Unspeakable war? Looking at language in Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others (1916)

A woman chauffeur. IWM (Q30803)

Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others, published in 1916,  offers a striking demonstration of the changes which war had brought – not only in its setting (the novel is based in events in 1915), or in its stance (it is often seen as the first anti-war novel of WW1), but also in its language. If war is, as on p.14, described as ‘unspeakable’, it is the range and diversity of its speakabilities which can instead leap from Macaulay’s pages. If core words remain the same, the narrative — from its opening chapter – sets out a langscape of sense and allusion which would have left pre-war readers firmly in the dark. What, after all, is to do one’s bit (p.9)? And why is knitting, and the knitting of body-belts (ibid; and p.82) suddenly so important?.** What are ambulance cars, and why is a woman driving one in France?

Non-Combatants could, in such ways, often deliberately remind its readers of the sudden foreignness of the present. Ambulance car is a term common in 1914-18, though one which the OED had not – and still has not – included. Betty –who drives it – sends letters home which are marked ‘on Active Service’ – here in uses which, if again common in WW1,  sit uncomfortably even with the modern OED definition of this term (‘direct participation in military operations as a member of the armed forces’).  That such letters can be described, metaphorically, in Chapter 1 as  ‘bits of shrapnel, crashing’ into the world at home testifies to other patterns of change.

As other posts on this site have explored, shrapnel was an early marker of  change in  Words in War-Time, hovering – for the duration, as well as afterwards – between its traditional meaning, here as defined by the OED  March 1914 (‘A hollow projectile containing bullets and a small bursting charge, which when fired by the time fuse, bursts the shell and scatters the bullets in a shower’), and its newer familiarised sense which Macaulay makes use of here: ‘fragments of a bomb, shell, or other object thrown out by an explosion’.  Shrapnel as a more literal referent appears too, used in an account of war trauma, located in a hospital at home. Nervy  (often used as an early euphemism  for shell shock)  serves in the same passage to draw language and time closely together.

‘I hate not having a bath after hospital. But one can’t grudge it to the dear lamb. How do you think he looks, Alix? Rather nervy, he is still. That’s the worst of a head wound. You know Mahoney, Margot, that Munster Fusiliers man with a bit of shrapnel in his forehead? The other men in ward 5 say he still keeps jumping out of bed in his sleep and standing to. The only way they can get him back is to say ‘Jack Johnson overhead,’ and then he scuttles into bed and puts his head under the pillow; only sometimes he scuttles under the bed instead, and then the only way they can get him out is to say ‘Minnie’s coming,’ and he nips out quick for fear of being buried alive.

Seen through the lens of language, Non-Combatants and Others can therefore — a mere two years into the war — offer a telling illustration of Words in War-Time, and the shifting contemporaneities of both use and understanding. Continue reading

Nominative determinism: Boche, bosh, and other language games in WW1.


Battering the Boche. Royal Library of Belgium.

‘BOCHE, BOSCH, AND BOSH’ states an arresting headline taken from the Echo in 1915. Preserved in the Words in War-Time archive, the article which followed explored the use, and meaning, of another new word of war. First recorded in 1914, Boche – variably spelled as Bosche — formed part of what, at least ‘for the duration’, would prove a markedly over-crowded space. Alongside Fritz and Hun, Uhlan and Willie (‘soldier of Wilhelm’, as the archive explains), uses of Boche presented yet another way of writing the enemy. Replete with negative connotations (and able to be visually enhanced by the Germanised spelling with -sch), Boche came to designate, as in the examples below, someone, and esp. a soldier, of German ethnicity. It could be either singular or plural, noun or adjective, inflected or uninflected.

 ‘men huddled below the parapets, gazing through their periscopes, or sniping at invisible Boches’ (Daily Express / news / 1915-02-01 )

‘doing the “outside edge” round Jack Johnson holes, and Boches a mile or two ahead or in the rear’   (advertisement, Scotsman, November 1916)

Originally deriving from French (as a later entry in the OED would confirm), boche has been linked to Fr. boche ‘scoundrel’, perhaps drawing too on tête de boche, a stubborn, obtuse unintelligent person (a form already used in French before the war as a derogatory term  for a German). Other possible sources link it to caboche (‘blockhead’)  — of which boche  might be a shortened form — or to alboche (a form which appears early in the archive, and which represents a conflated form of Allemand and Boche, complete with further derogatory overtones). Alboche was ‘French Military slang’, a 1914 note in the archive confirms. If alboche was relatively resticted in use, Boche would, in contrast, prove both popular and pervasive.

Its range of uses can therefore illustrate one strand in the war-term assimilation of this form. More striking, however, as the Echo also commented, was the remarkable similarity, at least in auditory terms, that anglicised Boche and bosh had come to assume. This  offered the potential for a richly punning identity.

‘By one of the miraculous freaks of language the word conveys the essential idea to almost all the nations engaged in the war’,

Continue reading

“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

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.

