How to be “knuts” for war: refashioning male identity in WW1.

NPG Ax160184; Basil Hallam by Foulsham & Banfield, published by  Rotary Photographic Co Ltd
by Foulsham & Banfield, published by Rotary Photographic Co Ltd, bromide postcard print, circa 1915

Image of Basil Hallam, the Knut with a Capital K.© National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced with thanks under Creative Commons.

As previous posts on this site have explored, fashion – and war – could produce some unlikely conjunctions. The fashionable flapper of 1915 might be recognised by her cartridge buttons or the silken bayonet belt she might choose to wear, perhaps in Joffre blue. The appeal of fashion in Edwardian Britain was not, however, a purely female preserve. The knut — and the conflicts he could present in terms of legitimatised forms of male identity –  offers another site of change for words in war time..

When WW1 began, the knut or nut (both spellings are in use) remained undefined in the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘He has come too late for Dr. Murray’, a correspondent to the Times regretted (‘Dr. Murray’ referred to James Murray, editor-in chief of the OED). Its topicality was, however, undoubted. The most recent incarnation of a well-established pattern of male display, the knut was a descendant of the dandy and the beau, the macaroni and the toff. Favoured by young unmarried men, and -in comparison with the ‘toff’ markedly democratised (even a clerk might be ‘knut’ on his day off) — he could be recognised by his hat (floppy or silk), pastel gloves, bright socks, and indolent demeanour. In terms of langauge, the knut was the slang of the moment, as the Times commented in December 1913:

No self-respecting youth can use the slang of his uncle …. He cannot guess that his uncle, when he uses the word “toff,” remembers the time when he himself was one, just as he will remember the time when he was a “nut.”

Basil Hallam’s music-hall turn as Gilbert the Filbert, the ‘knut with a capital K’ — in the revue ‘The Passing Show’ (which opened at the Palace Theatre in April 1914)– only served to enhance the popularity – and prevalence — of the knut in pre-war days. As Hallam’s lyrics stressed, the knut was ‘the pride of Piccadilly’, engaged in nothing more arduous than ‘counting his ties’.

The declaration of war in August of that year nevertheless brought a new set of images of male identity into prominence. Recruiting posters which urged (male) addressees to ‘play the man’ did not have the knut in mind. The knut’s brightly coloured clothing  symbolised an ostentatious freedom from utilitarian constraint — a form of conspicuous (and leisured) consumption in which the performance of identity was very different. Such meanings could, in themselves, swiftly seem démodé. Young men who did not volunteer were liable to be proscribed as slackers and shirkers, epithets which took on pointed associations of cowardice or the deliberate avoidance of conflict in contemporary discourse. Continue reading

Rethinking the birth of an expression. Keeping calm and “carrying on” in World War One:

keep calm and carry on
Poster image via Wikimedia Commons

The injunction to Keep Calm and Carry on, with or without various mutations, has, in recent years, become ubiquitous. ‘One of the most recognisable slogans in British history’, as Henry Irving notes, it can, in modern English, be found inscribed on anything from mugs and cards to clothing or bags.

Its origins as slogan have been carefully located in WWII, being credited to the shadow Ministry of Information.  As Simon Eliot explains, almost three million copies of a MOI poster urging the populace to ‘keep calm and carry on’ had been distributed across the British Isles by the early autumn of 1939.  It was, nevertheless, to be a notably short-lived campaign.  A crisis of confidence– founded in concerns that it might seem patronizing or even annoying – led to its swift demise. Originally intended to strengthen the war-time spirit, and to reassure as a new war began, the posters were – with a few exceptions – pulped in 1940.

Slogans, however, also have beginnings and “carrying on” – as a specific injunction to maintain war-time resilience, and with particular reference to qualities of fortitude on the Home Front – already had a long (if forgotten) history. Devising their poster in 1939, the shadow MOI drew, in fact, not on a blank slate of language but made use of what was already an established collocation of war-time use.  Based in WW1 rather than WWII, the determination to “carry on”, had already featured prominently in a wide range of private and public discourses.

As war began in August 1914, uses of carry (and carry on) were, as we might expect, plentiful. Carry on had already been given three senses by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755; the recent entry in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (in a section published in 1888) had expanded this to five. Discussion of the need to carry on the war, to carry on work, or to carry on the fight or struggle are easily found.  Carrying on is made a serious business often collocating with words of industry and labour. As in the example below, uses of this kind required a direct or indirect object.

