As previous posts on this site have explored, fashion – and war – could produce some unlikely conjunctions. The fashionable flapper of 1915 might be recognised by her cartridge buttons or the silken bayonet belt she might choose to wear, perhaps in Joffre blue. The appeal of fashion in Edwardian Britain was not, however, a purely female preserve. The knut — and the conflicts he could present in terms of legitimatised forms of male identity – offers another site of change for words in war time..
When WW1 began, the knut or nut (both spellings are in use) remained undefined in the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘He has come too late for Dr. Murray’, a correspondent to the Times regretted (‘Dr. Murray’ referred to James Murray, editor-in chief of the OED). Its topicality was, however, undoubted. The most recent incarnation of a well-established pattern of male display, the knut was a descendant of the dandy and the beau, the macaroni and the toff. Favoured by young unmarried men, and -in comparison with the ‘toff’ markedly democratised (even a clerk might be ‘knut’ on his day off) — he could be recognised by his hat (floppy or silk), pastel gloves, bright socks, and indolent demeanour. In terms of langauge, the knut was the slang of the moment, as the Times commented in December 1913:
No self-respecting youth can use the slang of his uncle …. He cannot guess that his uncle, when he uses the word “toff,” remembers the time when he himself was one, just as he will remember the time when he was a “nut.”
Basil Hallam’s music-hall turn as Gilbert the Filbert, the ‘knut with a capital K’ — in the revue ‘The Passing Show’ (which opened at the Palace Theatre in April 1914)– only served to enhance the popularity – and prevalence — of the knut in pre-war days. As Hallam’s lyrics stressed, the knut was ‘the pride of Piccadilly’, engaged in nothing more arduous than ‘counting his ties’.
The declaration of war in August of that year nevertheless brought a new set of images of male identity into prominence. Recruiting posters which urged (male) addressees to ‘play the man’ did not have the knut in mind. The knut’s brightly coloured clothing symbolised an ostentatious freedom from utilitarian constraint — a form of conspicuous (and leisured) consumption in which the performance of identity was very different. Such meanings could, in themselves, swiftly seem démodé. Young men who did not volunteer were liable to be proscribed as slackers and shirkers, epithets which took on pointed associations of cowardice or the deliberate avoidance of conflict in contemporary discourse. Continue reading →
The injunction to Keep Calm and Carry on, with or without various mutations, has, in recent years, become ubiquitous. ‘One of the most recognisable slogans in British history’, as Henry Irving notes, it can, in modern English, be found inscribed on anything from mugs and cards to clothing or bags.
Its origins as slogan have been carefully located in WWII, being credited to the shadow Ministry of Information. As Simon Eliot explains, almost three million copies of a MOI poster urging the populace to ‘keep calm and carry on’ had been distributed across the British Isles by the early autumn of 1939. It was, nevertheless, to be a notably short-lived campaign. A crisis of confidence– founded in concerns that it might seem patronizing or even annoying – led to its swift demise. Originally intended to strengthen the war-time spirit, and to reassure as a new war began, the posters were – with a few exceptions – pulped in 1940.
Slogans, however, also have beginnings and “carrying on” – as a specific injunction to maintain war-time resilience, and with particular reference to qualities of fortitude on the Home Front – already had a long (if forgotten) history. Devising their poster in 1939, the shadow MOI drew, in fact, not on a blank slate of language but made use of what was already an established collocation of war-time use. Based in WW1 rather than WWII, the determination to “carry on”, had already featured prominently in a wide range of private and public discourses.
As war began in August 1914, uses of carry (and carry on) were, as we might expect, plentiful. Carry on had already been given three senses by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755; the recent entry in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (in a section published in 1888) had expanded this to five. Discussion of the need to carry on the war, to carry on work, or to carry on the fight or struggle are easily found. Carrying on is made a serious business often collocating with words of industry and labour. As in the example below, uses of this kind required a direct or indirect object.
