“Who’s Absent ?” Being AWOL in World War One — language, identity, and the “absentee”

who's absente
Parlamentary Reecruiting Poster No.125; Imperial War Museum


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 explainsnevertheless 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.”

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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’,

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Branded words: On not being German

Advertising, and the constructed nature of brand-names, was a topic to which Clark frequently returned in documenting ‘Words in War-Time’.  Even before war broke out, Clark had started to collect relevant examples, arguing that – for the linguistic and historian alike – these could be seen as a rich (and often neglected) resource of information about the embedding of language in culture and society. If the Oxford English Dictionary maintained a steadfast opposition to evidence of this kind (disallowing proper names as part of the legitimate territory of lexicography and the history of words), Clark again deliberately moved in a different direction. The notebooks gave him useful autonomy to explore language and meaning, and its responsiveness to on-going history, as he wished.

As previous posts have explored, the specific circumstances of war often rendered language a highly effective means by which patriotism or other issues of national allegiance could be claimed – or rejected. Consideration of form and, in particular, of word-forms which – rightly or wrongly – connoted German identity, could attract particular attention in this respect. The popular press, for example, repeatedly appropriated German patterns of spelling, placing German kultur against English culture in ways which intentionally rendered the former a by-word for savagery and barbarity. If kultur and culture derive from the same root, being, in reality, shared and cognate forms,** they could nevertheless be rendered antonyms in popular discourse — see e.g. the heading ‘More “Kultur”’, which in the Daily Express on 21 September 1914, accompanying an article (and an all too telling image) about the devastation of Rheims Cathedral.

The currency of other lexemes such as Teutonised – or non-Teutonic – both of which Clark records in his notebooks from September 1914 – easily reveals the identity politics at stake. Being Teutonised (a form still unrecorded in the OED) was, as another article in the Daily Express confirmed, seen as highly negative – suggesteing unwarranted alignment with the enemy in ways which are firmly delegitimised. Being, or being seen as, germanophile (here in another form which gained newly negative connotations — Clark records its use from September 11 1914) was, in similar ways, by no means seen as desirable.

An extensive anti-German lexis could, in such ways, became another aspect of the war of words. Notions of being pro-German, or Hun-like (both of which Clark also documents from September 1914) would all be used to mobilise highly negative feeling. The Hunite – recorded in the Daily Express on 19th September (and absent, then and now, from the Oxford English Dictionary) –  emerges, for example, as a highly effective way of labelling, and stigmatizing, the presence of unwarranted German sympathies, not least as indicated by a less than whole-hearted supported for the war effort or, still worse, by qualms about war per se. ‘Chiding the Hunites’, the heading of the article states. As the OED records, the suffix –ite was far from neutral: forms in which –ite appear, it states, ‘have a tendency to be depreciatory, being mostly given by opponents, and seldom acknowledged by those to whom they are applied’. To use language reflective of what the Express termed ‘odious Germanic taint’ could be seen as highly problematic – prompting, as we have seen, a range of acts of renaming and redefinition.

One of Clark’s particularly interesting examples in this context was the advertising campaign taken out in the autumn of 1914 by Krieger, the brand name of what was given as ‘the electric carriage syndicate’. Here, as the company realised, form and meaning could intersect in newly problematic ways. Krieger was, in some ways, ahead of its time – its electric vehicles offer early prototypes of a technology being explored and extended today. Clark noted the collocation electric carriage (also absent from the OED) as a combination of marked interest; if ‘carriages’ looked back to the past, ‘electric’ offered a new sense of modernity (as well as extending early designations of the car as ‘horseless carriage’). Nevertheless, as war began, the suspicion that, for Krieger, its name (and hence its products)—might also be seen as overly ‘Teutonised’ (and, indeed, ‘Germanophile’) was a source of self-evident concern. Krieg, as the German word for ‘war’, seemed less than ideal as a defining element in the name by which the product was popularly known, not least given the prevalence of similar Germanic forms – such as kriegspiel or kriegsmetall — in other contemporary (and highly negative) news accounts.

For Krieger, a range of advertisements therefore swiftly appeared, proclaiming British national identity and unimpeachable patriotic credentials.

‘The above company has been, from its formation in April 1903, a British Company’,

as readers were, for example, reminded. More to the point, perception of its association with German krieg is depicted as misguided in the extreme. Visual similarity was, it stressed, a false friend indeed; only in error, we are informed, could the brand names be read as krieg plus er, with its disturbing associations of militarism and aggression. Form — in both speech and writing – is strategically repositioned, while recent history clearly demanded a set of history lessons of its own. In the advertising which appears in autumn 1914, the name loses its hard Germanic /g/ and gains a small but suggestive é acute.

Etymology, in turn, is made to validate not the all too negative German krieg but instead an identity in French by which Krieger derives not form Krieg plus er, but from a ‘Monsieur Kriéger’, a Frenchman, resident in Paris, where

‘the original Kriéger Company was formed, and from whom the London Krieger company purchased its patents’.

Form was renegotiated once more – Kriéger, once French, had become British by losing its distinctive é, as well as gaining a different pronunciation. Commercial and linguistic assimilation had worked together. With the advent of war, the accent was, however, to be put on success in quite literal ways. Advertising campaigns carefully stress the allegiance which the small but significant é confirms. Krieger was carefully distanced while Kriéger could, as potential purchasers were reassured, be bought without qualms. French diacritics could get a new lease of life in English. Language, yet again, could be used with tactical intent — here, in what one might nevertheless see, as a strategic exercise in damange limitation.***


**Culture derives, as OED confirms, from Latin cultūra, and was borrowed into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French after the Normal Conquest. Originally used to refer to literal cultivation of the land, German ideas of culture (signifying the ideas, customs, etc. of a society or group) became prominent in English after the eighteenth century. See culture (n.), OED Online.

*** Modern parallels can be found in the suddenly negative connotations of ‘Isis’ as a company name, as reported in the press in November 2014. This, too, can prompt issues of identity and subsequent rebranding.