‘many, too, must stay at home to carry on the daily business of life, to provide the means of feeding and paying the Navy and the Army, and even to manufacture the necessary instruments of warfare’ (The Times December 5th 1914)

Particularly prominent, however, are uses of carry on as it came to be used in another early motif of WW1 – here in the expressed determination to carry on business as usual, an idiomatic expression often credited to Winston Churchill though  it was, in fact, used by Lloyd George as early as August 4th.

Importantly, this construction signalled much more than a commitment to maintain the national economy, being deeply imbued with the morale-boosting resolve to maintain quintessentially British ways of life on the Home Front, irrespective of what the war might bring. Business as usual already had its own linguistic history (being in use in the 18th century). Coupled with carry on, however, it came to express a war-time mind-set, a state of ideological resistance – founded in a determination not to give in, and to continue unaffected, however bad things might become.

Are you ready and fit to tackle your everyday duties and to carry on “Business as usual”

as an advertisement for Iron Jelloids – identified as an ‘invigorating tonic – hence demanded in September 1914. Churchill, using this phrase in November 1914, was – to use a modern idiom – merely making use of a current meme. As in the Jelloids advertisement, business – and the duty to carry on is embedded in ‘everyday duties’, whatever they might be. By implication, anyone and everyone could participate in this national endeavour, and in the spirit of war-time resistence.

In England in this national crisis we [have] tried to carry on business as usual, we hoped with confidence for victory as usual, and we were determined to maintain justice as usual

As language history proves, business as usual would, in fact, assume a life of its own, often being used without the accompanying verb. Importantly, the same is also true of carry on in war-time usage. An interesting example of this separation appears in the Times in July 1915:

No more stern test of any man’s mettle could be imagined than he should have to “carry on” when death is doubly present in the mines below the water and the shells bursting above’…Those fishermen, too, who have continued to follow their calling have found that “business as usual” has not been without its added risks.

Carrying on here links both to the role that has to be performed, but also to the appropriate mind-set of performance – the resolve, courage, dedication, which ‘business as usual’ (which here includes mine-sweeping) might require.

Be British! Carry on!

likewise appears in a 1914 advert for Napier Motor Business vehicles, in an even closer correlate for the connotative values which carrying on came to acquire.  ‘The famous Acton Works … are carrying on business as usual’, as Napier went on to assure its customers:

‘whatever happens, we feel we must carry on and do what we are called upon for’

an article in the Times stated to similar effect in November 1914. In examples of this kind, carrying on exists in its own right, yet inferentially continues the sense of patriotic resolve of business as usual — not least in the expressed determination to be uncowed by circumstances, whatever these might prove to be.

While earlier uses of carry on tended to require a direct or indirect object (one carries on with something, one carries on the struggle, in which continuance of various kinds is the central issue at stake), these uses of carry on are therefore  intriguingly different. Often framed by inverted commas, these  usefully act as visual reminders or cues for the semantic nuances involved in carrying on in this particular sense. Individual examples thereby often move beyond a sense of simple continuity (i.e. merely carrying on in ways which correspond to previous states), but instead engage with a wider interpretative framework — based in the implied willingness to try and keep going, to shoulder the new burdens, and to make the best of things:

BEHIND THE GUNS. war has released the most terrible engines of destruction, the giant guns that have been so long preparing for The Day; yet the human element remains supreme. It is the man behind the gun who counts. And to all who “carry on” at home lies the duty of keeping fit — we are all “behind the guns.” Get the Kruschen habit, the daily discipline of half a teaspoonful of Kruschen Salts in a tumbler of hot water before breakfast ….(advertisement, Kruschen Salts, 1916)

As here, advertising could – as so often in WW1 – prove highly adept at appropriating war-time diction for its own ends.  ‘We’, collectively, are encouraged to carry on’, whatever this might involve – since in a nation at war, not least in one which, by 1916, involved both combatants and non-combatants as objects as attack, all are – literally or metaphorically, ‘behind the guns’. Endurance — on a range of levels — was vital.

The salience of non-combatants, and especially women in the activity of carrying on is, in this respect, often brought to the fore in contemporary discussions. An article in March 1915 in the Evening News, for instance, addressed the ‘Mobilisation of the Women’ as a striking new departure of war:

I have seen little more than the headlines in newspapers which announce “Mobilization of the Women”. I suppose it means that, at the last pinch, women must prepare to “carry on” while the men have gone to the wars in Flanders and elsewhere.

