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

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).

Continue reading

Being compelled to go to war; raids, recruits, and the “Round-Up” in 1916

As the previous post explores, the early months of 1916 witnessed a number of new stages in recruitment for the armed forces. The Derby scheme represented the last stages of volunteerism, enabling men who had attested to be called up – in another newly pervasive form of words – in groups. As the 1916 booklet When I Join the Ranks explained, “The “calling up” of any Group is effected by means of a general Proclamation, giving one month’s notice, but each individual soldier also receives a notice by post actually summoning him and giving him a fortnight in which to settle his affairs’

who's absente
Imperial War Museum. 27747

There were nevertheless large numbers of men who still remained outside this system – some excluded by age or disability, or by work in spheres which were deemed important enough to secure exemption from active service. Others – at least rhetorically – were often deemed to fall into the domains of shirkers and slackers, words which took on increasingly gendered patterns of meaning between 1914-18. While shirker is, on the surface, gender-neutral, it was, ‘for the duration’, a term freighted with connotations of evading and avoiding military service in ways which pertained only to male spheres of use. Slacker was similar. Both operated as terms of male opprobrium, in narrowly specific senses which pertained to the absence of active participation in the war.

While men might have “failed to come forward”, either as part of the Derby Scheme or in the months and years before its introduction, the question of (non)-participation was, however, to became much more pointed with the introduction of conscription or compulsory service, first announced in the Military Service Bill of January 1916 (though not fully implemented until May). “Compulsion becomes law”, the Daily Express announced on May 26; as of to-day ‘the Military Service act’ would ‘make a soldier of every man, married or unmarried, in Great Britain between the ages of eighteen and forty-one’. While the wider ramifications of this – especially in terms of the refusal to serve, will be considered in later posts — this post will focus on other aspects of evasion and attempted control in the diction of what came to be known as the round-up or rounding-up

Some young men, hearing that a “round-up” was impending, unsuccessfully tried to escape during the progress of the match, and with a number of others were detained for enquiries.

Raid at Newmarket. A Military “Round-Up” on the racecourse. Newmarket racecourse was raided to-day by a strong force of military and police in search of absentees from service. .. The rounding up continued during the day.

The round-up, as a contemporary note from 1916 in the Words in War-Time archive explains, was used to designate “attempts made, by police raids, in places of amusement, in search of men of military age who were shirking service”. Continue reading

“Soldiers-to-be”: Language and liminality in the wake of the Derby Scheme


derby scheme

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5061.

Like the bride-to-be, the diction of the soldier-to-be has an interesting liminality. The bride-to-be is not yet a bride; the promise has been made, but not yet fulfilled. The formal union lies in the future. Nevertheless, if framed by a kind of temporal expectation, events may still not materialise quite as planned. Not all brides-to-be become brides; decisions made earlier might be regretted or revoked. Second thoughts might prevail, while the advertised wedding might not come to pass.

Soldiers-to-be participates in some of this flux of meaning and status, if relocated to a rather different sphere. Here the expected union is that of active service, while ‘to-be’ adroitly picks up the gap between a stated commitment to fight, and its realisation. As in the age-old divide between word and deed by which the true hero is defined, the soldier to-be could occupy an interestingly liminal space.

It appears as yet another lexical item which remains unrecorded in formal lexicography. Picked up in the Words in War-Time archive in early 1916, it appears, for example, in advertising campaigns directed at the ‘Derby Men’ or, on other words, at a specific sub-category of men who had attested under Lord Derby’s scheme, formally the Group Scheme, in the autumn of 1915. The ‘Derby Scheme’ (variously referred in news discourse of the day the Derby crusade or Derby experiment, with various degrees of reservation) aimed to boost enlistment among the millions of eligible men who, as National Registration had shown, remained at home (some, admittedly, in protected forms of employment). Under the ‘Scheme’, one could enlist for immediate service, thereby passing from civilian or civvie to soldier with immediate effect. But, as in the case of soldiers-to-be, one could ‘attest’ and remain at home, bearing only to the obligation to embark on active service once summoned to do so, or ‘called up’.