The comforts of war

Comfort, as Clark noted, was a term which moved into marked prominence in the autumn of 1914. The word had, of course, long existed, being borrowed — here in other manifestations of war, language, and their intersection — from Old French confort after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The native equivalents (frefran, to comfort; frofre, comfort), used throughout Old English, had gradually been displaced. War, just as in later years, could bring both loss and gain when seen in terms of language.

Comfort in WWI assumed however, distinctive new meanings. Its long-standing existence as abstract noun – variously signifying, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, aid, consolation, solace as well as relief (especially in periods of want or distress) — could, as a range of articles in September and October 1914 confirm, acquire a strikingly materiality. Comfort can be manufactured and despatched, consumed and worn. A letter in the Scotsman on Thursday 11th September 1914 drew attention, for example, to the changing use of this term:

“Your readers may have observed that the formal sanction of the Admiralty has now been given to the supply of “comforts” for the men of the fleet’.

Here, the framing quotation marks set the new form apart, registering the departures which comforts of this kind present. Home comforts existed, by definition, within the intimacy, warmth, and protection of the domestic space. In this light, those serving in the Admiralty or at the Front were, of necessity, comfortless, rendered remote from consolations of this kind. The warmth of home was displaced by far more testing physical conditions. Comforts (usually appearing the plural) were, as a result, often seen in a tangible and physical form; they are items which will bring comfort, allaying the physical deprivations of war. Early uses in Clark’s notebooks focus in particualr on the sense of warmth, stressing comfort as a commodity that can be manufactured at home, before being despatched to those in need.

The letter in the Scotsman, for instance, carefully specifies the forms which comforts in a time of war might best take: ‘the articles which at the moment will be most use to officers and men in ships afloat are cardigan jackets, 44 inches chest; jerseys full size; Balaclava helmets, mufflers 2 yards long, 10 inches wide, fingerless gloves, mittens’. Such comforts will, quite literally, warm the recipient. Doing one’s bit in a time of war would, by extension, assume interestingly gendered forms, as a further article in the Daily Express makes plain:

‘The admiralty authorities have issued a list of knitted articles that are specially required by the sailors during the cold weather, and there is no doubt that wives and mothers will be only too glad to set to work to provide these necessary comforts’ (Daily Express, 21 Sept 1914).

Here, the inverted commas of comforts have disappeared. The word is assumed to be familiarised, together with the actions it required. Against sailors and the ‘men of the fleet’ who work for the national cause, the article evokes a set of home-workers, engaged in working parties, where dedicated industry and application of British women must also play their part. Knitting recipes, it declared, were clearly ‘invaluable at the moment’; Clark noted down this new compound (still not in OED), noting too the diction of the home-worker (as well as cardigan jackets – both of which offered other absences within the OED as it then existed).**

The war effort, as here, could clearly take many forms. Across Europe, a shared image of female endeavour would be a subject of comment, as well as patriotic endeavour. ‘Every female in Germany between twelve and eight is busy knitting– in the streets, in omnibuses, in doctors’ waiting-rooms, in tea-rooms, everywhere. They knit bandages, wristlets, and the like, for all the soldiers in the field’, as the Daily Express had commented on Fri 11 Sept 1914.  The need for comfort crossed national boundaries, and political divisions. Wristlet, as Clark observed, was another unfamiliar word, as well as another novel form in which comfort might be manifest. Lumbago belts and body belts presented other forms unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. The image of a surprisingly home-spun army – on both sides — can be pervasive.

So too can a sense of the pressures, and moral obligation, placed on those at home at contribute in this way. ‘The Government intends to have every soldier provided with a belt to ward off those chills which cause so many deadly ailments on a battlefield’, an article in the Scotsman on 28th October 1914 declared: ‘it behoves every person to do their utmost to provide these comforts with as little delay as possible, and so assist these brave men to maintain their health, and enable them to withstand the rigours of the coming winter campaign’. If those at the Front fight the literal enemy, those at home were to aid in combatting cold as another enemy that might bring defeat as well as death. Endeavour is made reciprocal,

Here, too, expectations of a lengthy campaign – and a coming war winter – are plain. War is made a collective enterprise in which anyone and everyone should contribute. Comforts meanwhile, as later posts will explore, would expand to include a wide and increasingly diverse range of commodities.***

**Home-worker (defined as ‘A person who works at home, esp. as distinguished from one working in a factory or office’) would eventually be recorded in the OED, in a separate entry, in September 2011. Evidence would be traced back to 1843, though the entry is silent on uses between 1902 and 1973. The distinctive senses of WWI, with their commitment to voluntary industry in a shared war effort, arguably also remain absent in this definition. Cardigan jacket still remains absent.

**** Lumbago belts (still not in OED) clearly required more ingenuity in their construction. The article recommends use of  ‘a work undershirt or a set of men’s pants, the sleeves or legs of which, as the case may be, are worn round the waist, and fixed with webstraps or buckles’ such that ‘the main part of the garment’ is ‘allowed to hang down the back like an apron’, in order to protect against the cold of war.