You will ask what they are doing now if they are not “carrying on.” For the children still have their breakfasts and their marching orders for school, the mysterious world of the household goes forward, the daily adventure of shopping, the daily achievement of the dinner-table. Yet the Board of Trade must require more, or it would have sent out no circular. …The Amazons are no extinct tribe.

Here, if certain domestic things still happen in the established patterns of the past (and therefore, by definition, “carry on” or continue in the older senses of the verb), what is now additionally to be carried on is of a very different order. The resolve and determination that women must now exhibit – in departing from their accustomed roles – is key, here invoking a state of patriotic engagement  and a willingness ‘to do their bit’ in compensating for the loss of male labour.

A CALL TO WOMEN …”The lesson we want to teach our women,” said Miss Pott, “is that they have not done all that is necessary when they have let their men go to the war. If they would only do the odd jobs that come along — hoeing turnips, for example — they would be helping to “carry on”. (The Times, 9 March 1916)

Carrying on can mean committing – with proper patriotic resolve and endurance – to the wider life of the nation, in ways which were –for many women– unprecedented in earlier years. Again, however, it is the attitudinal response which is made most significant, over and above the ways in which this might – in individual circumstances – now be realised. More is at stake than merely carrying on the hoeing.

Carrying on could, for the duration, therefore become a way of life, offering a range of well-established precedents for ‘Keep Calm and carry on’. As in the advertisement below, here from January 1918, carrying on was made into an effective linguistic symbol of resilience. Two short words could, with striking economy, be made to evoke the war-time spirit, with its complex layers of commitment and resolve, patriotism and endurance, as well as a refusal to give in, especially on the Home Front.War Workers carry on advert OATINE face cream in Punch January 23rd 1918 page viii (002)

not blighty

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. Continue reading

1916: In the “Summer-time”.


summer 1916
Women practicing semaphore signalling at summer camp in Hertfordshire 1916



In The Guardian on 22nd June 2016, the sculptor Martin Jennings commented on the ways in which diversity can, tactically, ‘be put in inverted commas, as though it isn’t real’. The role of punctuation as a way of contesting reality — and performing what is, in essence, ideological work —  has become a common feature of modern discourse.  Diversity as word, or practice, can, for various reasons, often attract these signals of attitudinal distancing, irrespective of the facts by which it is underpinned.

That ‘summer’ or ‘summer-time’ can also be accompanied by  signals of ideological scepticism is perhaps not altogether unsurprising. As in the ostensible summer of 2016, ‘summer (at least in Britain) is characterised by leaden skies and ample rain, rather than its prototyppical sun and warmth. “Summer time”, complete with its own set of ideologically marked scare quotes, would, however,  assume a rather different set of meanings in 1916, in ways which offered their own potential for expressing a perceived dissonance with expected realities.

On one level, of course,  summer time —  irrespective of either weather and the war – retained its traditional meanings. As in the relevant fascicle of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was published  in January 1917, summer-time was ‘the season of summer; the time that summer lasts’. Bound with the rhythms of the turning world, this spanned (in Britain) the period between the summer solstice (June 21st) and the autumnal equinox (September 22 or 23rd). Illustrative quotations for summer in the OED reach back into the earliest records of the language.

The summer of 1916 nevertheless brought a new and discrete sense into operation. As the original OED explained in a strikingly contemporary note, summer time had, in this respect, recently been redefined by parliamentary decree:

 An Act to provide for the Time in Great Britain and Ireland being in advance of Greenwich and Dublin mean time respectively in the summer months..This Act may be cited as the Summer Time Act, 1916.

As the relevant entry explained, summer time was now officially divided between meanings which pertained to ‘ordinary time’  and a new sense dependant on what was given as ‘standard time’, a time ‘in advance’ of time as previously understood.  The equinoctial boundary was discarded. Under ‘standard time’, summer-time was longer (often extending to the end of September), as well as being re-configured in relation to ‘ordinary’ conceptions of time itself. Summer-time in this new sense now meant, the OED added:

The standard time (in advance of ordinary time) adopted in some countries during the summer months (in the British Isles, in 1916, from 21 May to 30 September).

Or as the Daily Express carefully explained for the benefit of its readers:

The altered time, which will generally be called “summer time,” will remain in force up to and including September 30 next.

