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

sick bay
‘The Sick Bay’. Copyright- Imperial War Musueum. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/16862

‘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

Khaki in WW1 – much more than the sum of its colours

For James Murray, editing the entry for khaki in the relevant section of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1901, the word was marked by its ‘exotic’ and non-naturalised status. Its form is, he states, ‘non-English’ while its initial consonant combination presented undeniable testimony of its colonial origins. As Murray further explained in the Preface to Volume V of the Dictionary:

In those pages of K which contain the non-English initial combinations Ka-, Kh-, Kl-, Ko-, Ku-, Ky-, these exotic words may be thought to superabound; yet it would have been easy to double their number, if every such word occurring in English books, or current in the English of colonies and dependencies, had been admitted; our constant effort has been to keep down, rather than to exaggerate, this part of ’the white man’s burden’.

PARLIAMENTARY RECRUITING COMMITTEE, LONDON.-POSTER No. 65. PRINTED BY JAS. TRUSCOTT AND SON LTD., SUFFOLK LANE, LONDON © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5153) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/28443#sthash.ESLvxJZF.dpuf

Murray’s comments can, in this, serve to reveal still other facets of the on-going discourse of history and the history of words (even within the OED). Nevertheless, khaki — with its heritage in Urdū khākī ‘dusty’, f. khāk ‘dust’ — was one of the words which was admitted into the Dictionary without question, being further picked out, in Murray’s prefatory ‘Note’ to the fascicle Kaiser-Kyx, as an ‘interesting word of foreign origin’ –even if, like similar forms, it is judged an ‘alien’ or temporary ‘denizen’ in ‘our language’. In the Dictionary itself, the entry is prefaced by the ‘tramlines’ used throughout the first edition to mark out words where naturalisation is in doubt. Khaki variously appears in supporting evidence within the entry as khakee, Karkee, Kharkie, or khâkee . Use in English is traced back to 1857 and ends in 1900, a point by which, as Murray notes, khaki, originally used for British Indian recruits in the mid-19thC, was, as in the Second Boer War, ‘a fabric … now largely employed in the British army for field-uniforms’.

By the summer of 1915, the status of khaki in ‘our language’ was, however, open to some reassessment. As the Words in War-Time archive explores, its form had stabilised while its wide-ranging familiarization (across a range of meanings and registers) was undoubted. ‘Exotic’ in origin it might be but khaki had, by July 1915, become the prime image of active service, used in recruiting posters and campaigns, in advertising (for a surprising variety of products), as well as in news discourse and popular comment in ways which permeated Home Front as well as military use. Khaki can be noun, verb, and adjective, making its way into a diverse array of compound forms. It can, as this post will explore, also assume telling figurative and metaphorical uses, alongside its role in specifying quite literal aspects of the material culture of war. Continue reading

Life-savers. Language and self-protection in early WWI.

Looking back at the events which had unfolded across Europe in recent months, the Scotsman drew attention in January 1915 to the ‘ingenuity’ which had been manifest in ‘man’s power over nature’ and the diverse ‘mechanisms of war’. Science, the Scotsman stressed, had led to a range of ‘new features’. Seen from the point of view of the Words in War-Time archive (in which this extract was included), such innovation was two-fold, demanding not only ‘ingenuity’ but a system of nomenclature by which inventions might be both recognised and claimed. Language and the material culture of war were densely interlinked.

As previous posts have explored, weapons and weaponry attracted a particularly creative set of naming practices (even if these often departed from the formal designations which their creators might have preferred). There was, however, a corresponding diction of protection and defence, of safety and the means by which lives might be saved. Life-saver itself, as Andrew Clark noted, was, for instance, yet another absence from the Oxford English Dictionary as it then existed. The same was true of life-saving. Both forms were nevertheless conspicuous during the war-years, especially in advertisements which deftly played on the emotions, and fears, of those who – for whaever reason — remained on the Home Front. The ‘BAYNES-PARKER PERISCOPE’ was a ‘Life-Saver’, an advertisement in the Daily Express proclaimed, for example, on Wednesday 14th April 1915. As it added, ‘4 /- will probably save your friend or relative’s life’. Continue reading

Branded words: On not being German

Advertising, and the constructed nature of brand-names, was a topic to which Clark frequently returned in documenting ‘Words in War-Time’.  Even before war broke out, Clark had started to collect relevant examples, arguing that – for the linguistic and historian alike – these could be seen as a rich (and often neglected) resource of information about the embedding of language in culture and society. If the Oxford English Dictionary maintained a steadfast opposition to evidence of this kind (disallowing proper names as part of the legitimate territory of lexicography and the history of words), Clark again deliberately moved in a different direction. The notebooks gave him useful autonomy to explore language and meaning, and its responsiveness to on-going history, as he wished.

