WW1 and the language of place: from Louvain to the Dardanelles

Men of the Lancashire Fusilier Brigade, 29th Division, before disembarking at W. And V. Beaches. May 5th-6th, 1915. Copyright: Imperial War Museum. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196079#sthash.1oj4ylTJ.dpuf

War can, all too easily, throw maps into disarray, relocating boundaries and reassigning territory whether lost or gained. Language too, as earlier posts have explored, can present other challenges for cartography. Name and renaming can take place, both formally and informally, in the light of on-going events. In WW1, newly adopted place names such as Petrograd can, for instance, eradicate what seemed unduly Germanic connotations in the earlier St Petersburg. ‘Foreign fields’, to misquote Rupert Brooke, could, in other ways, become — if not “for ever England” — then at least a temporary place of habitation, signalled by ironic appellations such as “Hyde Park Corner” or “Buckingham-palace Road”. Trenchland, a term used in the Daily Express in May 1915, could, as the Words in Wartime archive confirms, require a highly creative A-Z.

Names could, however, be used with even more freedom. Louvain, for example, was early appropriated into allied propaganda as a symbol of German depredation, and the associated conflicts of culture and kultur. If Louvain continued to designate a particular place on the map, this was now located in occupied Belgium as well as reduced in size; almost 12% had been destroyed, including the eighteenth-century university library, together with the books, manuscripts, and incunabula it had contained. As both place and name, Louvain, for the duration of the war, was freighted with meanings which deliberately evoked German barbarism and violation. To germanise, as the Daily Express noted in 1914, had, in this respect, gained “a new definition for the dictionaries of the future” –that is “to burn, destroy, raze to the ground, wipe out, reduce to a shapeless mass of unrecognisable rubbish; see also Louvain, Namur, Rheims, Arras, etc”.

Louvain could, by extension – and with equally negative intent – also be used as a verb in its own right. As in the heading “Louvaining in Galicia” which appeared in the Daily Express in December 1914, this was restricted to German activity. As the associated article added:

two German corps which are subjected to severe pressure by the Russian forces are wandering about in all directions, trying to effect communication with the main army, Louvainingand looting on their way’.

“To Louvain”, as here, is to ransack and pillage, amplifying the widespread imaging of piracy which also attended popular constructions of German identity at this time.

REMEMBER SCARBOROUGH! E.Kemp-Welch 1914 ENLIST NOW PUBLISHED BY THE PARLIAMENTARY RECRUITING COMMITTEE, LONDON. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/14989#sthash.e4JPUfK
REMEMBER SCARBOROUGH! E.Kemp-Welch 1914 ENLIST NOW PUBLISHED BY THE PARLIAMENTARY RECRUITING COMMITTEE, LONDON. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/14989#sthash.e4JPUfK

Proper names of this kind, as well as their idiosyncratic extensions, are typically excluded from formal lexicography though, as the Words in War-Time archive illustrates, such forms can be very useful in exploring the localised meanings of both place and time. Scarborough, for example, assumed similar transformative senses in early propagandist use. The injunction to ‘Remember Scarborough’ in early 1915 was, for instance, not intended to evoke memories of a small British sea-side town and its suitability as a holiday destination (as it might perhaps today). Instead, as associated iconography confirmed, Scarborough (attacked in December 1914), drew on a sense of threatened civilian innocence and human vulnerability as set against German ‘frightfulness’ in bombing areas remote from any battlefield. The ‘meaning’ of Scarborough was highly topical, drawing – as feminine pronouns also stressed – to tropes of gender and violation which ‘the rape of Belgium’ had already made familiar. “As a reminder of the nature of the enemy with which the nation has to deal, stricken Scarborough directs the attention of the world to her shrapnel-splashed streets and walls” and “shattered roofs and gables, the twisted iron beams, the wrecked interiors, and the list of the dead’, as the Scotsman explained in December 1914.