The inverted commas or scare quotes adopted in the Express signal not only the new but also set out a marked  sense of defamiliarisation – and another way in which war-time experience was increasingly seen as dislocated from the past. Summer-time in 1916 was, and was not, the same of that of 1915. Continue reading

A is for Amazon. Being Amazonian in WW1.


women munition workers
women munition workers in WW1. Imperial War Museum.

Amazon was, in 1884, one of the first entries to be published in the Oxford English Dictionary. Deriving from the classical languages, it had already acquired, as the dictionary explained, a range of meanings in English. Historical reference led back to the mythical female warriors ‘alleged by Herotodus (among others) to exist in Scythia’, while later extended use had given the general sense ‘female warrior’  – even if this tended, of necessity, to exhibit largely hypothetical or figurative uses in English use. As in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, ‘play[ing] the Amazon’ implied the appropriation of a suitably intransigent demeanour, rather than the decision to bear arms against a common foe.

A further shift of meaning was located in the mid-eighteenth century. An Amazon of this kind was different again, implying, as the dictionary specified, ‘a very tall, strong, or masculine woman’.  First illustrated by Samuel Johnson in an 1758 essay in the Idler which in which an amazon rides a thousand miles in less than a thousand hours, thereby winning a wager, the link to war is demonstrably severed in favour of achievements which are distinct  from those which  conventionally appear in  canons of feminine behaviour. That these are also placed outside  regulative  female norms can, however, be plain.

‘To the man an Amazon never fails to be forbiddding’,

as James Fordyce warned in his Lectures to Young Women:

The amazons of war-time discourse can therefore offer some interesting changes – and continuities — in this respect. An early citation for airwoman in the Words in War-Time Archive, for example, extols the achievements of ‘the Princess Shakovsky, a well-known sportswoman, who holds a flying certificate’ and who had ‘been permitted to join General Ruzsky’s staff as a military airwoman’.  Yet conflict remained, prototypically, a man’s business:

The Czar refused permission for the formation of a regiment of Amazons which three hundred society women were desirous to join.

Twentieth-century Amazons also appeared in news discourse in Britain, affirming similar impulses towards action. A lengthy article in the Scotsman in December 1914 focussed, for example, on responses received to the recent questionnaires on enlistment (and eligibility) as sent out by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee.  As these made plain, in circumstances where no men were available, a number of women had attempted to volunteer instead. In the Scotsman, ‘the brave and patriotic spirit in which the women of our country are facing the situation’ was duly extolled:

Some women, who, to their sorrow, have no men to send to the firing line, express the wish to go themselves – a fact which suggests the possibility of the formation of an Amazons’ Battalion. “Regret,” writes one, “we have no men in this household. Just wish you would give women a chance’

As the Scotsman added:

The same brave Amazon spirit finds forcible expression in the following offer from a lady not a hundred miles from Glasgow Cross: – “I regret we haven’t a man of any age in this house. If a strong, healthy, and willing woman of uncertain age, past the first flush of youth, would be of any use to you, I’m at your service, without money and without price.

Such offers of active service were politely refused; war, as the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee’s own posters stressed, was an exercise in ‘playing the man’ – in a diction of performance and masculinity from which women were excluded.

By 1916, the diction and framing discourse of the Amazon had nevertheless taken on a new prominence.  In a Punch cartoon from early 1916, the Amazon is, for example, now seen as a recognisable type, in vigorous existence throughout the nation.  Framed by other stereotypes of war-time identity, such as the slacker and the rumour-monger, the Amazon instead appears, in uniform, striding across the page. Unencumbered by the hobble skirts – or long hair — of the past, she exhibits a sense of freedom and purpose, as well as a determined engagement with the war effort.  A timorous new recruit (also female) meanwhile hovers uncertainly to her right, in a distinctly underpowered version of her future self.

Amazons, in war-time discourse, would, in reality, assume a variety of forms. By 1916, a range of erstwhile male roles were, for example, being performed by women as more and more men went to the front (first as volunteers, then via the Derby Scheme, and finally via conscription). As other posts explore, these changes generated their own issues of taxonomy – if clerks were male, was a female clerk a lady clerk, a clerkess, or a girl clerk?  Similarly, was a conductress or a conductorette to be preferred? Or a woman- or lady- or girl- conductor? Amazon clearly offered in some respects a useful generic – not least in signalling commitment to active war service on the Home Front (and as opposed to the prototypically domestic service of the past).  Railway amazons hence populate the trains, trams, and tube as drivers and conductors rather than passengers; as in the War Budget in March 1917, the ‘Amazonian ranks’ are given as being visibly increased by  new roles assumed by women in the pharmaceutical industry or as portresses.  Other amazons are located on the land, in hotels, in motor work, in ambulances, or in industry. Munitionettes, too, could equally testify to the Amazonian spirit and its salience in war. As the Scotsman commented, using transparently military diction to describe life in a munitions factory:

