The bombshells of WW1: women, words, and weapons

black maria
‘Plug Street’ (Ploegsteert) Village : An Unusual Compliment To One Of Our Airmen: A ‘Black Maria’ To Himself – Copyright: Imperial War Museums. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/12057#sthash.lGzq8PI3.dpuf

The naming of weapons runs through literature as a commonplace of heroism and of war. Arthur wields Excalibur while Beowulf uses the sword Hrunting against Grendel, and gains Naegling from  his lord Hygelac. J. R. R. Tolkien, Professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford from 1925, and a soldier in WW1 form 1915, appropriated this literary heritage in the Lord of the Rings, creating a range of expressive names and epithets within his text; modern fantasy fiction (and its online forms) has likewise taken over this convention with marked enthusiasm. That soldiers in WW1 should also refer to weapons by names or descriptive epithets can, in a number of ways, be placed in this same tradition. As earlier posts have explored, a range of identities – from Jack Johnsons, woolly bears, to coalboxes — can be mapped on to types of shell, drawing on a range of visual and other metaphors.
Even here, however, certain differences are plain. In Beowulf and the Hobbit alike, weapon names are strongly individualised; weapon and name are passed down within heroic culture, part of a process of collective memory and understanding. Names evoke respect and reverence, while descriptive attributes are positive, drawing attention to lineage, prowess, strength, and/or aesthetic qualities. Though there are exceptions, the creative appellations of WW1 are, in contrast, applied most memorably not to personal possessions but to the array of devices that the enemy deploys. The expressive potential of names is, by the same token, subversively redirected; German bombs, as we have seen, can be made to evoke the clouds of dusts emitted by coal boxes in domestic settings, or, as for Jack Johnsons, can draw on telling images of the ‘other’ which delegitimise in different ways. As the Words in Wartime archive often explores, the tone is that of irreverence, and lack of respect.

the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell foiled with high explosive, which detonate with terrific violence, and form craters large enough to act as graves for five horses. The German howitzer shells are 8 to 9 inches in calibre, and on impact they send up columns of greasy black smoke. On account of this they are irreverently dubbed “coal boxes”, “Black Marias,” or “Jack Johnsons” by the soldiers. Men who take things in this spirit are, it seems, likely to throw out the calculations based on loss of moral so carefully framed by the German military philosophers.

This post, however, will examine another strand within this pattern of naming and renaming – one by which female names can be appropriated, and women rendered quite literal bombshells. As in the extract above, for example, Jack Johnsons are accompanied by Black Marias (the terms are, in reality, synonyms, if aligned with different gender identities) while, in other patterns of evidence in the Words in War-Time archive, we can encounter Big Berthas, Sloppy Kates, or – in the Dardanelles in the spring and summer of 1915 – the questionable charms of Asiatic Alice or Asiatic Annie. Minnie as a sobriquet of the German minenwerfer offers another comparable form. Continue reading

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WW1 and the language of place: from Louvain to the Dardanelles

dardanellese
Men of the Lancashire Fusilier Brigade, 29th Division, before disembarking at W. And V. Beaches. May 5th-6th, 1915. Copyright: Imperial War Museum. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196079#sthash.1oj4ylTJ.dpuf

War can, all too easily, throw maps into disarray, relocating boundaries and reassigning territory whether lost or gained. Language too, as earlier posts have explored, can present other challenges for cartography. Name and renaming can take place, both formally and informally, in the light of on-going events. In WW1, newly adopted place names such as Petrograd can, for instance, eradicate what seemed unduly Germanic connotations in the earlier St Petersburg. ‘Foreign fields’, to misquote Rupert Brooke, could, in other ways, become — if not “for ever England” — then at least a temporary place of habitation, signalled by ironic appellations such as “Hyde Park Corner” or “Buckingham-palace Road”. Trenchland, a term used in the Daily Express in May 1915, could, as the Words in Wartime archive confirms, require a highly creative A-Z.

