‘There are certain garbs and modes of speaking, which vary with the times; the fashion of our clothes being not more subject to alteration than that of our speech’. This quotation from John Denham was used by Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century as he gathered up his own collection of words for the Dictionary. Nevertheless, while written long before WWI, Denham;’s words remain interestingly resonant for the Words in War-Time archive in 1914-15. As Andrew Clark noted in the archive, ‘mode’ as seen terms of war-time fashion could display a striking consonance with war itself. Language moreover acted as a ready conduit for such ideas, revealing the new – and highly fashionable — prominence of items such as cartridge buttons or colours such as Joffre blue for the new season.
As Clark explored, diction of this kind easily testified to the popularity of war, offering other forms of allegiance and patriotic display. Patriotism, as the archive confirms, was particularly productive in late 1914-early 1915. Continue reading →
Zeppelins featured, of necessity, in the Words in War-Time archive from the early weeks of war. Reports in the Evening News in September 1914, for example, detailed aerial attacks on Antwerp in which zeppelins played a prime role (‘The Zeppelin airship which on Tuesday night threw bombs on Antwerp also attempted to blow up a railway tunnel near Wetteren’). As the early diction of the war confirmed, Zeppelin operated as a particularising adjective, modifying airship, rather than as a noun per se. Like shrapnel, it was, in origin, an eponym or ‘One whose name is a synonym for something’, as the Oxford English Dictionary explained when the relevent entry appeared in October 1921: ‘In full Zeppelin airship: a dirigible airship; properly, one of a type constructed by Count Zeppelin of Germany in 1900’,
In the changing familiarities of the war years, airship was nevertheless often deemed redundant and Zeppelin — alongside contracted forms such as Zep and Zepp — instead came to function as nouns in their own right,as in the extract below:
The Germans are making much use of aerial scouting. Their usual plan is to send out aeroplanes, which are followed by a Zeppelin with explosives (The Scotsman, Tuesday September 8th)
As early news reports of this kind indicate, the nature of attack could, via zeppelins, be extended in new and terrifying ways. Continue reading →
In the autumn of 1914, journalists repeatedly returned to the problem of what the Daily Express termed ‘the invisible foe’. War had become, quite literally, one of entrenched positions. Yet, as journalists pointed out, they could, as a result, be faced with a task of describing a confrontation which was, paradoxically, often removed from the powers of direct observation. ‘It is part of the impressiveness of this war that there is normally nothing to be seen’, as the Daily Express commented in November 1914:
When one talks of the front, meaning the point of nearest actual contact between the opposing forces, one speaks of something which cannot be seen even by a spectator standing (if one were so rash) within fifty years of the leading trenches.
Seeing – and the various exigencies of not being seen – would, as one might expect, bring its own pressures to bear on language, Continue reading →
Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Counter-Attack’ (first drafted in the summer of 1916) reveals a ready familiarity with the duds one might encounter at the Front. Here, if the ‘five-nines’ in line 2 of the extract above reference the German 5.9 inch artillery shells, their high success rate is emphasised too. In the attack Sassoon describes, duds – shells which fail to explode – are absent. ‘Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst’, as the poem continues.
It is nevertheless worth remembering that speakers of English from before war would have struggled to comprehend the lines as thus composed. As the first edition of the OED records – here in a section published in 1897 — duds in English referred primarily to clothing or to things. One could wear duds, or possess them. In neither case, however, did they resemble elements of military hardware. ‘Girls knit away small fortunes … on little duds that do nobody any good’, as Harriet Beecher Stowe stated in her novel Little Foxes in 1866. ‘How precious are all the belongings of a first baby; how dear are the cradle, the lace-caps, the first coral, all the little duds which are made with such punctilious care and anxious efforts of nicest needlework’, we are told in Anthony Trollope’s The Three Clerks (1857).
