Gas-fighting: from gasphyxiation to gaspirators

gas attack on western front
A German Gas Attack on the Western Front, photographed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Rights © IWM (Q 12286). Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205247812;#sthash.t4RMRguA.dpuf

Gas-fighting was another new form which appeared in the wake of events in April 1915 when over 150 tons of chlorine was released by German troops at Ypres. Over  the spring and summer of 1915, language would, in turn, neatly construct what we now term chemical warfare into both offensive and defensive processes.These were aligned with equal neatness onto enemy and ally, perpetrators and victims. Only in September 1915, at the Battle of Loos, would the British appropriate gas-fighting as an offensive strategy (at which point, as we will see, the diction of gas, gas war, and gas-fighting would all shift in interesting ways).

Between April and June 1915, a range of new-forged compounds in the Words in War-Time archive such as gas-poisoners (used in the Scotsman in May 1915) and poison-dervishes (located in the Echo in April 1915) firmly draw attention to German agency, and the barbarism and immorality which this, by implication, involved. Dervish, seen from modern perspectives, offers a particularly loaded model of civilisation and otherness while collocations such as scientific savagery, scientific murder, and scientific torture confirm the departures at stake in rendering chlorine, documented  by Humphry Davy in 1809, into a lethal weapon. Here, too, meaning came to change under pressures of war. Continue reading

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Writing war and peace in 1914-15: pacifists, peace-plotters, and peacettes

In terms of language, peace and war exist in a state of mutual definition. Peace, as Samuel Johnson states in his Dictionary of 1755, is ‘Respite from war’. To be peaceable is likewise to be ‘Free from war; free from tumult’. Defining war, it is ‘the exercise of violence’, together with ‘force’ and ‘resistance’ which instead assume prominence in the entry Johnson writes. Peace, by definition, is regained only once war comes to an end.

In reality, of course, things may not be quite so clear cut. Attitudes to war-like activity, as well as to peace activism in 1914-15 can, as the Words in War-time archive confirm, reveal a number of interesting shades of meaning. Militarism and the act of participating in military engagements were, for example, carefully kept apart. Used as a further means of distinguishing enemies from allies, militarism – and the pursuit of war which this implies — was confined to descriptions of the enemy. It was unambiguously derogatory. Continue reading

Alien enemies: the politics of being frightful

Writing his Plan of a Dictionary in 1747, Samuel Johnson divided words from other nations into those which, as a result of frequent use, had become ‘naturalized and incorporated’ and those which, in various ways, ‘still continue aliens’ and are, as a result, to be placed on the borders of language. As the Words in War-Time archive confirms, however, war will often complicate this neat division. Even when German words are, for instance, rendered fully English in form, a sense of dissonance can still remain. Assimilation can be resisted; the alien, marked as ‘other’, can be placed outside the margins of acceptability, confirming the limits of what cannot, for a variety of reasons, be incorporated or made natural to the native tongue as well as to those who speak it.

Frightfulness presents a very good example of this conflicted identity. Its form, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, is entirely native, deriving from Old English fyrhto + ful + ness. Its use to meanThe state of being filled with fright’ is carefully recorded from the early seventeenth century. From slightly later, as the OED also indicates, frightfulness  could be used to signify ‘The quality of causing fright’. Yet its uses in the Words in War-Time archive often accord with neither of these meanings.  Continue reading

Language as disguise in WWI: the Trojan horse of words

Disguise has a long history in war. Whether in the Trojan Horse described by Homer, or in Baden-Powell’s various military deceptions in the second Boer War, it is clear that, where conflict is concerned, things are not always what they might seem. In WWI this would, of course, lead to the new domain of camouflage, another innovatory lexical use which is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary from 1917: ‘The act of hiding anything from your enemy is termed ‘camouflage’, as the Daily Mail informed its readers  on 25th May 1917 . Camouflage — in principle and in practice — was, however, clearly already being described three years earlier, as an extract from the Star in the Words in Wartime archive is able to confirm:

In the matter of sniping the Germans, thorough as always, are well prepared. Some of their sharpshooters are armed with rifles having telescopic sights, and are equipped with small bullet-proof shields, the latter being painted in cubist patterns in futurist colours in order to obtain concealment by confusion [Star, Wed 16 December 1914  p.6],

In such early experiments, visual patterns act to conceal — and confuse. The identity of that which  is camouflaged is not easily apparent. Disguise can bring tactical advantage and perhaps resounding success.

Language, as the Words in War-Time archive reveals, can often be made to play a similar role, skewing presentations in one direction or another. As an earlier post has explored (**), compounds such as  lie-factory and fiction-factory can assume prominent roles in emphasizing  the duplicity of German propaganda and news reports (at least when seen through British eyes). Truth and falsehood can be strategic as well as moral antonyms, mobilised to claim the moral high ground or to undermine the enemy.