‘many, too, must stay at home to carry on the daily business of life, to provide the means of feeding and paying the Navy and the Army, and even to manufacture the necessary instruments of warfare’ (The Times December 5th 1914)
Particularly prominent, however, are uses of carry on as it came to be used in another early motif of WW1 – here in the expressed determination to carry onbusiness as usual, an idiomatic expression often credited to Winston Churchill though it was, in fact, used by Lloyd George as early as August 4th.
Importantly, this construction signalled much more than a commitment to maintain the national economy, being deeply imbued with the morale-boosting resolve to maintain quintessentially British ways of life on the Home Front, irrespective of what the war might bring. Business as usual already had its own linguistic history (being in use in the 18th century). Coupled with carry on, however, it came to express a war-time mind-set, a state of ideological resistance – founded in a determination not to give in, and to continue unaffected, however bad things might become.
Are you ready and fit to tackle your everyday duties and to carry on “Business as usual”
as an advertisement for Iron Jelloids – identified as an ‘invigorating tonic – hence demanded in September 1914. Churchill, using this phrase in November 1914, was – to use a modern idiom – merely making use of a current meme. As in the Jelloids advertisement, business – and the duty to carry on is embedded in ‘everyday duties’, whatever they might be. By implication, anyone and everyone could participate in this national endeavour, and in the spirit of war-time resistence.
In England in this national crisis we [have] tried to carry on business as usual, we hoped with confidence for victory as usual, and we were determined to maintain justice as usual
As language history proves, businessas usual would, in fact, assume a life of its own, often being used without the accompanying verb. Importantly, the same is also true of carry on in war-time usage. An interesting example of this separation appears in the Times in July 1915:
No more stern test of any man’s mettle could be imagined than he should have to “carry on” when death is doubly present in the mines below the water and the shells bursting above’…Those fishermen, too, who have continued to follow their calling have found that “business as usual” has not been without its added risks.
Carrying on here links both to the role that has to be performed, but also to the appropriate mind-set of performance – the resolve, courage, dedication, which ‘business as usual’ (which here includes mine-sweeping) might require.
Be British! Carry on!
likewise appears in a 1914 advert for Napier Motor Business vehicles, in an even closer correlate for the connotative values which carrying on came to acquire. ‘The famous Acton Works … are carrying on business as usual’, as Napier went on to assure its customers:
‘whatever happens, we feel we must carry on and do what we are called upon for’
an article in the Times stated to similar effect in November 1914. In examples of this kind, carrying on exists in its own right, yet inferentially continues the sense of patriotic resolve of business as usual — not least in the expressed determination to be uncowed by circumstances, whatever these might prove to be.
While earlier uses of carry on tended to require a direct or indirect object (one carries on with something, one carries on the struggle, in which continuance of various kinds is the central issue at stake), these uses of carry on are therefore intriguingly different. Often framed by inverted commas, these usefully act as visual reminders or cues for the semantic nuances involved in carrying on in this particular sense. Individual examples thereby often move beyond a sense of simple continuity (i.e. merely carrying on in ways which correspond to previous states), but instead engage with a wider interpretative framework — based in the implied willingness to try and keep going, to shoulder the new burdens, and to make the best of things:
BEHIND THE GUNS. war has released the most terrible engines of destruction, the giant guns that have been so long preparing for The Day; yet the human element remains supreme. It is the man behind the gun who counts. And to all who “carry on” at home lies the duty of keeping fit — we are all “behind the guns.” Get the Kruschen habit, the daily discipline of half a teaspoonful of Kruschen Salts in a tumbler of hot water before breakfast ….(advertisement, Kruschen Salts, 1916)
As here, advertising could – as so often in WW1 – prove highly adept at appropriating war-time diction for its own ends. ‘We’, collectively, are encouraged to ‘carry on’, whatever this might involve – since in a nation at war, not least in one which, by 1916, involved both combatants and non-combatants as objects as attack, all are – literally or metaphorically, ‘behind the guns’. Endurance — on a range of levels — was vital.