Seen in terms of language, then, the Derby Scheme yielded a range of interesting forms. Hall’s Wine, the ‘supreme tonic restorative’ which frequently advertised its efficacy for the diverse forms of nerve-strain witnessed as war advanced, would, for example, rapidly seize this opportunity too. While targeted marketing was therefore aimed at soldiers at the Front, a further assault was aimed at the soldier-to-be whose anxiety levels, as the advertising campaigns noted, might well be on the rise. Unlike the enlisting fever or khaki fever attested in earlier comment on the war, soldiers-to-be had hitherto proved resistant to contagion of this kind. Now, however, ‘many and many a man’, as the advertising copy proclaimed, was to be fetched from occupations on the Home front for a set of ‘new and arduous duties’:

The next few months will take many and many a man from desk and office and factory to make of him a soldier. In thousands of cases these workers will be ‘softened’ by their sedentary lives, will indeed be far from fit to tackle their new and arduous duties. In every case Hall’s Wine will be found most helpful

Addressed directly to the ‘soldier-to-be’, advertising of this kind neatly exploited the linguistic and military limbo of this section of the Derby Scheme. As it stressed, ‘workers’ will be made into ‘soldiers’, while the ‘sedentary’ must be made ‘fit to tackle’ war. Continue reading

Winter and the war 1915-16: From “frostbite” to “trench foot”

trench foot
©IWM (E Aus) 1120.
Australian soldiers having their feet inspected for ‘trench foot’ at Zonnebeke, September 1917.


Frostbite in trenches’ announced a prominent headline in the Evening News in January 1915. ‘Frostbite. Winter in the Trenches’, the Daily Express echoed. The accompanying articles detailed still other unforeseen circumstances of war on the Western Front. While Ernest Shackleton had set off to  cross the Antarctic via the South Pole in August 1914 — a domain where frostbite was a known and present danger –its stated prevalence in accounting for military casualties on the Western Front is striking.

“During the abominable weather of December and January, “frost-bite” raged like an epidemic’, the Scotsman noted in March 1915, looking back at the toll the previous months had taken. It had been a “scourge”, affecting the feet of soldiers in the trenches in unprecedented ways. “The surgical history of the war in Flanders shows that during last winter frost-bite was responsible for much intense pain and permanent maiming2, an article in the Daily Express affirmed later that year. As the second winter of the war approached, it reflected on the lessons which had, hopefully, already been learned.

Frostbite in this respect was, however, another new sense-development of war. The word  could, of course, still occur in its conventional sense. As the relevant entry in the  Oxford English Dictionary explained in 1898, frostbite in the strictly medical sense was a condition caused by ‘severe cold’. The modern revision of the Dictionary, in an entry dated to March 2015, is still more explicit. Frostbite is identified as:

Injury to body tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold, typically affecting the extremities and often involving only the skin, which initially becomes white and hard, but in severe cases resulting in gangrene of deeper tissues and loss of the affected parts.

A number of articles in the Words in War-Time archive comment on the danger of exposure to extreme temperatures, and the kind of damage that can occur to the face and hands if left unprotected.

Nevertheless, uses of frostbite from early in the war  differed in critical ways from the kind of processes described in the OED. Unlike frostbite (OED sense 1), frostbite of thsi kind  was characterised by swelling, itchiness, and blisters. It occurred moreover in conditions of sustained damp, irrespective of the temperature of the air. As the Scotsman explained, for example, the number of ‘”frost-bite” patients was in fact closely correlated with the opportunities that  soldiers had to dry and warm their feet, rather than with the presence of freezing temperatures per se:

“’During the spell of sharp fighting in January, when there was no time to think of their feet, there was another jump in the number of “frost-bite” patients’.

Frostbite in this sense was, it commented, better seen as ‘the consequence of living in the trenches with permanently wet feet, and never taking one’s boots and tight puttees off’. Indeed, it might, more appropriately, be termed water-bite, another article ventured, since it thrived in conditions of continual damp, such as those which had pertained at “Plugstreet” before recent improvements in material conditions had been made:

The men had to stay for weeks at a time in the trenches, swimming in water, without planking to walk on, and without the knowledge which has since been gained on how to preserve the feet from the scourge of frost-bite, or water-bite as it should be called.

Mud-bite was another designation which appears in war-time dicourse. Bite in all three can effectively suggest the intensity of pain and suffering that accompanied this condition.  ‘The first glow of life burns like red-hot pokers’, a later article in the Scotsman (from November 1915) confirms.

Renamed trench frost-bite in the Lancet in September 1915, in yet another shift of nomenclature, the disease was to be carefully documented in terms of cause, consequence, and prevention. Frost-bite in this transferred sense did not require frost — but it depended instead on the sense of numbness and chill (as well as pain) that popular connotations of frostbite suggested. Left untreated, moreover, it, too, could result in gangrene — and amputation of the affected limb.