What the Dardanelles was to ‘mean’ would, by the spring and summer of 1915, offer other possibilities in terms of the linguistic geographies of place. Continue reading

Words, weapons, and WWI No.3: Gas! Gas!

gas warfare
Gas Warfare in WW1. Attack photgraphed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reservedhttp://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205288286

In the Words in War-Time archive, gas is yet another word for which linguistic productivity – and the potential for wide-ranging physical assault – would disturbingly unite in 1914-15. Written before war began, the relevant entry in the OED had documented modern uses in which gas was used to light domestic space and gas-engineers were ‘engaged in the making of gas, or in regulating its supply’ — ‘especially in theatres’, the Dictionary added. It tracked, too, industrial, as well as medical and scientific applications. The diction of war and conflict was, however, absent. The familiarity attested by Wilfred Owen’s ‘Gas! Gas!’ (in his ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ of 1917), and the salience of gas as a weapon of attack, remained unknown. Only in 1933 was the entry changed and the Dictionary brought firmly up to date. ‘First used in the war of 1914-18 by Germany on April 22, 1915’, the 1933 Supplement states with striking specificity; gas, it confirmed, now signified asphyxiating gas and poison gas. A range of collocations – gas shells, gas mask, gas bomb (among others) – all attest to the legacies of a changing langscape of war.
The Words in War-Time archive offers its own narrative of this transition from innocence to the realities (and diction) which came to accompany this particular facet of ‘modern war’. If anxieties were expressed about gas and the effects of war in August 1914, these could, for example, centre on an envisaged disruption in the supply of gas mantles (another form which, as the archive confirms, was as yet unrecorded in the OED). As a headline in the Evening News announced on 8th Sept 1914, ‘A famine of gas mantles is threatened’:

Mr. J. Thacker stated that one could hardly prophecy what would happen next .. Seventy-five per cent of mantles were imported from Germany

Nevertheless, language can also offer interesting correctives to the image of gas in WWI as a defining aspect of German frightfulnessper se. Continue reading

War on two wheels – the Mechanical Mounted Infantry

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 4893); http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/28301

If ‘war in the air’ was early recognised as a salient feature of the events – and language – of WWI, then war on two wheels was another which also regularly surfaced in Clark’s first notebooks. As in combinations such as cyclist-detachment, cyclist officer, or cyclist troops, the bicycle was another vehicle of war which was often praised for its modernity – and evidence of progress — in contemporary accounts. From our perspective, this can perhaps surprise, revealing something of the innocence of these first weeks of war when tanks (and their own accompanying language, still lay in the future, as did the diction of gas as a form of attack). Clark noted down the following example from the Daily Express on 1st September 1914, which neatly set out the historical imperatives of change in this respect:

‘In the South Africa war we wanted men who could shoot and could ride horses; in this European war we want men who can shoot and ride bicycles, the Mechanical M.I’.

Thie “Mechanical M.I”, as other cuttings explained in full, was the Mechanical Mounted Infantry. The Daily Express, as Clark observed, provided a useful definition too, for the advances apparently being made in this respect:

‘primarily the cyclist is an infantryman, a trained solder mounted on an iron-clad steed that moves on at an easy twelve miles an hour and requires no feeding or watering, no veterinary attendance, and no two days to four days rest’.

Clark here picked out iron-clad as another new use, especially in this applied sense. It meant a cycle, as his annotations explained.
Like war in the air, accounts of the military engagements – and utility – of the cyclist troops could,  also prove remarkably partisan. A report from a cyclist officer which appeared in the Daily Express on 1st September 1914 (in a clipping included in Clark’s first notebook) noted, for example, that ‘the cyclist troops of the Allies have already been in action and the new arm, the “mechanical mounted infantry,” even at this early stage of the great war, has “made good”’. As it added in further commendation: ‘it may almost be said to have scored a triumph’. For Clark, this neatly provided a trio of interesting forms, none of which had –or indeed have since — made their way into the OED.
The use of cycles by the enemy could, however, attract comment which was more critical – even if, from Clark’s point of view, it was equally useful in demonstrating the introduction and use of words. ‘It is really a comic idea to send a cyclist-detachment into Russia’, as the Daily Express – perhaps with some reason – recorded on Saturday 5th September 1914. ‘127 cyclists had been taken prisoner’, it reported: ’three squadrons of German cavalry, supported by a company of cyclists, were cut up by Russians’. The ‘poor cyclists have a very bad time on the Russian roads’, it stated in apparent sympathy.
As in other respects, Clark’s record of words in time can here vividly remind us of certain aspects of history which have perhaps faded in popular memory (as well as of combinatory forms which dictionaries such as the OED do not record). As history itself proved, however, the use of cycles as an active force in war – viewed with optimism in these opening weeks — would be equally subject to change and obsolescence as positions became entrenched, and a very different style of war came to the fore.