The salience of non-combatants, and especially women in the activity of carrying on is, in this respect, often brought to the fore in contemporary discussions. An article in March 1915 in the Evening News, for instance, addressed the ‘Mobilisation of the Women’ as a striking new departure of war:
I have seen little more than the headlines in newspapers which announce “Mobilization of the Women”. I suppose it means that, at the last pinch, women must prepare to “carry on” while the men have gone to the wars in Flanders and elsewhere.
You will ask what they are doing now if they are not “carrying on.” For the children still have their breakfasts and their marching orders for school, the mysterious world of the household goes forward, the daily adventure of shopping, the daily achievement of the dinner-table. Yet the Board of Trade must require more, or it would have sent out no circular. …The Amazons are no extinct tribe.
Here, if certain domestic things still happen in the established patterns of the past (and therefore, by definition, “carry on” or continue in the older senses of the verb), what is now additionally to be carried on is of a very different order. The resolve and determination that women must now exhibit – in departing from their accustomed roles – is key, here invoking a state of patriotic engagement and a willingness ‘to do their bit’ in compensating for the loss of male labour.
A CALL TO WOMEN …”The lesson we want to teach our women,” said Miss Pott, “is that they have not done all that is necessary when they have let their men go to the war. If they would only do the odd jobs that come along — hoeing turnips, for example — they would be helping to “carry on”. (The Times, 9 March 1916)
Carrying on can mean committing – with proper patriotic resolve and endurance – to the wider life of the nation, in ways which were –for many women– unprecedented in earlier years. Again, however, it is the attitudinal response which is made most significant, over and above the ways in which this might – in individual circumstances – now be realised. More is at stake than merely carrying on the hoeing.
Carrying on could, for the duration, therefore become a way of life, offering a range of well-established precedents for ‘Keep Calm and carry on’. As in the advertisement below, here from January 1918, carrying on was made into an effective linguistic symbol of resilience. Two short words could, with striking economy, be made to evoke the war-time spirit, with its complex layers of commitment and resolve, patriotism and endurance, as well as a refusal to give in, especially on the Home Front.
Amazon was, in 1884, one of the first entries to be published in the Oxford English Dictionary. Deriving from the classical languages, it had already acquired, as the dictionary explained, a range of meanings in English. Historical reference led back to the mythical female warriors ‘alleged by Herotodus (among others) to exist in Scythia’, while later extended use had given the general sense ‘female warrior’ – even if this tended, of necessity, to exhibit largely hypothetical or figurative uses in English use. As in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, ‘play[ing] the Amazon’ implied the appropriation of a suitably intransigent demeanour, rather than the decision to bear arms against a common foe.
A further shift of meaning was located in the mid-eighteenth century. An Amazon of this kind was different again, implying, as the dictionary specified, ‘a very tall, strong, or masculine woman’. First illustrated by Samuel Johnson in an 1758 essay in the Idler which in which an amazon rides a thousand miles in less than a thousand hours, thereby winning a wager, the link to war is demonstrably severed in favour of achievements which are distinct from those which conventionally appear in canons of feminine behaviour. That these are also placed outside regulative female norms can, however, be plain.
‘To the man an Amazon never fails to be forbiddding’,
as James Fordyce warned in his Lectures to Young Women:
The amazons of war-time discourse can therefore offer some interesting changes – and continuities — in this respect. An early citation for airwoman in the Words in War-Time Archive, for example, extols the achievements of ‘the Princess Shakovsky, a well-known sportswoman, who holds a flying certificate’ and who had ‘been permitted to join General Ruzsky’s staff as a military airwoman’. Yet conflict remained, prototypically, a man’s business:
The Czar refused permission for the formation of a regiment of Amazons which three hundred society women were desirous to join.