Names could, however, be used with even more freedom. Louvain, for example, was early appropriated into allied propaganda as a symbol of German depredation, and the associated conflicts of culture and kultur. If Louvain continued to designate a particular place on the map, this was now located in occupied Belgium as well as reduced in size; almost 12% had been destroyed, including the eighteenth-century university library, together with the books, manuscripts, and incunabula it had contained. As both place and name, Louvain, for the duration of the war, was freighted with meanings which deliberately evoked German barbarism and violation. To germanise, as the Daily Express noted in 1914, had, in this respect, gained “a new definition for the dictionaries of the future” –that is “to burn, destroy, raze to the ground, wipe out, reduce to a shapeless mass of unrecognisable rubbish; see also Louvain, Namur, Rheims, Arras, etc”.

Louvain could, by extension – and with equally negative intent – also be used as a verb in its own right. As in the heading “Louvaining in Galicia” which appeared in the Daily Express in December 1914, this was restricted to German activity. As the associated article added:

two German corps which are subjected to severe pressure by the Russian forces are wandering about in all directions, trying to effect communication with the main army, Louvainingand looting on their way’.

“To Louvain”, as here, is to ransack and pillage, amplifying the widespread imaging of piracy which also attended popular constructions of German identity at this time.

REMEMBER SCARBOROUGH! E.Kemp-Welch 1914 ENLIST NOW PUBLISHED BY THE PARLIAMENTARY RECRUITING COMMITTEE, LONDON. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/14989#sthash.e4JPUfK
REMEMBER SCARBOROUGH! E.Kemp-Welch 1914 ENLIST NOW PUBLISHED BY THE PARLIAMENTARY RECRUITING COMMITTEE, LONDON. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/14989#sthash.e4JPUfK

Proper names of this kind, as well as their idiosyncratic extensions, are typically excluded from formal lexicography though, as the Words in War-Time archive illustrates, such forms can be very useful in exploring the localised meanings of both place and time. Scarborough, for example, assumed similar transformative senses in early propagandist use. The injunction to ‘Remember Scarborough’ in early 1915 was, for instance, not intended to evoke memories of a small British sea-side town and its suitability as a holiday destination (as it might perhaps today). Instead, as associated iconography confirmed, Scarborough (attacked in December 1914), drew on a sense of threatened civilian innocence and human vulnerability as set against German ‘frightfulness’ in bombing areas remote from any battlefield. The ‘meaning’ of Scarborough was highly topical, drawing – as feminine pronouns also stressed – to tropes of gender and violation which ‘the rape of Belgium’ had already made familiar. “As a reminder of the nature of the enemy with which the nation has to deal, stricken Scarborough directs the attention of the world to her shrapnel-splashed streets and walls” and “shattered roofs and gables, the twisted iron beams, the wrecked interiors, and the list of the dead’, as the Scotsman explained in December 1914.

What the Dardanelles was to ‘mean’ would, by the spring and summer of 1915, offer other possibilities in terms of the linguistic geographies of place. Continue reading

Gas-fighting: from gasphyxiation to gaspirators

gas attack on western front
A German Gas Attack on the Western Front, photographed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Rights © IWM (Q 12286). Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205247812;#sthash.t4RMRguA.dpuf

Gas-fighting was another new form which appeared in the wake of events in April 1915 when over 150 tons of chlorine was released by German troops at Ypres. Over  the spring and summer of 1915, language would, in turn, neatly construct what we now term chemical warfare into both offensive and defensive processes.These were aligned with equal neatness onto enemy and ally, perpetrators and victims. Only in September 1915, at the Battle of Loos, would the British appropriate gas-fighting as an offensive strategy (at which point, as we will see, the diction of gas, gas war, and gas-fighting would all shift in interesting ways).