An article in the Daily Express, recorded in one of the early notebooks, provides a case in point. It was presumably included in the Words in War-Time collection because of its evident play with language as part of both attack and defence. As the article confirms, conflict can be a war of words in a surprising variety of ways. ‘”VE VOS VILTS”. GERMAN RUSE SPOILED BY A WELLERISM’, the title of the article states. It refers, in essence, to a ruse de guerre – here in another term for military trickery which was well-established in English from the mid-eighteenth century. Ruse, in the heading, is used in this special sense; a ruse de guerre, as the OED explains, is ‘A stratagem; esp. one intended to deceive an enemy in war. Hence: a justifiable trick or deception’.  Legitimate – and illegitimate – uses had been further elaborated by the Geneva Convention of 1907. While ambushes and unexpected attacks were indeed  sanctioned as justifaiblet, other actions – such as the ruse by which an enemy’s clothing might be assumed as part of military disguise – were not. It is this, at least in part, which is detailed here:

One of the most illuminating stories of a German ruse is told by a wounded non-commissioned regiment who had returned to Colchester..The front ranks of a German regiment which was advancing against a British position were dressed in uniforms taken from dead and wounded of the Wiltshire Regiment (Daily Express, September 29th 1914)

Yet the article turns not just on the appropriation of items of clothing, but on manifestations of voice too. If uniforms can be assumed with apparent ease, the native language can’t. Rendered visually identical to the remaining Wiltshires, the Germans initially advance unopposed. Only when they speak does the disguise slip; in the narrative of this encounter, language proves their downfall.

The British officer who saw them approach was suspicious, and as a precaution gave the order “Fix bayonets.” From the advancing ranks came a shout:

“Leedle mistake ! Ve vos not Shermans. Ve vos der Vilts.”

Here, the account, presented as a witness statement from a soldier convalescing at home,  makes effective use of both English and German language stereotypes. On one level, ‘Ve wos der Vilts’ plays on easily recognised images  of German infelicity in speaking English, and the /v/ /w/ confusion which often results. Yet, as the reference to  Wellerism in the title suggests, the Germans are also made to evoke other — and particulary British –stereotypes of identity. If they speak ‘English’, their representation hence draws on a wide-ranging tradition of cockney speakers such as Dickens’s boot-cleaner Sam Weller (from The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836)) whose v/w/ confusion had long been a touchstone for comedic effect, evoking laughter as well as lack of authority. ‘Two coves in vhite aprons – touches their hats ven you walk in’; ‘A vidower he vos, and fat enough for anything’. Goes through the archvay, thinking how he should inwest the money’, as Sam variously states  (all examples from Pickwick, Chapter 10).

For the Germans, linguistic disguise is therefore made to slip in a variety of ways – dressed like men from Wiltshire and self-identifying as such (‘der Vilts’), the Germans are instead represented as sounding like outdated  Victorian cockneys, with all the low status and comic connotations which such steretypes suggest. By the same token, they also, of course, confirm their true identity — by the early twentieth century, wellerisms of this kind are no longer in use, and language (‘Shermans’, ‘leedle’, as well as v/w ) swiftly gives the game away. As the wounded soldier (who recounts this history) comments in another manifestation of laconic trench humour — and marked understatement, ‘the Germans wilted’.

Other aspects of double meaning are, however, at work too in what is, in effect, a highly nuanced use of language within the reporting of war. Wellerisms, for example, had come to be associated not with just the spoken form of Sam Weller’s speech (and his enunciation of vos (was) and ven (when)), but instead, as the OED  confirms, primarily conveyed  the idea of ludicrous comparison, in what was, in fact,  another  marked characteristic of Sam Weller’s speech**. Here, as the event proved, the comparison was ludicrous indeed. German infelicities in speaking English provoke — at least with hindsight — comedy rather than fear. The serious threat is, quite literally, removed.  The Trojan horse fails, and the enemy is swiftly despatched. As in more recent events, humour proves an interesting weapon, delegitimizing ideas of power through particular tactics of representation.

While no new words are involved here, the article remains therefore of marked interest in the archive because of its reflexive play with words, as well as its consonance with a wider set of tropes (German dishonesty and cowardice, patriotic British defence) which appear in a wide range of other contexts across the years of war. It is, of course, not a direct transcription, nor — by the same token, can it be assumed to be mimetic. But it offers acts of representation in which language use is critical, in ways which effectively divide ‘them’ and ‘us’.

**See “Wellerism, n.”. OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press.  (accessed January 20, 2015. It is defined as:’An expression or form of speech used by or characteristic of the Dickens character Sam Weller or his father, Tony; (usually) spec. a kind of a proverbial expression in which a statement, such as a familiar saying or proverb, is given a humorous or ironic twist by being incongruously or punningly attributed to a particular speaker, typically in a specific situation’. A typical example is given from 1839   Boston Morning Post 9 Jan. 2/2   Wellerisms.—‘It does one’s heart good to look at you,’ as the fox said to the chickens, when he found he couldn’t get over the barn-yard wall, to eat them’.

Women and the war of words; writing gender identities in autumn 1914.