It was this specialised sense of frostbite (still unrecorded in the OED) which would, in time, gain the label by which it is usually known to-day — trench foot. Dated to 1915, this has survived as perhaps one of the more surprising legacies of WW1 in modern use. ‘Glastonbury 2015: Medics prepare for cases of trench foot’, as the Independent informed its readers in June 2015. LIke the trenches of WW1, the mud and rain of Glastonbury, as the article explained, offered ideal conditions for what is now seen as an immersion foot disorder.

War-time uses of frostbite continued, however, ‘for the duration’, even if they have  become obsolete today. Frostbite and trench feet often co-occur in accounts from 1915 and 1916, offering a form of symbiosis and mutual definition. As the Scotsman recorded, for example, here in marking the beginning of the winter of 1915-16:

“Trench feet,” which we used to call frozen feet” last winter, are coming into the field ambulances again and getting passed down to the casualty clearing stations. It is easy enough to cure if taken in time, but the men “stick it” too long sometimes, and then it is a bad business trying to bring life into the senseless limbs.

‘This winter’,  the M.P. Major Lyell stated in December 1915, the Allies ‘knew better how to combat frostbite and trench feet and how to keep the trenches dry and livable’ (Scotsman 16 Dec 1915).

In other contexts,  frostbite clearly retained a popular and colloquial role . As Andrew Clark’s war diaries (‘Echoes of the Great War’) confirm, frostbite (and associated words) continued to be used as popular descriptors, being assimilated into the general parlance of the war, on Home as well as Western Front. ‘Ernest Wright is in hospital in France with feet frost-bitten’, Clark notes, for example, in February 1917. Another villager, Leonard Cule, has ‘had his feet frost-bitten’, thus becoming ‘a case for Blighty’, Clark’s diary states in the following month.

Looking at language in 1916, we can therefore see this continued patterning of old and new forms of reference. As in the quotation below, anti-frost creams are, for example, explicitly directed as what is now given as trench foot; frost, by extension, does not denote the presence of crystals of ice but is used in signalling a sense of generalised discomfort in which cold and wet prevail. The product promises:


As remedy against trench foot (and trench feet), and frostbite we can likewise find other new products such as trench waders, in other locutions which are equally embedded in the historical moment (and absent from the formal lexicographical record). The ailments of the Western Front would, in this as in other respects, clearly present further opportunities for commodification and language alike.

Anderson’s POCKET TRENCH WADERS ARE REALLY WATERPROOF Stockings, fitting completely over the socks –inside the boots – at bottom, and fastening to wait buttons at top. Being absolutely Waterproof, they afford adequate protection against the terrors of cold and damp and …. frostbite




“Archibald, Certainly Not!”: Words and Weapons no.4

A British "Archie" in action
Ein britisches Flugabwehrgeschütz in Aktion, 1917. A British “Archie” anti aircraft gun in action, 1917.

George Robey’s rendition of the music-hall song ‘Archibald, Certainly Not’ perhaps provides  an unlikely accompaniment to the First World War. It deals with the comic archetypes of domestic – and specifically marital – strife. The unfortunate Archibald is subject to continual reproof and correction from the moment he ties the knot. Denied a honeymoon, the opportunity to play cricket, or a piece of roast chicken, Archibald’s endeavours are, in each case, firmly curtailed by the refrain ‘Archibald, certainly not’. Even outside the domestic sphere, Archibald is apparently doomed to identical processes of castigation and control:

I once strolled through a field, and there a mad bull came across.
It gamboll’d with me playfully and quickly won the toss!
Of course I sued the owner, and the day the case was fought,
The judge exclaimed when I said, “Sir, let’s have the bull in court!”

“Archibald, certainly not!
Just show what other evidence you’ve got!”
But he cried when I said, “Please forgo it…
Because I must stand up to show it.
“Archibald-certainly not”

The recurrent patterning by which Archibald’s every endeavour is rebutted and repulsed, was, however, to effect an interesting transfer into the diction of the war. As an article in the Evening News in January 1915 indicates, it was by this point seen as yet another component in the lexical ingenuity of war-time English. While the article draws attention in general terms to ‘the ingenuity of the British soldier in inventing picturesque names for the various engines of destruction brought to bear against him’, Archibald  features as an item of specific interest. It designates ‘for some unknown reason’ the  ‘anti-aircraft gun’, the writer explains.  As in so many other cases, the language of Front and Home Front had apparently diverged. Here, a proper name had inexplicably been used to ‘christen’  an inanimate object. Both, admittedly, began with the same letter but at least in this article the transfer is seen as entirely opaque.