Between April and June 1915, a range of new-forged compounds in the Words in War-Time archive such as gas-poisoners (used in the Scotsman in May 1915) and poison-dervishes (located in the Echo in April 1915) firmly draw attention to German agency, and the barbarism and immorality which this, by implication, involved. Dervish, seen from modern perspectives, offers a particularly loaded model of civilisation and otherness while collocations such as scientific savagery, scientific murder, and scientific torture confirm the departures at stake in rendering chlorine, documented  by Humphry Davy in 1809, into a lethal weapon. Here, too, meaning came to change under pressures of war. Continue reading

Words, weapons, and WWI No.3: Gas! Gas!

gas warfare
Gas Warfare in WW1. Attack photgraphed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reservedhttp://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205288286

In the Words in War-Time archive, gas is yet another word for which linguistic productivity – and the potential for wide-ranging physical assault – would disturbingly unite in 1914-15. Written before war began, the relevant entry in the OED had documented modern uses in which gas was used to light domestic space and gas-engineers were ‘engaged in the making of gas, or in regulating its supply’ — ‘especially in theatres’, the Dictionary added. It tracked, too, industrial, as well as medical and scientific applications. The diction of war and conflict was, however, absent. The familiarity attested by Wilfred Owen’s ‘Gas! Gas!’ (in his ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ of 1917), and the salience of gas as a weapon of attack, remained unknown. Only in 1933 was the entry changed and the Dictionary brought firmly up to date. ‘First used in the war of 1914-18 by Germany on April 22, 1915’, the 1933 Supplement states with striking specificity; gas, it confirmed, now signified asphyxiating gas and poison gas. A range of collocations – gas shells, gas mask, gas bomb (among others) – all attest to the legacies of a changing langscape of war.
The Words in War-Time archive offers its own narrative of this transition from innocence to the realities (and diction) which came to accompany this particular facet of ‘modern war’. If anxieties were expressed about gas and the effects of war in August 1914, these could, for example, centre on an envisaged disruption in the supply of gas mantles (another form which, as the archive confirms, was as yet unrecorded in the OED). As a headline in the Evening News announced on 8th Sept 1914, ‘A famine of gas mantles is threatened’:

Mr. J. Thacker stated that one could hardly prophecy what would happen next .. Seventy-five per cent of mantles were imported from Germany

Nevertheless, language can also offer interesting correctives to the image of gas in WWI as a defining aspect of German frightfulnessper se. Continue reading

Cutting words: language and the “censor” in WW1.

censor crop imageFrom the early days of WW1, the Words in War-Time archive documents not only new words and meanings but usefully draws attention to strategic patterns of silence or obfuscation. Language proves a highly flexible tool, while communication – and what is communicated – can be deflected to widely different ends. Miscommunication and propaganda (as other posts explore) offer interesting illustration in this respect. This post, however, will focus on  the absence of words — and what is, in effect, the imposed failure of communication by which meaning is deliberately obscured, and words rendered vulnerable to excision. Continue reading

Writing war and peace in 1914-15: pacifists, peace-plotters, and peacettes

In terms of language, peace and war exist in a state of mutual definition. Peace, as Samuel Johnson states in his Dictionary of 1755, is ‘Respite from war’. To be peaceable is likewise to be ‘Free from war; free from tumult’. Defining war, it is ‘the exercise of violence’, together with ‘force’ and ‘resistance’ which instead assume prominence in the entry Johnson writes. Peace, by definition, is regained only once war comes to an end.

In reality, of course, things may not be quite so clear cut. Attitudes to war-like activity, as well as to peace activism in 1914-15 can, as the Words in War-time archive confirm, reveal a number of interesting shades of meaning. Militarism and the act of participating in military engagements were, for example, carefully kept apart. Used as a further means of distinguishing enemies from allies, militarism – and the pursuit of war which this implies — was confined to descriptions of the enemy. It was unambiguously derogatory. Continue reading

Writing the refugee in WW1: language, identity, and use.

refugees
Tommies helping refugees to get into safety. Fotocollectie Eerste Wereldoorlog 1914-18. Frankrijk; http://sws.geonames.org/3017382. Free Access – Rights Reserved. NL-HaNA_2.24.09_0_158-1211. Nationaal Archief, Den Haag

Refugee was to be another prominent word in the Words in War-Time archive. This had, in fact, been another relatively recent entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Published in 1905, the entry had tracked usage from 1685 to 1879. Yet a conspicuous absence attended refugee as used in the context of war. In the OED as it then existed, refugees sought a place of safety as a result of religious or political persecution; historical examples in the Dictionary made reference to the French Hugeunots who came to England in 1685 (after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes) and refugees who emerged after the ‘American revolutionary war’ and who ‘claimed British protection’. Various sub-senses documented refugee as used with reference to migrating birds, or to mean a fugitive, or to indicate someone who was simply running away from justice.