Andrew Clark’s work on the Words in War-Time archive draws early attention to the shift which a few months of war had brought in this respect. Reading the Daily Express on Wednesday 13th January 1915, he found an article headed ‘Jig-saw of mud’. The text took the form of another ‘Letter from the Front’ – identified as being from a sergeant to his wife, and offering an important sense of authentication for the experiences that are described. Language and its changes, as Clark stressed, can, of course, be authenticated in similar ways. Continue reading →
By January 1915, Andrew Clark was by no means alone in his sense that language and war were intersecting in particularly fruitful ways. As an article in the Evening News, which Clark carefully extracted for the Words in War-Time archive, comments:
The ingenuity of the British soldier in inventing picturesque names for the various engines of destruction brought to bear against him is well known, and with the development of new weapons the number of nicknames in use has been extended until they form a language which is most bewildering to a stranger.
The article was headed ‘Tommy’s Slanguage’ in ways which drew attention to the lexical creativity which already seemed particularly in evidence on the Western Front. Slanguage, a blend or portmanteau of slang and language, was — perhaps predictably — another form which drew Clark’s own attention, not least since, as he quickly established, it represented yet another absence in the relevant section of the OED (which had been published three years earlier, in September 1911). Slanguage was thus doubly valuable for the Words in War-Time project – as a word about words it had an obvious thematic pertinence. Moreover, as in Clark’s early emphasis on the kind of word-pictures which would be vital in reporting and recording war, slanguage was described in terms which drew attention to the visual and picturesque quality of the coinages which had, within the first months of war, already come into being.
Some elements of this changing discourse of war have already been discussed in earlier posts. In terms of weapons, Jack Johnsonsand coal boxes, as the Evening News likewise observed, presented striking metaphors for what were, in other respects, terrifying ‘engines of destruction’. Continue reading →
Words, as the Scotsman explored in September 1914, played a role which, in a range of ways, often moved outside the merely representative. As other posts on this site have explored, language in WWI can, of course, easily reveal changes in material culture or the gradual extension (or restriction) of meaning in response to particular events. Yet, as the Scotsman stressed, words, not least by strategic acts of renaming, could also be used to embody a stance of defiance and undaunted resistance, of opposition and deflected power. The range of familiar epithets which the German howitzer shells were to acquire across WWI offered an eloquent example. Coined in the trenches and widely seen as representative of the ‘slanguage’ which drew comment across the war years, the names and meanings used in this respect would, at least verbally, deliiberately undercut the power and intimidating effects of the missiles launched against the Allied lines. As the Scotsman explained, for example, here just a few weeks into the war:
the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell filled 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 (‘The German “Jack Johnsons”’, Scotsman 25 Sept 1914)
This passage contains a number of elements which were already highly resonant of time and place. Both crater and detonate, as Andrew Clark commented, drew on meanings which, if familiar across the autumn of 1914, had by no means been so before. A crater was an ‘excavation or cavity formed by the explosion of a mine; the funnel’ as the contemporary OED (in a section published in 1893) had explained, providing evidence from the Penny Cyclopaedia in 1839 (‘The dimensions of the crater or funnel formed by the explosion depend on the amount of the charge’; ‘The ratio between the diameter of the crater and the length of the line of least resistance’).** Yet, as in the extract from the Scotsman above, crater in WW1 would primarily signify the immense holes which shells made as they exploded. Meaning had moved on; encountering a convalescent sergeant on a train coming from Oxford in November 1914, Clark had been reliably informed that the larger shells created craters large enough to swallow a small cottage. The OED definition could seem particularly inadequate. Detonate, as the Words in War-Time archive also confirms, presented other departures. In the OED as it then existed, detonate was a transitive verb meaning ‘To cause to explode with sudden loud report, in the act of chemical decomposition or combination’. This could seem equally out of place. ‘On Tuesday the enemy’s guns were active in the afternoon. It is believed that the bombardment was due to anger because two of our howitzer shells had detonated right in the enemy’s trenches, which was full of men’, as the Scotsman noted on Monday 12th October 1914. Surely detonate now meant ‘to explode’, Andrew Clark suggested alongside the range of extracts which he gathered up as relevant evidence of change.
Most significant, however, as the Scotsman article continued, was the disjunction which, in terms of language, came to be apparent between the ‘terrific violence’ of the howitzer shells – and the various verbal strategies which soldiers deployed in order to refer to them. They are, as it noted:
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.