Across the Words in War-Time archive, however, the prevalence of this usage is clear. As a further quotation from December 1914 confirms, for instance, attributions of this kind were already part of common parlance at the Front. ‘High-angle guns firing shrapnel’ are ‘commonly known as “Archibalds”’, the Daily Express explains for the benefit of its own readers. Used with reference to the enemy, Archibald offered a ready personification of agency and attack: Continue reading

Women, words, and war — the art of dressing with military flare in WW1.

military curveAn advertisement for corsets isn’t perhaps the most obvious place to find information on language change in a time of war. Nevertheless, in the Words in War-Time archive, history and history principles were regularly – and consciously – applied both to ephemera as well as a wide range of non-canonical sources. Source-selection – and historical evidence – could avoid the overly literary or poetical, focussing instead on resources which, even if closely embedded in the everyday, might, as Andrew Clark recognised in making these collections in 1914-19, all too easily be lost to ‘oblivion’ – with consequences for historians and historians alike.

Corsets, then, offer an intriguing reading of gender, history, and war. Clark, as earlier posts on this site have explored, regularly assembled evidence on the changing dynamics of fashion – and fashionable accessories – as indices of war and its varied manifestation on the Home Front. Colour (the popularity in 1915 of what was termed Joffre blue) or form (the modish appearance of the casquette, based on the patterns of French uniform) could easily align female clothing and the discourse of war, rendering military a term which was not only resonant of strategy and the intricacies of tactical engagement but of style. While the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – still in progress when war broke out – defined military in exclusively male terms (‘Pertaining to soldiers; used, performed, or brought about by soldiers’; ‘befitting a soldier’), the military as illustrated in the Words in War-Time archive is therefore often far more wide-ranging. As Clark notes, for example, the OED’s entry was distinctly behind the times in this respect. Instead military was, as he confirmed, regularly used as ‘a persuasive in dressmaking & millinery’. Headlines such as military millinery (which appeared in the Daily Express in January 1915) was a case in point. The article announced the ways in which ‘The war has made itself felt in the millinery world in no small degree’ such that ‘the favourite hat for the spring is of a military type’. As it continued:

The military hat is especially suitable for morning wear, although its smartness makes it equally adaptable for dress occasions. A couple of rosettes are often rakishly poised at opposite ends of these close-fitting hats. One of the most notable of the military shapes is a striking reproduction of a field-marshal’s hat. It is carried out in soft pedal straw with the brim and crown faced with finest panne velvet, and is styled “Le General French”.

The military curve which appears in the advertisement above (as well as elsewhere in the archive) – in which military  functions  as a property of distinctly female underwear – offers further corroboration of this wider use.

As a collocation, military curve  is, of course, interesting in its own right – the concept of a military curve remains, for example, unrecorded, and undefined, in the modern OED. Its real value, however, can be located in the wider significance it could accrue in contemporary forms of discourse between 1914-18. Continue reading

“Trench fever”: health, sickness, and the art of having a lousy war

sick bay
‘The Sick Bay’. Copyright- Imperial War Musueum.

‘The general health of the troops on war service’ is ‘actually better at this moment than it is at home’, the Scotsman announced in March 1915. ‘Modern Medical Science. Mitigating Disease in warfare’ appeared as the celebratory heading of a further article the following month. Even in July 1915, the same tone of congratulation was apparent; if some 6500 British soldiers had, by that point, been killed on Turkish soil alone, nevertheless, as readers were informed, ‘not even a microscopical portion of the fatalities is traceable to any weakness in the condition of our men’. ‘Our army’s extraordinary good health’ and ‘wondrous immunity from disease’ were soundly commended. ‘Never have soldiers entered upon a campaign in better physical fettle’, the Scotsman proclaimed.  In contrast to the Boer War, when typhoid had ‘killed a far greater number of our men than did the enemy’, here, too, the conditions of an eminently modern war had come to prevail:

it is safe to say that had a war of the magnitude of the present struggle, and conducted like it under siege conditions, entailing great hardships, prolonged exposure to the most inclement weather, and the billeting of large numbers of men in insanitary quarters for many months together, been undertaken by the British nation a few years ago, it would have been accompanied by an outbreak of disease which would have decimated our forces

By no means restricted to the Scotsman, articles of this kind appear across the spring and summer of 1915 in a wide-ranging and robust discourse of health.