The Amazonian column that had passed in files along the central passage of the factory had apaprently formed up in line on reaching the canteen and charged up to the barrier — a long counter held by a garrison of voluntary women workers who had for some time been preparing in expectation of the attack … On the further side, the voluntaries moved briskly about, successfully keeping out of each othere’s way, and trasferring plates of ham, poached eggs, pots of tea, toast, and other edibles appropriate to a high tea, from the cooking range to the counter.

As War Illustrated affirms, the amazon was, in such new incarnations, surely part of a ‘social revolution’ and  a significant player in the forging of a ‘new England’:

Neither on this farm, nor on the farm adjoining did I see a man. Girls were doing everything, and doing it splendidly. Homeward bound, skirting the coverts, we paused at a rustic stile at the moment a shapely, gaitered leg swung over it. Another Amazon! This fresh version had a gun over her shoulder. Velveteen breeches, a loose-fitting tunic with deep side-pockets … “My head game-keeper –Miss Smithers’ cried Mr. XXX, in proud introduction.

We might compare the news journalist Michael MacDonagh writing in his diary in 1916:

Women are to be seen at work everywhere. “Men must fight and women must work.” … You see them at the wheel of motor-cars and motor-drays. You see them handling the reins of horse-drawn vehicles. They are ticket-collectors at Underground and tube stations. At hotels and offices the lift-boy has become a lift-girl. The hall-porter at some of the big hotels is an Amazon in blue or mauve coat, gold-braided peaked cap and high top-boots.

If, in the OED, the amazon is depicted as defeminised and ‘other’, the amazons of 1916 and after can present some interesting readings, in which strength and ability are positively constructed (at least in terms of their alignment with the war effort), while — as in the examples above, amazons can also be rendered subjects of the all-too-approving male gaze. As MacDonagh confesses to his diary, the hall porter amazon is ‘a gorgeous figure that fascinates me’. Yet ‘my favourite’, he adds

 is the young “conductorette” on trams and buses, in her smart jacket, short skirts to the knees and leather leggings’.

Uniforms, donned as visual symbols of the public and professional identities which were assumed ‘for the duration’, could have disconcerting effects. That war-work, or being a war-worker, did not preclude attractiveness is a recurrent aspect of comment of this kind.

If the peacettes of 1915 evoke a sustained engagement with an anti-war rhetoric (being, in turn, negatively constructed in mainstream news discourse, along with their peace prattle), amazons can therefore appear as their antithesis. They are situated, too, in positive contradistinction to female versions of the slacker and shirker whose abilities are wasted, and whose contributions to the war effort selfishly remain unmade. As in the campaigns for ‘Women’s Right to Serve’ in 1915, which stressed women’s suitability for war service of various kinds, war-time amazons are therefore often framed in diction which suggest their status as metaphorical soldiers, mobilised for the war effort, and who, as volunteers (rather than conscripts) also willingly respond to the nation’s call. An ideological commitment to war is translated into war service in a range of legitimised forms.  Altruistic amazons of this kind  offer their own forms of self-sacrifice – in which work is constructed as part of war-time duty and properly patriotic endeavour. Meanwhile, by volunteering for active service in industry, transport, or munitions – or, indeed, in new structures such as the Women’s Reserve Ambulance Corps with its formal appropriation of a range of military ranks) women might also, in another well-established collocation of the day, ‘release a man for the front’,  in what remained a far more direct engagement with conflict per se.

Being Amazonian occupies therefore an intriguingly conflicted position in war-time Britian. It both evokes and elides direct military participation; if, for the OED, amazons are ‘female warriors’, their fight is, in 1914-18, relocated onto the front lines of the economy, munitions, transport, or food production, or in their work as nurses or ambulance drivers (among a wide range of other roles). Just like men who have volunteered for the Front, women too could gain a range of forms of insignia and visual validation, such that armlets and badges (as well as uniforms)  made active service plain. The amazon can therefore be used to express (and affirm)  a range of forms of female endeavour, resolve, and duty, while being amazonian can, as contemporary collocations confirm, be a matter of martial spirit and war-like resolve in which readings of ‘otherness’ can often be deliberately  suspended — at least ‘for the duration’. Amazons in 1918 would, however, face a very different future, as later posts will explore.