Twentieth-century Amazons also appeared in news discourse in Britain, affirming similar impulses towards action. A lengthy article in the Scotsman in December 1914 focussed, for example, on responses received to the recent questionnaires on enlistment (and eligibility) as sent out by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. As these made plain, in circumstances where no men were available, a number of women had attempted to volunteer instead. In the Scotsman, ‘the brave and patriotic spirit in which the women of our country are facing the situation’ was duly extolled:
Some women, who, to their sorrow, have no men to send to the firing line, express the wish to go themselves – a fact which suggests the possibility of the formation of an Amazons’ Battalion. “Regret,” writes one, “we have no men in this household. Just wish you would give women a chance’
As the Scotsman added:
The same brave Amazon spirit finds forcible expression in the following offer from a lady not a hundred miles from Glasgow Cross: – “I regret we haven’t a man of any age in this house. If a strong, healthy, and willing woman of uncertain age, past the first flush of youth, would be of any use to you, I’m at your service, without money and without price.
Such offers of active service were politely refused; war, as the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee’s own posters stressed, was an exercise in ‘playing the man’ – in a diction of performance and masculinity from which women were excluded.
By 1916, the diction and framing discourse of the Amazon had nevertheless taken on a new prominence. In a Punch cartoon from early 1916, the Amazon is, for example, now seen as a recognisable type, in vigorous existence throughout the nation. Framed by other stereotypes of war-time identity, such as the slacker and the rumour-monger, the Amazon instead appears, in uniform, striding across the page. Unencumbered by the hobble skirts – or long hair — of the past, she exhibits a sense of freedom and purpose, as well as a determined engagement with the war effort. A timorous new recruit (also female) meanwhile hovers uncertainly to her right, in a distinctly underpowered version of her future self.
Amazons, in war-time discourse, would, in reality, assume a variety of forms. By 1916, a range of erstwhile male roles were, for example, being performed by women as more and more men went to the front (first as volunteers, then via the Derby Scheme, and finally via conscription). As other posts explore, these changes generated their own issues of taxonomy – if clerks were male, was a female clerk a lady clerk, a clerkess, or a girl clerk? Similarly, was a conductress or a conductorette to be preferred? Or a woman- or lady- or girl-conductor? Amazon clearly offered in some respects a useful generic – not least in signalling commitment to active war service on the Home Front (and as opposed to the prototypically domestic service of the past). Railway amazons hence populate the trains, trams, and tube as drivers and conductors rather than passengers; as in the War Budget in March 1917, the ‘Amazonian ranks’ are given as being visibly increased by new roles assumed by women in the pharmaceutical industry or as portresses. Other amazons are located on the land, in hotels, in motor work, in ambulances, or in industry. Munitionettes, too, could equally testify to the Amazonian spirit and its salience in war. As the Scotsman commented, using transparently military diction to describe life in a munitions factory:
The Amazonian column that had passed in files along the central passage of the factory had apaprently formed up in line on reaching the canteen and charged up to the barrier — a long counter held by a garrison of voluntary women workers who had for some time been preparing in expectation of the attack … On the further side, the voluntaries moved briskly about, successfully keeping out of each othere’s way, and trasferring plates of ham, poached eggs, pots of tea, toast, and other edibles appropriate to a high tea, from the cooking range to the counter.
As War Illustrated affirms, the amazon was, in such new incarnations, surely part of a ‘social revolution’ and a significant player in the forging of a ‘new England’:
Neither on this farm, nor on the farm adjoining did I see a man. Girls were doing everything, and doing it splendidly. Homeward bound, skirting the coverts, we paused at a rustic stile at the moment a shapely, gaitered leg swung over it. Another Amazon! This fresh version had a gun over her shoulder. Velveteen breeches, a loose-fitting tunic with deep side-pockets … “My head game-keeper –Miss Smithers’ cried Mr. XXX, in proud introduction.