For modern readers, this evocation of good fortune amidst the realities (and casualties) of WWI can appear somewhat anomalous.  It was resonant, too, of a certain proleptic irony.  Headlines in August 1915, for example, foreground another new locution – and a previously unknown condition in which ‘physical fettle’ was noticeably lacking while the ‘wondrous immunity from disease’ had apparently disappeared.  ‘Mysterious Disease like Influenza’, the Daily Express instead announced on 18th August, describing a rather different facet of life at the front. This was trench fever, an illness which, as its name confirmed, would come to be seen as yet another distinctive aspect of trench warfare.  Continue reading

“If the caps fits…”. From hats to helmets in Autumn 1915.

if the cap fits
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5156);

‘If the Cap Fits You‘ appeared as the text of a poster issued by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915. Like many advertisements both then and now, it played with a carefully calibrated set of meanings. On one level, the familiar idiom of ‘if the cap fits, wear it’ raises questions of identity and individual affirmation. On another, this idiom was targeted via a specific type of cap and the diction of direct address. As the image confirms, the metaphorical ‘cap’ is now to be seen in terms of the khaki service cap, while the obligation to ‘wear it’ is re-interpreted via the action of ‘joining- up’, and the identity politics of active service.

In terms of language, this can, in fact, raise other interesting issues. In 1914-15, the cap, as here, formed the prototypical image of the British soldier, functioning not only as an item of uniform but able to emblematise wider issues of national and ideological identity. Helmets, in contrast, operated in a similar way for the enemy.  While helmet in the sense ‘a defensive cover for the head’, which is either made with, or strengthened with, metal,  had long existed in English, usage from early in the war confirms a careful divide in this respect, As in the extract below (taken from the Scotsman in September 1914), helmet operates as a form of semantic shorthand or ethnonym (‘a proper name by which a people or ethnic group is known’). In what becomes a pervasive pattern of writing the enemy, helmet connotes not merely an item of clothing, but the enemy per se.

German troops have apparently been interspersed with the Austrian soldiers in the entrenchments for the purpose of raising the moral of the latter. What this moral is worth is apparent from a report received from a correspondent on the frontier, stating that after the Russian attacks on the “bluecloaks” – namely, the Austrians – took to flight, while the “helmets” i.e., the Prussians, were prepared to die to the last man, and perished accordingly.

The German helmet, referring to the spiked leather and metal pickelhaube was to be a distinct, and distinctive, marker. In other words, To appropriate the  diction of the recruiting poster, in this light, If the cap fits, one is British. if the helmet fits, one is not.

This does not, of course, mean that helmets were not used at all by the British troops — but rather that, until the autumn of 1915, core meanings and contexts of use were somewhat different. A demand for helmets was, for example, common from the early weeks of war. “You ask me if I want anything’, states a letter in the archive (reprinted in the Scotsman in December 1914). As the writer elaborated, the answer was a definite ‘Yes’: Continue reading

Banned words: ‘No-Treating’ and the language of war-time prohibition

Copyright. Imperial war Museum, 1916.

‘Crime of asking “What’s yours?”. “No treating” rule for London’ states an arresting headline in the Daily Express of 20th September 1915. The article centred on what had become a highly topical issue across the summer of 1915, as well as on its linguistic consequences. Images of prohibition framed words and deed alike, while ‘treating’, and the associations of pleasure and generosity which this suggests, gained a new and highly prominent antonym.

By 1915, treats of various kinds arguably offered a sense of respite from the widening conditions of war-time austerity. Treating and no-treating had nevertheless assumed highly specialised – and negative — meanings as usage in September 1915 makes plain. Here, too, language in the Words in War-Time archive neatly demonstrates the process of change.

Treat, as noun and verb, had, for instance, been comprehensively defined in June 1914 in an entry published in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. To treat, it had explained, was ‘To entertain, esp. with food and drink’; it was to show hospitality to; to regale, feast, esp. at one’s own expense, by way of kindness or compliment’. If negative meanings were possible, these were highly restricted, being limited to treating for the purposes of ‘bribery, as at an election’. Relevant senses in the entry for treating itself were closely similar. As under sense 5, treating was ‘Regaling, feasting, entertaining; spec. the action of providing a person (wholly or partly at one’s own expense) with food or drink at a parliamentary or other election in order to obtain (or in return for) his vote; bribery or corruption by feasting (illegal in Great Britain since 1854 by 17 & 18 Vict. c. 102, §4)’.

The OED’s male pronoun (‘his vote’) as used within this entry deftly reveals other aspects of language and history which would also come to change by 1918. The language of treating, however, moved rather more quickly, narrowing in popular reference across 1915 to a set of negative meanings in which provision referred exclusively to alcohol, and generosity was firmly proscribed. Continue reading