case, with the future, at least in the precise meanings it had for its users in 1914-18), it is also not shared across all speakers in the novel.  Alix’s resistance to the war – and her eventual commitment to pacificism – has therefore an early foreshadowing in Macaulay’s patterned  distribution of war-time diction. As elsewhere, speaking – or not speaking the same language – whether metaphorically or literally – can be a powerful symbol.








** Comforts to be sent to the Front for soldiers regularly included knitted items such as body-belts, while knitting was constituted a form of patriotic activity.

“The Goverment intends to have each soldier provided with a belt to ward off those chills which cause so many deadly ailments on a battlefield, it behoves every person to do their utmost to provide these comforts with as little delay as possible, and so assist these brave men to maintain their health’,

as readers of the Scotsman were informed in October 1914. A failure to knit – as in Macaulay’s exploration of Alix’s conflicted relationship to the war – takes part of its meaning from resonances of this kind.

** For a useful discussion of Macaulay’s novel, see https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/non-combatants-and-others/





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