We might compare the news journalist Michael MacDonagh writing in his diary in 1916:
Women are to be seen at work everywhere. “Men must fight and women must work.” … You see them at the wheel of motor-cars and motor-drays. You see them handling the reins of horse-drawn vehicles. They are ticket-collectors at Underground and tube stations. At hotels and offices the lift-boy has become a lift-girl. The hall-porter at some of the big hotels is an Amazon in blue or mauve coat, gold-braided peaked cap and high top-boots.
If, in the OED, the amazon is depicted as defeminised and ‘other’, the amazons of 1916 and after can present some interesting readings, in which strength and ability are positively constructed (at least in terms of their alignment with the war effort), while — as in the examples above, amazons can also be rendered subjects of the all-too-approving male gaze. As MacDonagh confesses to his diary, the hall porter amazon is ‘a gorgeous figure that fascinates me’. Yet ‘my favourite’, he adds
is the young “conductorette” on trams and buses, in her smart jacket, short skirts to the knees and leather leggings’.
Uniforms, donned as visual symbols of the public and professional identities which were assumed ‘for the duration’, could have disconcerting effects. That war-work, or being a war-worker, did not preclude attractiveness is a recurrent aspect of comment of this kind.
If the peacettesof 1915 evoke a sustained engagement with an anti-war rhetoric (being, in turn, negatively constructed in mainstream news discourse, along with their peace prattle), amazons can therefore appear as their antithesis. They are situated, too, in positive contradistinction to female versions of the slacker and shirker whose abilities are wasted, and whose contributions to the war effort selfishly remain unmade. As in the campaigns for ‘Women’s Right to Serve’ in 1915, which stressed women’s suitability for war service of various kinds, war-time amazons are therefore often framed in diction which suggest their status as metaphorical soldiers, mobilised for the war effort, and who, as volunteers (rather than conscripts) also willingly respond to the nation’s call. An ideological commitment to war is translated into war service in a range of legitimised forms. Altruistic amazons of this kind offer their own forms of self-sacrifice – in which work is constructed as part of war-time duty and properly patriotic endeavour. Meanwhile, by volunteering for active service in industry, transport, or munitions – or, indeed, in new structures such as the Women’s Reserve Ambulance Corps with its formal appropriation of a range of military ranks) women might also, in another well-established collocation of the day, ‘release a man for the front’, in what remained a far more direct engagement with conflict per se.
Being Amazonian occupies therefore an intriguingly conflicted position in war-time Britian. It both evokes and elides direct military participation; if, for the OED, amazons are ‘female warriors’, their fight is, in 1914-18, relocated onto the front lines of the economy, munitions, transport, or food production, or in their work as nurses or ambulance drivers (among a wide range of other roles). Just like men who have volunteered for the Front, women too could gain a range of forms of insignia and visual validation, such that armlets and badges (as well as uniforms) made active service plain. The amazon can therefore be used to express (and affirm) a range of forms of female endeavour, resolve, and duty, while being amazonian can, as contemporary collocations confirm, be a matter of martial spirit and war-like resolve in which readings of ‘otherness’ can often be deliberately suspended — at least ‘for the duration’. Amazons in 1918 would, however, face a very different future, as later posts will explore.
Language is full of apparently incidental words which nevertheless – given the right circumstances – can find themselves freighted with highly topical meaning. Absentee is a case in point. Used in general to indicate the position of ‘(someone) who is absent from (something)’ as well as in special constructions such as absentee landlord, it would, across the World War One, prove an intriguingly mobile word, being diversified in range and connotation, as well as tapping into prominent discourses of participation and their moral (and gendered) coding
Absentee, was, for example, already an established part of military discourse as war began. For a soldier, being an ‘absentee without leave’ (our modern AWOL) was a chargeable offence. ‘Soldier’s Fatal Fall’ heads, for example, what now appears a somewhat suspicious narrative (in 1915) of the apprehending – and subsequent death – of an absentee of precisely this kind:
Worried by the condition of his wife’s health, a private of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment tramped from Salisbury to Birmingham to see her. He was arrested, taken to Portsmouth as an absentee without leave, and ordered detention in barracks. While in the cell he climbed to a high shelf, and refused to descend. When the doctor was called subsequently he fell, fracturing his spine, and died at the military hospital on Thursday as a result of the fall. A verdict of accidental death was returned at the inquest.
