Shattering the nerves: sound effects in WWI

Nerves – and the importance, as well as difficulty, of keeping one’s nerve — was a recurrent image which runs through reports of war in the autumn of 1914. To have nerve was to be commended; the word had been used figuratively in denoting bravery, vigour, and force since the Renaissance. The specific sense ‘coolness in adversity or danger; boldness; courage, assurance’ is documented from 1809 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet, by the eighteenth century, nerve could also point in other, diametrically opposed, directions. Used in the plural, nerves suggested not valour but nervousness, a heightened sensitivity to events which by no means augured well in a time of war. Nerve and nerviness could, as a result, work in mutually exclusive ways. If nerviness is documented only from 1916 in OED Online (being attested in Vera Brittain’s letters),** the reality of language practice in WWI, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, was very different. Already in August 1914 readers of the Daily Express were reassured about the calm fortitude of the British Expeditionary Force. ‘No ‘nerviness’’, the headline on 27th August proclaimed, in a sense which the following article also elaborated:

There is no trace of that “nerviness” so noticeable among the recruities of the early days of South Africa.

Such certainties could, however, be called into question as war advanced. That modern warfare was an attack on the nerves –as much as the body — was often made plain. Long before the term shell-shock come into use, journalists – and soldiers –repeatedly drew attention to the debilitating effects of the sheer noise of battle, by which nerves could be racked and shattered, and in which an ‘attack of nerves’ might overpower even the strongest men. As Clark notes, for example, idioms in which the nerves were shattered attained marked familiarity across the autumn of 1914 and into 1915. If shatter the nerves remained (and remains) absent from the OED (the relevant section of the Dictionary was completed in March 1914), Clark again provides carefully documented evidence –tracking a responsiveness of words to war, and the unprecedented contexts it brought into being:

The effect on the nerves is terrible, and I suppose it intended to shatter the nerves of our men. Only the strongest can stand it for long, and most of us found it best to stuff our ears with cotton wool or tear up out handkerchiefs

as a first-hand account in the Daily Express of 2nd September 1914 proclaimed. ‘Noise seems to count for a lot with the Germans’, another report (in the same newspaper) laconically observed on 19th September 1914.

A similar observation appeared in the Evening News on September 2nd:

It’s the quantity, not the quality of the German shells that is heaving effect on us, and it’s not so much the actual damage to life as the nerve-racking row that counts for so much.

The noise of battle – and the extent of mechanised warfare across a front which, even in early September, stretched, for instance, from the Vosges to Peronne (as the Scotsman  reported), was unparalleled. Shells and shrapnel repeatedly scream and screech across the skies (in a range  of new collocations of English), testing the nerves as well as bringing danger in other forms: ‘The scream of shrapnel did not daunt us and, yelling and shouting, we became frantic and so did our horses. The rifle fire was soon silenced, as we must have ridden down the German infantry and cut them to pieces’, as an article in the Evening News stated on 29th September 1914. ‘The shells screeched hour after hour’, the Scotsman notes on 17 September 1914. The men were faced by a ‘terrestrial thunderstorm’, as the Evening News commented on 19th September 1914, attempting to suggest somehwar of what modern battle was like.

Trying to convey the reality of war on these terms was challenging, requiring other distinctive forms of ‘word-imagery’ and ‘word-pictures’ to make their way into use. As Clark notes, a strikingly expressive vocabulary can appear. This, too, often remains absent from the OED:

As soon as the French infantry deploy their ranks and appear in the open they are met with showers of shrapnel, which also is not as deadly as it looks from a distance. Then follows the hurried “tat-tat-tat” of machine-guns from the woods and spinneys, and then the long rattle of musketry from the trenches along the ridges

as a lengthy and descriptive article in the Scotsman stated on 28 September 1914. This confirmed, too, a new (and newly familiarised) sense of shrapnel, by which it came to be understood as ‘fragments from shells or bomb’s, rather than explosive shells per se). Shrapnel was documented in the OED in this sense from October 1914 (in a section revised in June 2014). Here, too, Clark’s evidence antedates the formal record of English and its history.

News discourse, as Clark notes, could strive for a marked sense of the onomatopoeic in this respect.

The rattle of the machine guns supplemented the noise of the naval guns. Then the field artillery added to the chorus. But all this noise could not drown the irregular rat-tat-tat of the infantry’ [ ‘British Squadron off the Belgian Coast: Shelling the Germans’, Scotsman 21 October 1914].

Likewise, the Daily Express on September 2nd draws attention to the ‘r-r-r-r-r–h of the Maxims’, while ‘the peculiar zh-zh-zh-zh of the shrapnel’ featured in the Daily Express on 14th September 1914. ‘You could hear the mitrailleuse ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta’, wrote a journalist in the Daily Express on October 17th 1914, describing an ‘air-duel’; similar was the click-click-wh-wh-wh -of the murderous machine’, here in attempts to evoke the flight of an ‘aerial pirate’ over Paris in the Evening News on 3rd September 1914.

Modern war-reporting can, of course, use not only print and the form of the written word, but also sound itself. In broadcast news, we can be offered an experiential directness – the war-reporter not only speaks directly, but the sounds of war can provide an all too evocative backdrop to events. Writing war in 1914 was very different; the BBC – and national radio — would not, for example, be formed until after the war. If we have war reports (and sound recording) for WWII, it was print which dominated in WW1. News reporting can, as a result, often engage with a determined attempt to covey the sounds and texture of war in ways which are highly distinctive. As a later post on this site will explore, however, other media were already starting to emerge. ‘The Cinemagraph is going to be a damning witness against the Germans in this war. The Kinemacolour pictures … reveal to those who cannot see it with their own eyes, the full tragedy of Louvain and the other towns destroyed by the Kaiser’s shining amour’, we are, for example, informed early in September 1914. ‘Pictures’ and ‘word-pictures’ would, in this respect, importantly come to co-exist. As Clark noted, this visual language was also absent from the OED as it then existed, offering still further scope for his documetnary ventures in the war of words.

** See nerviness OED Online (revised Sept 2003),sense 2: ‘The quality or condition of being nervous.

1916:  Vera Brittain Let. 1 Sept. in Lett. Lost Generation (2012) 248.  “To have the face of a leader of men strong almost to unscrupulousness combined with an almost entire absence of self-esteem, and an excessive reserve & nervy-ness & shyness, is certainly an incongruity”.