The separate spheres of war, as documented in Clark’s ‘Word in War-Time’ collection, can seem all too plain. If Clark tracks a language of militancy in various ways between 1914-1918, it is clear that militant women, and militant men, were often seen as serving in very different ways. Men dominate, for obvious reasons, in reports which are sent from the Front. Women, as earlier posts have explored, are instead often depicted in terms of their dedicated service on the Home Front— ‘The Ladies Emergency Committee of the Navy League’, as an  extract from the Scotsman  on 14th September illustrates, demanded action of its members in terms of knitting. Defence was relocated to a domestic sphere, from which comforts where to be sent to the Front:

Navy League Wants for our Sailors’. ‘earnestly asks for 5000 woollen helmets and 5000 woollen mufflers for our sailors now in the North Sea’ (Scotsman, 14th September 1914).

Helmets, as Clark observed, offered another shift of use when compared to the first edition of the OED, where helmets were metal, leather, or felt.

As Clark realised, gender, history, and language could nevertheless all intersect, offering other interesting aspects of change. Militancy itself, as one of Clark’s early notebooks shows, was itself on the move, revealing other absences within contemporary histories of words:

Miss Pankhurst … urged the necessity of unity in the face of danger to the country, and said as a militant women she hoped to do something to rouse the spirit of militancy in men. The future of democracy was at stake. What was in the best interest of the state women would do, but it argued no inferiority or diminution to their claim of political inequality if they took no part in the fighting’ [Scotsman, 9th September, 1914].

Militant women, in Pankhurst’s sense, did not exist in the OED, while militancy – given the fact that evidence in the OED stopped in 1876 — also seemed to attest new departures.Women’s non-military roles, however, were often brought to the fore in news reporting. When news does focus on women at the front, they are, for example, often used to focalize the effects of violence and depredation. A particularly telling use of language in this respect, as Clark noted, was the depiction of petticoat troops, soldiers whose advance into war was made by means of a human shield of women and children. As in the Daily Express on Tuesday 15 September, this was made to offer further evidence of German brutality, in an all too negative configuration of the enemy.

Some of our chaps could hardly believe their eyes at first, but it soon made our fellows as angry as thunder. We solved the problem by getting these petticoat troops on our flank, when we were able to attack them’

Here, too, the OED was silent. The entry for petticoat had been published nine years earlier. Defined as ‘the characteristic or typical feminine garment’, the petticoat, as the Dictionary explained, hence operated as ‘the symbol of the female sex or character’. Used with reference to men, it operated as a markedly negative term, as in constructions such as petticoat pensioner ‘a man paid by a women’, petticoat-governed, ‘ruled by a women, or hen-pecked’. Petticoat troops, however, was a new departure, caught by Clark’s acute observation of words in a time of war. Here, the petticoats which emblematised female identity mark out the transgressive patterning of enemy power and female powerlessness; women, as Clark observed, formed a living screen, behind which the troops attempted to seize tactical advantage.

Gender and its representation became another recurrent topos in Clark’s notebooks, whether in documenting the casual sexism of words such as granny (used, as Clark noted against an article in the Daily Express,  to denote anyone who might seem to behave like a granny, or, in other words, as he explains, like a women who is fussy and unnecessarily interfering), or in tracking other omissions in the OED such as mother’s help (which Clark found in an advertisement in October 1914). Other readings of gender and gender roles also, importantly, start to emerge. The heading ‘Ladies in Riding Breeches. Work for the Wounded in Belgium’ on p. 2 of the Daily Express on 11 September proved a particularly useful example:

The British corps of lady farmers, nurses, horsewomen, girl motor-drivers, women doctors, men doctors, and dressers under Dr Hartnell Beavis left Ostend to-day for Antwerp on the orders of the Queen of the Belgians

Women in this article are headed for the ‘The British Field Hospital for Belgium’, and are used to exemplify modernity as well as determination. ‘Ladies who are close-cropped, booted, and spurred will ride the horses drawing the ambulance vans, and these, with motor-cars, will dash towards the front, pick up the wounded from the army bearers, and bring them back to the hospital’ , we are informed. Booted and spurred, such women are by no means defined or symbolised by petticoats. For Clark, the article as a whole offered a range of new locutions, from close-cropped to horse-ambulance. To be close-cropped was, Clark pointed out, another compound on which the OED seemed out of date. The OED’s entry represented an earlier era. It offered close-bodied, close–coupled, and close-fisted — but not close-cropped. Yet, as the Daily Express makes plain, close-cropped women – whose hair was cut short – can be used to image a peculiarly feminine motif of ‘doing their bit’ in a time of war: ‘Englishwomen who have sacrificed their hair in their keenness and devotion to their great work were busy getting everything in trim for their start to Antwerp’. Women here were seen as committed to the militant cause of war, and dedicated service at the front, in a form of emancipation which receives thorough commendation. In tracking words in war-time, the diction of gender, and gender-identity, would, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, come to offer yet another productive site of change.