‘Absentee from Edinburgh’s Battalion Arrested’, heads a similar article in February 1915, detailing the case of William Lloyd who ‘was yesterday charged as an Army absentee’. In both, the negative sense is all too clear; being an absentee was firmly proscribed. Whether this could, or should, be deemed in WW1 a case of ‘French leave’ — ‘in military contexts … to escape or take flight; to desert, to take absence without leave’, as the OED explains — nevertheless served to raise other issues given the dynamics of language, and language attitudes, in a time of war. Surely this should be termed ‘German leave’, the presiding magistrate on one such case exclaimed:
You must not say “French leave” now. It is too good a name for so discreditable an action. You must call it “German leave.”
An advertisement for corsets isn’t perhaps the most obvious place to find information on language change in a time of war. Nevertheless, in the Words in War-Time archive, history and history principles were regularly – and consciously – applied both to ephemera as well as a wide range of non-canonical sources. Source-selection – and historical evidence – could avoid the overly literary or poetical, focussing instead on resources which, even if closely embedded in the everyday, might, as Andrew Clark recognised in making these collections in 1914-19, all too easily be lost to ‘oblivion’ – with consequences for historians and historians alike.
Corsets, then, offer an intriguing reading of gender, history, and war. Clark, as earlier posts on this site have explored, regularly assembled evidence on the changing dynamics of fashion – and fashionable accessories – as indices of war and its varied manifestation on the Home Front. Colour (the popularity in 1915 of what was termed Joffre blue) or form (the modish appearance of the casquette, based on the patterns of French uniform) could easily align female clothing and the discourse of war, rendering military a term which was not only resonant of strategy and the intricacies of tactical engagement but of style. While the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – still in progress when war broke out – defined military in exclusively male terms (‘Pertaining to soldiers; used, performed, or brought about by soldiers’; ‘befitting a soldier’), the military as illustrated in the Words in War-Time archive is therefore often far more wide-ranging. As Clark notes, for example, the OED’s entry was distinctly behind the times in this respect. Instead military was, as he confirmed, regularly used as ‘a persuasive in dressmaking & millinery’. Headlines such as military millinery (which appeared in the Daily Express in January 1915) was a case in point. The article announced the ways in which ‘The war has made itself felt in the millinery world in no small degree’ such that ‘the favourite hat for the spring is of a military type’. As it continued:
The military hat is especially suitable for morning wear, although its smartness makes it equally adaptable for dress occasions. A couple of rosettes are often rakishly poised at opposite ends of these close-fitting hats. One of the most notable of the military shapes is a striking reproduction of a field-marshal’s hat. It is carried out in soft pedal straw with the brim and crown faced with finest panne velvet, and is styled “Le General French”.
The military curve which appears in the advertisement above (as well as elsewhere in the archive) – in which military functions as a property of distinctly female underwear – offers further corroboration of this wider use.
As a collocation, military curve is, of course, interesting in its own right – the concept of a military curve remains, for example, unrecorded, and undefined, in the modern OED. Its real value, however, can be located in the wider significance it could accrue in contemporary forms of discourse between 1914-18. Continue reading →
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’.
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 →
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 →
Baby can be a surprisingly prominent form in the discourse of early WWI. As earlier posts on this site have explored, it can, compounded with –killer and -killing, be made to act as a resonant image of German ‘frightfulness’ and its deployment against the innocent and vulnerable. ‘Scarborough’s Scorn for baby-killers’, as a headline in the Daily Express announced on December 22nd 1914; ‘The mere discussion in this country of the desirability of making air raid reprisals on German towns has been sufficient to inspire numerous earnest appeals to the Kaiser to put an end to the baby-killing activities of the Zeppelins’, the Express added in a similar mode in October 1915. Elsewhere in the Words in War-Time archive, baby can be used in depicting the surrogate family bonds of trench and army life. ‘It is odd that the N.E.D. [i.e. Oxford English Dictionary] has no heading or quotation for ‘baby’ in the sense of youngest member of a regiment’, a note in the archive states, providing plentiful evidence for contemporary usage in this respect.