“That siren call ….”. The diverse language of Air-raid precautions in 1916



zeppelin picadilly circus
The First Zeppelin over Piccadilly Circus 1915. See

The spring and summer of 1916 saw an escalating series of air raids over Britain. Some twenty raids (according to official tallies published in the Press) had taken place over 1915. In 1916, Andrew Clark decided to keep his own record in the Words in War-Time archive as a further part of his engagement with contemporary history and its representation.  19th May 1916 – almost a hundred years ago to-day – hence saw the 10th raid in six weeks.

While debates on the desirability  of air reprisals continued (see War of terror”: “terror” and “reprisal” in 1916), the question of air defence, and, more specifically, of the kind of air raid precautions that should be introduced and maintained  for the Home Front, were increasingly prominent. Still associated most commonly  with WW2, it was WW1 which would, in reality, see a range of measures implemented  in this respect. As the Scotsman argued in February 1916, the ‘expediency of public warnings against Zeppelins’ was surely incontrovertible’ — what was needed was ‘an organised system giving early warning of the presence of enemy aircraft in the country, and information as to their movements inland’.

Language – and the plethora of locutions that emerge in 1916 – can, however, be used to explore some of the complexity of response. Silent warnings, light warnings, buzzers, hooters, and syrens as well as sirens – or indeed, no warnings at all — appear in the public discourse of air raids and the importance of non-combatant safety.

The dominant meaning of air raid (in terms of the Home Front) in 1916 remained, as the Words in War-Time archive makes plain,  an attack on non-combatants by enemy airship (the latter usually referred to at this point in time under the generic Zeppelin). Precautions were often referred to equally specific terms:

ANTI-ZEPPELIN PRECAUTIONS IN EDINBURGH. ‘A deputation from the Edinburgh Rotary Club were present at a meeting of the Lord Provost’s Committee of Edinburgh Town Council on Saturday, and advocated the adoption by the Corporation of certain anti-Zeppelin precautions.

Air raid warning first appears, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, in 1915:

1915  Times 13 Sept. 3/3 (heading) The British Fire Prevention Committee announce that their Air Raid ‘Warning’ as to the nature of the bombs and how to deal with the fires arising from them, is being reissued in the form of a small poster.

While the accompanying OED definition — ‘a public warning about impending air raids, usually given by means of a siren’ — reflects later use with precision, this can neverthless sit somewhat uneasily alongside earlier evidence in WW1. As the 1915 citation given above indicates, for example, the ‘warning’ specified gives generic advice in terms of public safety and the fires that might ensue after such an attack. Its poster format is linked less to an ‘impending air raid’ but rather to general public safety, and a warning of longer rather than shorter duration. Sirens, too, present a number of complexities in their suggested use in 1915-16.

Whether noise should be used at all was, for example, a matter of considerable debate. As the Scotsman indicates in April 1916, while ‘anti-Zeppelin precautions’ were a matter of immediate concern, their precise form remained controversial:

[The deputation] insisted on a more stringent carrying out of the instructions as to the darkening and obscuring of lights, and indicated that some general public warning should be given. The Committee said they were fully in accord with the views of the deputation as to the importance of obscuring lights as much as possible, and pointed out that those places which had adopted general warnings by sound had discarded them.

Siren warnings  could, it was felt,  allure rather than force people off the streets.– in ways which neatly aligned with their classical forebears (‘Syrene, the mermayde is a dedely beste that bringeth a man gladly to dethe’, as a 16th-century citation in the OED declares). That Zeppelins might connote spectacle alongside danger is a recurrent thread in comment at this time. Siren warnings, in this respect, might merely alert the  populace to Zeppelin presence in ways which tempt rather than deter. An article in the Daily Express, in April 1916, provides a useful illustrativion of the conflicted meanings which warnings of this kind could assume:

AIR RAIDER DRIVEN OFF. SEAPLANE’S FUTILE VISIT TO KENTISH COAST. SYREN WARNING. ‘Holidaymakers at Ramsgate and Broadstairs to-day experienced the thrill of hearing the shrill shriek of the syren announcing the approach of hostile aircraft. The syren sounded at 11.58 in both towns, but there was no panic. The mayor’s reiterated warning to keep under cover was again disregarded, and the visitors, as well as the inhabitants, seemed to enjoy the excitement. …At 12.30 the syren again sounded to announce that all danger was past. …This is the first time the syren at Ramsgate has given warning before the arrival of hostile aircraft.

