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

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

zeppelins 1916
Awaiting Zeppelins. Sandringham, 1915.

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2493) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/13527




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

Zeppelinphobia !

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

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

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

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

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

The lights are going out all over London


darkness crop 2
Image shows searchlights over a darkened London. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

In modern English, the institution of the black-out remains of one of the well-known practices of World War Two, attested in the Oxford English Dictionary in quotations such as ‘I slept right through the ‘black-out’ on August 10th’ (taken from the Architectural Review in 1939), or, still earlier, as used in the Lancet in 1935 which reported that there were ‘Compulsory ‘black-outs’ in districts where experiments were being carried out against air attacks’. Nevertheless, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, the black-out had its own antecedent forms in World War One where, as earlier posts have explored, ‘war in the air’ was seen as bringing new dangers not just to those at the Front but also to the civilian population at home.

Sir Edward Grey’s famous comment, at the outbreak of war on 3rd August 1914 that ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe’ could, in this respect, take on an unprecedented literalism. Here, too, other productive intersections of language and contemporary history emerge. Grey’s words easily prompted a metaphorical currency by which the trope of WAR IS A FLAME often appeared — hence war is something that might flicker out in the Scotsman on 7th September 1914 (‘The employment of field artillery will be another of those matters in which we shall want enlightenment as the war goes on or flickers out’) or, conversely, might flare up (the Balkan States are on the ‘verge of a flare-up’, it noted three days earlier). Nevertheless, as teh words in war-time project reveals,  the diction of light – and its absence – could also figure in far more practical ways in the autumn of 1914.

Clark’s notebooks, with their close tracking of change in progress, can be particularly interesting in this respect. As his entries confirm, it is in fact  the desirability of the lights going out — at least in London — which early appears as a matter of marked concern. The language – and reality – of aerial attack again assumes prominence:

‘aerial observations have shown the glare of unshaded shop lights to be potentially dangerous by facilitating aerial attack’,

as an article in the Scotsman records in October 1914. As Clark notes, the profession of ‘illuminating engineer’ – used in the Daily Telegraph and the Scotsman in October 1914, and unrecorded in the OED of Clark’s day, also assumed a new salience. ‘Illuminating engineers are finding much food for thought in the present state of partial lighting of London at night’, the Scotsman stressed on 13th October 1914. If the black-out of later years reflected the complete absence of light, the diction of partial lighting and the policy of ‘semi-darkness’ and ‘light restriction’ – other forms which Clark records as absent in the OED as it then existed – can therefore widely evoke the ways in which language and historical response change in tandem given the perceived threat of attack in a new and modern war:

‘The conditions of semi-darkness’ have been ‘wisely enforced by the authorities with the aim of thwarting any night attack by air on the Metropolis’ (Scotsman, October 13th 1914).

The new language of  ‘Light restriction’ as a precaution again attack is,documented on 23rd September in the Scotsman, though the fact that this was used to illustrate other aspects of the German ‘lie bureau’ at work is made equally plain: ‘Londoners will doubtless be interested to hear that, according to the Neue Frei Presse, the restriction for their electric light is attributable to a lack of electric carbons’.The consequences of what came to be known as the “lights-out order” were evocatively described in an earlier article in the Daily Express on September 11th, offering other locutions which Clark seized for his record of words.

 ‘The cause of the curfew gloom was a notice from the Commissioner of Police asking that bright lights should as far as possible be dimmed’.

As the article noted, the lamps had indeed gone out: ‘London was darker last night than it has ever been since electric light became popular’. As an article in the Evening News likewise commented on 28th September 1914, the capital became ‘more like a provincial city every week’. As part of the  enforcement of ‘semi-darkness’, London moved, gradually, from the brightness of arc lights through the use of glow lamps (which Clark noted from the Daily Express on 11th Sept 1914), and into a deepening ‘gloom’ as winter advanced, and regulations were enforced with greater stringency.