The bombshells of WW1: women, words, and weapons

black maria
‘Plug Street’ (Ploegsteert) Village : An Unusual Compliment To One Of Our Airmen: A ‘Black Maria’ To Himself – Copyright: Imperial War Museums.

The naming of weapons runs through literature as a commonplace of heroism and of war. Arthur wields Excalibur while Beowulf uses the sword Hrunting against Grendel, and gains Naegling from  his lord Hygelac. J. R. R. Tolkien, Professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford from 1925, and a soldier in WW1 form 1915, appropriated this literary heritage in the Lord of the Rings, creating a range of expressive names and epithets within his text; modern fantasy fiction (and its online forms) has likewise taken over this convention with marked enthusiasm. That soldiers in WW1 should also refer to weapons by names or descriptive epithets can, in a number of ways, be placed in this same tradition. As earlier posts have explored, a range of identities – from Jack Johnsons, woolly bears, to coalboxes — can be mapped on to types of shell, drawing on a range of visual and other metaphors.
Even here, however, certain differences are plain. In Beowulf and the Hobbit alike, weapon names are strongly individualised; weapon and name are passed down within heroic culture, part of a process of collective memory and understanding. Names evoke respect and reverence, while descriptive attributes are positive, drawing attention to lineage, prowess, strength, and/or aesthetic qualities. Though there are exceptions, the creative appellations of WW1 are, in contrast, applied most memorably not to personal possessions but to the array of devices that the enemy deploys. The expressive potential of names is, by the same token, subversively redirected; German bombs, as we have seen, can be made to evoke the clouds of dusts emitted by coal boxes in domestic settings, or, as for Jack Johnsons, can draw on telling images of the ‘other’ which delegitimise in different ways. As the Words in Wartime archive often explores, the tone is that of irreverence, and lack of respect.

the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell foiled with high explosive, which detonate with terrific violence, and form craters large enough to act as graves for five horses. The German howitzer shells are 8 to 9 inches in calibre, and on impact they send up columns of greasy black smoke. On account of this they are irreverently dubbed “coal boxes”, “Black Marias,” or “Jack Johnsons” by the soldiers. Men who take things in this spirit are, it seems, likely to throw out the calculations based on loss of moral so carefully framed by the German military philosophers.

This post, however, will examine another strand within this pattern of naming and renaming – one by which female names can be appropriated, and women rendered quite literal bombshells. As in the extract above, for example, Jack Johnsons are accompanied by Black Marias (the terms are, in reality, synonyms, if aligned with different gender identities) while, in other patterns of evidence in the Words in War-Time archive, we can encounter Big Berthas, Sloppy Kates, or – in the Dardanelles in the spring and summer of 1915 – the questionable charms of Asiatic Alice or Asiatic Annie. Minnie as a sobriquet of the German minenwerfer offers another comparable form. Continue reading

WW1 and the language of place: from Louvain to the Dardanelles

Men of the Lancashire Fusilier Brigade, 29th Division, before disembarking at W. And V. Beaches. May 5th-6th, 1915. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.

War can, all too easily, throw maps into disarray, relocating boundaries and reassigning territory whether lost or gained. Language too, as earlier posts have explored, can present other challenges for cartography. Name and renaming can take place, both formally and informally, in the light of on-going events. In WW1, newly adopted place names such as Petrograd can, for instance, eradicate what seemed unduly Germanic connotations in the earlier St Petersburg. ‘Foreign fields’, to misquote Rupert Brooke, could, in other ways, become — if not “for ever England” — then at least a temporary place of habitation, signalled by ironic appellations such as “Hyde Park Corner” or “Buckingham-palace Road”. Trenchland, a term used in the Daily Express in May 1915, could, as the Words in Wartime archive confirms, require a highly creative A-Z.

Names could, however, be used with even more freedom. Louvain, for example, was early appropriated into allied propaganda as a symbol of German depredation, and the associated conflicts of culture and kultur. If Louvain continued to designate a particular place on the map, this was now located in occupied Belgium as well as reduced in size; almost 12% had been destroyed, including the eighteenth-century university library, together with the books, manuscripts, and incunabula it had contained. As both place and name, Louvain, for the duration of the war, was freighted with meanings which deliberately evoked German barbarism and violation. To germanise, as the Daily Express noted in 1914, had, in this respect, gained “a new definition for the dictionaries of the future” –that is “to burn, destroy, raze to the ground, wipe out, reduce to a shapeless mass of unrecognisable rubbish; see also Louvain, Namur, Rheims, Arras, etc”.

Louvain could, by extension – and with equally negative intent – also be used as a verb in its own right. As in the heading “Louvaining in Galicia” which appeared in the Daily Express in December 1914, this was restricted to German activity. As the associated article added:

two German corps which are subjected to severe pressure by the Russian forces are wandering about in all directions, trying to effect communication with the main army, Louvainingand looting on their way’.

“To Louvain”, as here, is to ransack and pillage, amplifying the widespread imaging of piracy which also attended popular constructions of German identity at this time.


Proper names of this kind, as well as their idiosyncratic extensions, are typically excluded from formal lexicography though, as the Words in War-Time archive illustrates, such forms can be very useful in exploring the localised meanings of both place and time. Scarborough, for example, assumed similar transformative senses in early propagandist use. The injunction to ‘Remember Scarborough’ in early 1915 was, for instance, not intended to evoke memories of a small British sea-side town and its suitability as a holiday destination (as it might perhaps today). Instead, as associated iconography confirmed, Scarborough (attacked in December 1914), drew on a sense of threatened civilian innocence and human vulnerability as set against German ‘frightfulness’ in bombing areas remote from any battlefield. The ‘meaning’ of Scarborough was highly topical, drawing – as feminine pronouns also stressed – to tropes of gender and violation which ‘the rape of Belgium’ had already made familiar. “As a reminder of the nature of the enemy with which the nation has to deal, stricken Scarborough directs the attention of the world to her shrapnel-splashed streets and walls” and “shattered roofs and gables, the twisted iron beams, the wrecked interiors, and the list of the dead’, as the Scotsman explained in December 1914.

What the Dardanelles was to ‘mean’ would, by the spring and summer of 1915, offer other possibilities in terms of the linguistic geographies of place. Continue reading