Other familial imagery of babies in a time of war is perhaps more disturbing. The introduction of baby howitzers offered, for example, a form of familial narrative based on the deadly progeny (and fertility) of modern war. ‘New Terror for the Trenches’, as an article in the Evening News proclaimed in November 1914, While, as it commented, “the huge howitzers which were used in the reduction of the Belgian forts were, perhaps, the most surprising feature of the Teuton’s artillery equipment”, a new baby howitzer now promised to deliver twelve-inch shells from three inch guns. If with rather different resonances, the same diction could, of course, also be applied to British weapons. As in the extract below, this offers telling illustration of the shift of meaning which a change of orientation can bring:
The different types of our own ordnance also all have their designations. A certain heavy howitzer whose dull boom is easily distinguishable above the reports of any other piece is affectionately termed “Mother,” while another is, somewhat inappropriately called “Baby”. (Evening News,January 1915).
It is, however, human fertility, and the conflicted issue of the war baby, on which this post will focus. This, too, was to be a distinctive use of the early years of WW1, not least in the contrastive senses it came to acquire. War baby demonstrates a clear narrative of change in the first year of war. Continue reading →
A marked feature of war (and comment on war) in early 1915 was, as Clark observes in the Words in War-Time archive, the labour shortage which arose following the departure of some two million men to the Front. Historically, this would be resolved, at least in part, by a range of changing opportunities for women to enter the workforce. In terms of language, as the Words in War-Time archive documents, this would, however, bring opportunities of a different kind – generating constructions which, in various ways, reflected women’s increasingly visibility outside the home. By March 1915, there were some ’10,000 Women War Workers’, the Daily Express recorded. Language and the women war worker, as Clark realised, offered yet another fertile domain of enquiry in his attempt to fuse historical principles with the documentation of on-going change.
War worker, as the modern OED confirms, is itself an interesting creation of WWI. Given as a coinage of 1915, war worker remains deeply expressive of the ways in which combatants and non-combatants were yoked together in the enterprise of war. War effort could be expended at home, while effort (and endeavour) of a different kind were demanded on the battle field. While women war worker, alongside other related coinages, did not appear in the OED, the Words in War-Time archive yields some very interesting results in this respect. Even in December 1914, Clark was, for example, carefully noting down airwomen, here in relation to the Russian Military. The Princess Shakovsky ‘has been permitted to join General Ruzsky’s staff as a military airwoman’, as the Scotsman recorded on December 2nd 1914.**
The novelty of such transferred roles under the exigencies of war would, in fact, generate plentiful evidence of relevant words. Agent nouns such as porter were, for example, formally unmarked in terms of gender – but their use, and meaning, had traditionally been constrained by underlying assumptions of male as norm. For the Star, for example, change in this respect was, in another telling combination, made to constitute a war phenonomen in its own right. Here the move from from porter to woman porter is described in ways which extol female willingness to ‘do their bit’ even as a certain surprise is evoked at women’s successful adaptation to the roles now being extended to them.
Another war phenomenon has appeared in the person of the women who understands time-tables. She does not speak of ten minutes past twelve, but of 12.10 with all the glibness of an accustomed traveller. She does not come panting on to the platform one minute after the train has gone, nor stand helpless amid a pile of luggage. If she is surrounded by luggage it is not her own, and she is far from helpless, for she is the new woman porter who has sprung into existence at Marylebone.
