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

if the cap fits
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5156); http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/28446

‘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

Cigarettes and Solace: Writing the Comforts of War

‘I trust that the appeal will receive the generous support it deserves so as to ensure that our brave soldiers and sailors in hospitals and convalescent homes will not want for the solace which means so much to them’

In the Ambulance: A VAD lighting a Cigarette for a Wounded Soldier © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3051)

By 1914, smoke was, of course, a well-established noun. The relevant entry in the first edition of the OED (in a section published in 1912)  had traced usage back to Old English, Nevertheless, the only example of the sense ‘cigarette’  came from Walter Besant’s 1882 novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men.Smoke meaning ‘tobacco’, the OED further declared, was ‘now rare’ if not in fact ‘obsolete’. The most recent example was located in 1853. Yet, as the Words in War-Time archive confirms, the war years would instead bring a striking prominence to cigarettes, smoking, and smokes  as part of popular discourse. ‘Our heroes who are fighting on land & sea, seem well provided with smokes”’, another missive from a tobacco fund declared, for example, in July 1915. A similar level of charity was, as it emphasised, equally requisite at home:

But what of those in hospital…with long hours of weariness & pain before them ? They need a smoke too, more now perhaps than ever before’.

Health warnings in WW1 can hence focus attention on deprivation and need, and on necessary provision rather than on targeted injunctions to break bad habits. An appeal for ‘Smokes for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors’ from the summer of 1915 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

Seeing the invisible foe – keeping the enemy in your sights in early WWI

trench periscope
“Watching the Boche trench through a periscope”, http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu Contributor: John Warwick Brooke

In the autumn of 1914, journalists repeatedly returned to the problem of what the Daily Express termed ‘the invisible foe’. War had become, quite literally, one of entrenched positions. Yet, as journalists pointed out, they could, as a result, be faced with a task of describing a confrontation which was, paradoxically, often removed from the powers of direct observation. ‘It is part of the impressiveness of this war that there is normally nothing to be seen’, as the Daily Express commented in November 1914:

When one talks of the front, meaning the point of nearest actual contact between the opposing forces, one speaks of something which cannot be seen even by a spectator standing (if one were so rash) within fifty years of the leading trenches.

Seeing – and the various exigencies of not being seen – would, as one might expect, bring its own pressures to bear on language, Continue reading