Buzzers presented similar problems; if attack was heralded so was the prospect of seeing the invader:

Warning was given. There was no panic. People came into the streets to see what they could, but were disappointed. The safety buzzer went at 4 o’ clock (Star, July 1916)

If the air raid warnings trialled in 1916 intentionally shared the semantic force of warn (OED, sense 3): ‘To put (a person) on his guard, to caution against some person or thing as dangerous’, they could, it seems, also participate – at least for some sections of the population – in the less loaded sense by which warn merely provided useful  notification. Being warned, individuals might instead venture out to get a glimpse of what was going on. First-hand accounts of the experience of seeing a Zeppelin are not difficult to find.

‘the most surprising thing is the way everybody rushes into the street. Nobody takes any notice of the police warning; they just look upon these raids as a good show, and all are eager to miss nothing’ (Evening News April 1916)

The safety buzzer, or release buzzer, both of which appear in signalling the “All Clear” (an idiom used in railways which was only gradually extended to air raids and air attack) — could, in this respect, simply herald the end of the ‘performance’.**

Warnings, however implemented, could therefore be surprisingly polysemous. The empty streets which followed warnings in 1918 self-evidently took some time to achieve. What is particularly  clear in 1916 is the ways in which precautionary measures were often local and individual. Air raid sirens (dated to 1918 in the OED, in an entry revised in 2008) could be used, either on their own or alongside other measures. Yet they were by no means the automatically favoured form. In the Potteries, for example (in February 1916):

News of approach of Zeppelins is to be signalled by a “buzzer,” or if the use of a “buzzer” is considered inadvisable, by the stoppage of the tramway service. A second “buzzer” will mean that it is safe to turn up the lights

Here the embedded punctuation – and the presence of scare quotes – offers a visual reminder of the changes of words and word-use that are at stake. Used as  gas alarms on the Western Front, buzzers  provide a similarly defensive function across Britain, gaining new patterns of signification (‘something that buzzes’ versus ’something that buzzes in warning of imminent air attack’).

3 ZEPPS OVER EAST COAST. 32 Bombs on Norfolk and Lincolnshire. NO CASUALTIES … A “Star” correspondent telegraphs: — ‘About midnight the inhabitants of a certain important North-East Town, which has suffered severely from air raids in the past, heard, after a pleasant immunity of over three months, the sound of the buzzer. They listened with considerable confidence, knowing that extensive defensive precautions had been taken. The enemy never got over the town, and about four o’clock the welcome sound of the release buzzer sent the people to their beds.

Hooters appeared elsewhere, gaining similar meanings, as in the following article, headed ‘How a Midland Town was Warned’, which appeared in the Scotsman in March 1916.

In accordance with prearranged plans to warn the public, electricity was cut off, hooters were sounded, and the Corporation tramcars were stopped, together with general traffic.… The place was kept in complete darkness until all danger was over’

Similarly interesting is the diction of the light warning, used, for example, in Southend from April 1916:

SOUTHEND “LIGHT” WARNING. The residents of Southend will in future receive warning of air raids. The pressure of the electricity main will be reduced in the borough for five minutes on receipt of information that hostile aircraft are in the district.

Or, conversely, the decision to implement silent warnings, as in Birmingham in May a hundred years ago:

SILENT WARNING. ‘The Lord mayor and Chief Constable of Birmingham yesterday sanctioned a scheme for giving silent warnings throughout the city in the event of Zeppelin raids. Captains have been appointed in each ward, and each captain will be in charge of a number of helpers. To carry out the scheme 672 special constables have been sworn in.

Just as in later  air raid warnings in London  1917, policemen could become, in effect, “moving posters”, as they walked, cyclued or drove across the city by means of the words ‘Take Cover’ emblazoned on placards on their person or vehicle.