Words, the Scotsman argued, could in such ways be seen as reflective of the wider psychology of war. Irreverence – and the deliberate mismatch of form and thing – could be precisely the point. As in the reassignment of howitzer shells to the diction of coal-boxes, a deliberate reductiveness (and diminution) was often at work. As the OED explained, a coal-box had hitherto been part of domestic diction, being used, as in Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants, to refer to a receptacle for coal as used within the home: ‘Leave a Payl of dirty Water, a Coal-box…and such other unsightly Things’, Swift had written in 1745. Relocated to WW1, the coal-boxes which assailed the Allies were deemed equally ‘unsightly’, not least in terms of their ‘greasy black smoke’ which shells of this kind emit upon impact. As another extract in the Words in War-Time archive confirms:
These German shells are 90lbs., and on account of their dense black smoke they have been christened “Coal Boxes.” Everyone says, “Mind the coal-box.” They do dreadful damage’’ (Evening News, 9 October 1914)
Such uses relied, in effect, on a form of metaphorical transfer; the soot emitted by domestic coal-boxes when the latter were placed roughly upon the ground is made comically analogous to the shells and their intentionally devastating effects. As in other aspects of trench slang, appellations of this kind are deliberately transgressive — confirming, too, a refusal to submit (quite literally) to German terms. Jack Johnsons were similar. As the Evening News explained in January 1915, they denoted, in essence, larger types of the same weapon (‘The shells of the 8.27 in. and 11.2 in. howitzers are indiscriminately termed “Jack Johnsons,” “Black Marias,” and “Portmanteaux”’). In this instance, however, renaming drew on the American boxer who was the world heavyweight champion in 1914 – and whose punch was legendary. Here, too, however, visual analogy played a part; Johnson’s nickname was ‘The Big Smoke’ (the fact that Johnson was black was, as the Daily Express explained in a later extract in the archive, not entirely immaterial). As Adrian Gregory explains in a comment below, the fact that Johnson was scheduled in 1914 to fight a French opponent had an obvious pertinence too.
As a number of news articles note, however, the real significance of verbal play of this kind lay in its evocative symbiosis of word, meaning, and attitude. As the Evening News commented, for example, while Kaiser Wilhelm II had characterised the British Expeditionary Force as a ‘contemptible little army’, contempt could easily be reappropriated — and redirected:
The strong point of our “contemptible little Army” has all along been its refusal to be terrified either by the weight of numbers or the use of the most terrible engines of destruction that have ever been employed in warfare. The shells of the new large calibre Krupp howitzer were to strike terror into the hearts of the “treacherous” British. Instead the “Jack Johnsons” of the Fatherland have been treated by our troops with regrettable levity, and though they have done their work effectively enough in a material sense, our moral has remained unaffected (Evening News Thurs 1 October 1914)
Here, if the ‘regrettable levity’ of the Allies receives comment, it is, of course, entirely ironic. Instead levity is commended while the resulting expressions symbolise the undaunted spirit with which conflict was faced. Words – and the power to name – can, the Evening News argued, importantly deflect and destabilize the kind of terror which had been intended. Moral (MnE morale) remained intact.
**crater. A definition ‘the cavity formed by the explosion of a shell’ was added in the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary which was published in 1933. It tracked usage back to 1855 and the conflict of the Sebastopol campaign, as well as adding later examples from WWI, dating from December 1914 onwards. Evidence from October 1914 was added later, though Clark’s evidence on crater from September 1914 still remains of interest. See “crater, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 12 January 2015.
Scouting, as a way of finding out facts about the enemy’s position and defences, has a long history in war. The relevant entry in the first edition of the OED had been completed in 1911; to scout, it confirmed, was ‘to act as a scout; to play the spy’, as well as (under sense 4) ‘To reconnoitre, to examine with a view to obtaining information’. ‘Besides, they must skoute, discouer, with all dueties that belongs vnto an Armie’, as RogerWilliams had stated in his Briefe Discourse of Warre in 1590 (the quote appeared in the OED in illustration of the first sense given above). Jonathan Swift’s mock-battle in his Tale of a Tub provided the first illustrative citation of scout sense 4: ‘One surveys the Region round, while t’other scouts the Plain’. Nineteenth-century news discourse usefully provided evidence for its later use, as in an OED quotation taken from the Daily News in 1871 (‘Bazaine has been condemned by every military authority in Europe for not scouting the ravine of Gorze’). The same newspaper provided the OED’s concluding quotation too, dated to 1900: ‘Major Karri Davies, with eight men of the Light Horse, were ordered to scout the country’.