Traditional gender stereotyping – and its discriminatory overtones — could, as this suggests, both be challenged, and reinforced, in this respect. Woman porter, as other evidence in the archive proves, would by no means be an isolated example of this form. A similar article in the Daily Express, also from April 1915, celebrates the endeavours of the porters in petticoats for whom changed social roles – and sustained femininity – are made to unite.
As other news articles in the archive confirm, such shifts, and the overt gender marking which relevant forms acquired, formed a significant part of what was seen as war change – the transformative effects of war on ordinary life. Women carriage cleaners are recorded in the Daily Express in April 1915, railway women in the Evening Standard on April 7th 1915, and women air mechanics in the Scotsman (even if these are, in reality, French rather than English)
Women mechanics have proved very successful. A great number of them, having been employed in motor or engineering shops practically from girlhood, have become quite clever as turners or in the manipulation of machinery. They are found to be regular at their work and persevering and do not waste time. (Scotsman, 15th April 1915)
The Evening News even began its own collection of these changing images of identity:
Within the last few weeks we have had the girl district messenger, the lift-girl at Harrod’s, the girl ticket collector at Paddington, the girl in the newspaper stall on the Piccadilly Tube …’. (Evening News, 28th April 1915)
Evidence in the modern OED, we might note, can remain distinctly at odds – lift-boy, for example, is the sole form it records. Lift-girlsdo not appear. ‘Lift-boys always have aged mothers’, and ‘Chauffeurs, waiters, lift-boys…they are the operators’ states the accompanying evidence, in citations from 1904 and 1967. The Words in War-Time archive will therefore often tell a somewhat different story – tracking the changes by which gender and identity were represented and recorded in response to the social and economic pressures of the war years.
By May 1915, the Daily Express was even extolling the advent of the ‘the First Call Girl’ – a form which is, however, perhaps likely to be read with raised eye-brows when read outside the immediate context of war – and the register of the theatre on which it depends. As the OED confirms, a call-boy, is ‘a youth employed (in a theatre) to attend upon the prompter, and call the actors when required on the stage’. Call-girl in the OED has very different resonances (call-girl (orig. U.S.), ‘a prostitute who makes appointments by telephone’, being dated to 1940 with the evidence ‘Call Girls Die Young’). The call-girl of 1915 instead epitomises other aspects of war change. ‘Innovation at Shaftesbury Theatre’, as the Daily Express proclaimed.
Tovey, the call-boy at the Shaftesbury Theatre, has joined the Army as a trumpeter, and Mary Powell, who is only fourteen, has taken his place. She has the distinction of being the first call-girl in the world. (Daily Express, Fri 28th May 1915)
Some apparently transgressive forms can nevertheless be produced by the combination of changing social role and overt gender marking, as in the girl page-boy which the Daily Express records on May 11 1915:
The girl “page-boy” is the latest outcome of the shortage of labour owing to the war. She has made her appearance, neatly uniformed, in the service of a leading Harrogate hotel, and meets guest on their arrival at the railway station
Perhaps especially interesting in early 1915 is, however, the diction of the war woman. ‘The manner in which war is affecting the character of woman is a matter of vast importance’, the Daily Express commented. The war womanwho appeared, for example, in the title of a series by Miss Lorette Aldous, linked what was described as ‘real history’ (located in the female experience of war, on both Home and Western Front) with ‘a modern woman’s ambition and revolt’. Like her antecedent the new women, the war woman is thereby rendered interestingly transgressive; if she emblematises modernity by means of her confidence in taking on new activities in the public realm, she is potentially dangerous too, offering dissent, discontent, as well as ambition. As later posts will explore, such conflicted images can remain in evidence across the remaining years of war, as well as in its aftermath when women, no longer required to ‘do their bit’, were expected to retreat, invisibly, into the life of the home.
** Revision of the OED in March 2008 traced usage of airwoman to 1910. No evidence for the war years is provided, however, and a gap of 30 years intervenes in evidence after 1911. See airwoman, n.”. OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 29, 2015).