This close engagement with temporality — here in the diversities of the diction of air raid precautions in 1916 — can usefully counter the flattening of history and language which broader narratives must, of necessity, employ. The most important change comes, however, not in the language of material form (how the air raid warning is delivered) but in the changing nature of response and understanding.  If, as in Scotland in March 1916, the imminent arrival of a Zeppelin meant that the strees were ‘thronged [by those who] gazed upwards in a vain attempt to locate the airship’, the best precaution lay, of course, in patterns of behaviour by which, whatever form the warning took, it would be interpreted as an imperative  to take immediate shelter. People ‘must learn to avoid the open streets, and no less open passages’, as the Scotman already stressed. The changing prominence — and use — of the diction of air raid shelters (first recorded in the OED in 1917) is, in this respect, a closely related story.


** The OED entry, and definition,  for All clear (revised in 2012)  reveals some of the same problems when applied to WW1: A signal indicating that there is no danger or obstruction; esp.  (a) a railway signal indicating that the line is clear (cf. danger n. 4c);  (b) a signal given by means of a siren, etc., to inform the public that (the danger of) an air raid is over

Strafe it! Words as enemy aliens in war-time English.


University of OsnaBruck. Copyright under Creative Commons.

Long before 1914 and the advent of war, Samuel Johnson had pointed out that words, like citizens, exist in ‘different classes’. Some are natives, remaining in their linguistic homeland from the beginning. Others are denizens, having lived there for so long that they are virtually indistinguishable from the original inhabitants. Others, however, retain ‘the state of aliens’. If used in English, these – either in terms of form, spelling, or pronunciation – confirm allegiance to languages outside the nation state. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, still in progress during 1914-18, maintained these same divisions. Naturalisation was key.


The langscapes of war brought some interesting synergies into play in this respect. Political solidarities with allied nations could, as with France, yield a new influx of words. An ‘Entente-Gallicism’ seemed to be in operation alongside  the ‘Entente-Cordiale’,  the Daily Mail observed, drawing attention to the wide range of French derived forms which had appeared in public discourse and at the Front from the summer of 1914. As Andrew Clark verified in the Words in War-Time archive, this was a marked feature of the war, even if, as he rightly suspected, the majority of such words would fade out of use when war came to an end.

Words with traceable (or suspected) links to the enemy were rather different. German was ‘the Stigma’, as an article the Star in 1915 observed, here in documenting a campaign by the residents of German Place in London to have it renamed Tipperary Place. The Words in War-Time archive documents a variety of emergent shibboleths in this respect, as in the cultural silencing of terms such as wanderjahr:

 ‘Many servants are bent on taking what might have been called a “Wanderjahr” – the fates forbid I should use this word now’. Daily Express (March 1915).

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


Evening Quarters : The look-out at Cannon Street Anti-Aircraft Station;

[Imperial War Museum. See].

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.

“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.”

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“War of terror”: “terror” and “reprisal” in 1916

zeppelins 1916
Awaiting Zeppelins. Sandringham, 1915.

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2493)




The heading above appeared in the Daily Express in February 1916. Like 9/11, and the emergence of the modern “war on terror”, perceptions of this ‘new war of terror’ in 1916 were prompted by a series of aerial attacks in civilian locations. While WW1, by 1916, was indeed a ‘world war’ in hitherto unprecedented ways, it was the victims of German aerial warfare in British towns along the east coast, in Kent, and in the Midlands which prompted anxiety of this kind. The language of ‘terror’ was marked. While war zone is itself a coinage of WW1 (dated to 1914 in the Oxford English Dictionary, it is  widely documented across the Words in War-Time archive), it was clear by 1916 that systemetic attack could occur outside formal theatres of war. Conflict of this kind instead consolidated the sense of what we know now as total war. As the article continued:

The governing condition of our national life during about the last four hundred years – that is, since naval power became our principal defence, has been the circumstance that Britain was an island, which strength at sea could defend … Britain is, quite manifestly, ceasing to be an island, and though strength at sea does still protect her from serious invasion, and may continue to do so for some years to come, that strength is powerless to defend us against aerial attack.

In war in the air, geographical boundaries were easily transcended; the ‘mailed fist’ could, as in the headline above,  hover at will above London or Lowestoft, Dover or Deal. ‘Henceforth no non-combatant will be immune from attack’, the writer added. Here, too, language and (re)definition could be at stake. As recent events confirmed, combat and non-combatants could intersect with deadly effect, rendering civilians  remote from the field of battle into direct casualties of war.

The language of terror – phrased with particular acuity in 1916 –can, in fact, be traced from the beginning of the war, whether in analysis of the Kaiser’s ‘power to terrorise’ (in September 1914) or in comment on the emergence of new weapons of destruction which Continue reading