As previous posts have explored, the specific circumstances of war often rendered language a highly effective means by which patriotism or other issues of national allegiance could be claimed – or rejected. Consideration of form and, in particular, of word-forms which – rightly or wrongly – connoted German identity, could attract particular attention in this respect. The popular press, for example, repeatedly appropriated German patterns of spelling, placing German kultur against English culture in ways which intentionally rendered the former a by-word for savagery and barbarity. If kultur and culture derive from the same root, being, in reality, shared and cognate forms,** they could nevertheless be rendered antonyms in popular discourse — see e.g. the heading ‘More “Kultur”’, which in the Daily Express on 21 September 1914, accompanying an article (and an all too telling image) about the devastation of Rheims Cathedral.

The currency of other lexemes such as Teutonised – or non-Teutonic – both of which Clark records in his notebooks from September 1914 – easily reveals the identity politics at stake. Being Teutonised (a form still unrecorded in the OED) was, as another article in the Daily Express confirmed, seen as highly negative – suggesteing unwarranted alignment with the enemy in ways which are firmly delegitimised. Being, or being seen as, germanophile (here in another form which gained newly negative connotations — Clark records its use from September 11 1914) was, in similar ways, by no means seen as desirable.

An extensive anti-German lexis could, in such ways, became another aspect of the war of words. Notions of being pro-German, or Hun-like (both of which Clark also documents from September 1914) would all be used to mobilise highly negative feeling. The Hunite – recorded in the Daily Express on 19th September (and absent, then and now, from the Oxford English Dictionary) –  emerges, for example, as a highly effective way of labelling, and stigmatizing, the presence of unwarranted German sympathies, not least as indicated by a less than whole-hearted supported for the war effort or, still worse, by qualms about war per se. ‘Chiding the Hunites’, the heading of the article states. As the OED records, the suffix –ite was far from neutral: forms in which –ite appear, it states, ‘have a tendency to be depreciatory, being mostly given by opponents, and seldom acknowledged by those to whom they are applied’. To use language reflective of what the Express termed ‘odious Germanic taint’ could be seen as highly problematic – prompting, as we have seen, a range of acts of renaming and redefinition.

One of Clark’s particularly interesting examples in this context was the advertising campaign taken out in the autumn of 1914 by Krieger, the brand name of what was given as ‘the electric carriage syndicate’. Here, as the company realised, form and meaning could intersect in newly problematic ways. Krieger was, in some ways, ahead of its time – its electric vehicles offer early prototypes of a technology being explored and extended today. Clark noted the collocation electric carriage (also absent from the OED) as a combination of marked interest; if ‘carriages’ looked back to the past, ‘electric’ offered a new sense of modernity (as well as extending early designations of the car as ‘horseless carriage’). Nevertheless, as war began, the suspicion that, for Krieger, its name (and hence its products)—might also be seen as overly ‘Teutonised’ (and, indeed, ‘Germanophile’) was a source of self-evident concern. Krieg, as the German word for ‘war’, seemed less than ideal as a defining element in the name by which the product was popularly known, not least given the prevalence of similar Germanic forms – such as kriegspiel or kriegsmetall — in other contemporary (and highly negative) news accounts.

For Krieger, a range of advertisements therefore swiftly appeared, proclaiming British national identity and unimpeachable patriotic credentials.

‘The above company has been, from its formation in April 1903, a British Company’,

as readers were, for example, reminded. More to the point, perception of its association with German krieg is depicted as misguided in the extreme. Visual similarity was, it stressed, a false friend indeed; only in error, we are informed, could the brand names be read as krieg plus er, with its disturbing associations of militarism and aggression. Form — in both speech and writing – is strategically repositioned, while recent history clearly demanded a set of history lessons of its own. In the advertising which appears in autumn 1914, the name loses its hard Germanic /g/ and gains a small but suggestive é acute.

Etymology, in turn, is made to validate not the all too negative German krieg but instead an identity in French by which Krieger derives not form Krieg plus er, but from a ‘Monsieur Kriéger’, a Frenchman, resident in Paris, where

‘the original Kriéger Company was formed, and from whom the London Krieger company purchased its patents’.

Form was renegotiated once more – Kriéger, once French, had become British by losing its distinctive é, as well as gaining a different pronunciation. Commercial and linguistic assimilation had worked together. With the advent of war, the accent was, however, to be put on success in quite literal ways. Advertising campaigns carefully stress the allegiance which the small but significant é confirms. Krieger was carefully distanced while Kriéger could, as potential purchasers were reassured, be bought without qualms. French diacritics could get a new lease of life in English. Language, yet again, could be used with tactical intent — here, in what one might nevertheless see, as a strategic exercise in damange limitation.***


**Culture derives, as OED confirms, from Latin cultūra, and was borrowed into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French after the Normal Conquest. Originally used to refer to literal cultivation of the land, German ideas of culture (signifying the ideas, customs, etc. of a society or group) became prominent in English after the eighteenth century. See culture (n.), OED Online.

*** Modern parallels can be found in the suddenly negative connotations of ‘Isis’ as a company name, as reported in the press in November 2014. This, too, can prompt issues of identity and subsequent rebranding.