None of these senses seemed, however, to match the realities of language in the autumn of 1914. Instead, as the Words in War-Time archive demonstrates, it was war, and the wide-ranging geographical displacement it brought, which came to occupy the prime sense of refugee. Continue reading

The fashion for war: women and language 1914-1915

fashion
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 10122)

‘There are certain garbs and modes of speaking, which vary with the times; the fashion of our clothes being not more subject to alteration than that of our speech’. This quotation from John Denham was  used by Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century as he gathered up his own collection of words for the Dictionary.  Nevertheless, while written long before WWI, Denham;’s words remain interestingly resonant for the Words in War-Time archive in 1914-15. As Andrew Clark noted in the archive, ‘mode’ as seen terms of war-time fashion could display a striking consonance with war itself. Language moreover acted as a ready conduit for such ideas, revealing the new – and highly fashionable — prominence of items such as cartridge buttons or colours such as Joffre blue for the new season.

As Clark explored, diction of this kind easily testified to the popularity of war, offering other forms of allegiance and patriotic display.  Patriotism, as the archive confirms, was particularly productive in late 1914-early 1915. Continue reading

Zeppelinphobia !

zeppelinphobia‘This item is from The Great War Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa); © [Dr Edmund Morgan-Warren]’

Zeppelins featured, of necessity, in the Words in War-Time archive from the early weeks of war. Reports in the Evening News in September 1914, for example, detailed aerial attacks on Antwerp in which zeppelins played a prime role (‘The Zeppelin airship which on Tuesday night threw bombs on Antwerp also attempted to blow up a railway tunnel near Wetteren’). As the early diction of the war confirmed, Zeppelin operated as a particularising adjective, modifying airship, rather than as a noun per se. Like shrapnel, it was, in origin, an eponym or ‘One whose name is a synonym for something’, as the Oxford English Dictionary explained  when the relevent entry appeared in October 1921: ‘In full Zeppelin airship: a dirigible airship; properly, one of a type constructed by Count Zeppelin of Germany in 1900’,

In the changing familiarities of the war years, airship was nevertheless often deemed redundant and Zeppelin — alongside contracted forms such as Zep and Zepp — instead came to function as nouns in their own right,as in the extract below:

The Germans are making much use of aerial scouting. Their usual plan is to send out aeroplanes, which are followed by a Zeppelin with explosives (The Scotsman, Tuesday September 8th)

As early news reports of this kind indicate, the nature of attack could, via zeppelins, be extended in new and terrifying ways. Continue reading

Shellitis and shell-shock: language and the psychological side-effects of war.

In February 1915, Captain Charles Myers published what he termed ‘A contribution to the Study of Shell-Shock’ in the medical journal the Lancet. Presenting three detailed case histories, he concluded that, rather than ‘hysteria’, such cases ‘constitute a definite class among others arising from the effects of shell-shock’. Such studies were important in the legitimization of the psychological side-effects of war. Hysteria, as Myers was well aware, was a label which, unlike shell-shock, had widely served to undermine the seriousness (and validity) of what was being experienced by those who, traumatized, returned from war. Language, here and elsewhere, intersected with real-world history, documenting not only events but how events (and illness) were to be understood.

As earlier posts have explored, WW1 had, from the beginning, generated a wide-ranging vocabulary of nerves and nerviness. Long before the formal currency of shell-shock, the diction of to shatter the nerves was widely prevalent. It was an expression which was ‘in constant use’, together with related forms during 1914-15, as Andrew Clark observed, here alongside an entry in the archive from the Daily Express which focussed attention on the psychological stress of war:

The effect on the nerves is terrible, and I suppose it is intended to shatter the nerves of our men. Only the strongest can stand it for long, and most of us found it best to stuff our ears with cotton wool or tear up our handkerchiefs for the same purpose’ (Daily Express, September 2nd 1914)

Nerve-wracking as a distinctive property of the instruments of modern warfare, was picked up two days later in the Evening News. Both injury and attack could take many forms, Continue reading