Newspaper citations of this kind also provided, of course, the kind of precedent which Andrew Clark widely adopted for his own project in tracking words in use, and the changes in form and meaning that they could reveal, here within the time-frame of a specific historical event. The three years since the OED entry of 1911 brought, as Clark argued, a range of new developments in these terms. Scouting offered a range of interesting changes, closely linked with the emergent technologies of modern warfare. ‘Scouts beneath the Waves’, as the Daily Express stated in September 1914 – a statement which it glossed by the explanatory ‘Hidden Watchers in Submarines’. ’Scouts in the Air’, it affirmed, if to rather different ends. ‘Scouting missions’, as Clark noted, could be realised in entirely new ways in WWI, involving aviators and daredevils** rather than the advance parties on horse or foot who people the relevant entries in the OED.
In other popular locutions, scouts could even be realised in non-human form entirely: ‘The air scouts of an army in action start from a landing-ground … that is obviously some distance behind the actual scene of action. The aeroplanes start from that point, make their reconnaissances, and return thereto, either to make their reports or to land for supplies of petrol and oil’, as the Daily Express explained to its readers in late August 1914′. ‘Soon, however, another machine hove into view, which turned out to be a German Otto biplane, a type of machine which is not nearly so fast as our scouts’, the Evening News stated to similar effect in October 1914. As Clark pointed out, scouts in this respect signified the planes rather than their occupants.As another early entry in the Words in War-Time archive notes, scouting monoplanes of this kind (‘One of our aviators on a fast scouting monoplane sighted a hostile machine’, Evening News 15 October 1914) formed, of necessity, another absence in the contemporary OED.
As Clark realised, air scouts and aerial scouting (the latter recorded in the Evening News in September 1914)** served to realise and express the new enterprise of air reconnaissance — another form which came into historical prominence in the early days of WWI (even if this, too, remained and, indeed, still remains absent from the OED):
From their [the German] rate of fire they seemed to be nearly automatic, but so far they have not had much effect in reducing the air reconnaissance carried out by us (Evening News Oct 15 1914).
As Clark noted, evidence on reconnaissance in the contemporary OED had ended in 1875; it was moreover Wellington’s military missions which had been deemed to provide appropriate illustration in ways which evoked a far earlier period of history (‘A body of troops sent to reconnoitre’: 1811 Wellington, ‘The enemy sent a reconnaissance of cavalry…consisting of about fourteen squadrons…of the Imperial Guard’).Flight, and the wide-ranging role of air scouts instead bought results which, as the Scotsman contended, surely rendered older forms of reconnaissance obsolete:
even with a limited flying service, if it is efficiently handled, secrecy in the concentration of large bodies of troops has been rendered almost impossible. The air scouts receive their orders, and whirl aloft. Each sweeps upon an individual route, and each returns with observations, that are blended to form a whole. Where is the enemy in greatest strength? what troops are in motion, and in what direction are they moving ?
As it added, ‘Instead of groping clumsily in a twilight, as was the case in former times, a Commander-in-Chief in this war, thanks to his aircraft, finds himself provides with an all-seeing eye’. Patriotic pride centred, as here, on these new scouts of the air in a diction which is densely emblematic of time and place. The ‘splendid work of the Flying Corps’ is praised for its strategic importance in what was depicted as acts of of information rather than attack. ‘The main object of military aviation is the collection of information’, as the Scotsman announced on 15th September 1914, providing useful evidence on reconnaissance flight as another newly familiar formation. ‘The constant object of our aviators has been to effect the accurate location of the enemy’s forces’, it added.
Here and elsewhere, the Words in War-Time archive emblematises the historical moment, presenting, as in the quotations above, eloquent evidence of the changes which took place in contemporary perception, not least in terms of the diverse role of flight in modern war, and its vital significance.
** daredevil was another word which took on an interesting alignment with the enterprise of war in the air. Clark located early evidence in October 1914 which suggested a new meaning restricted specifically to airmen, and those who ventured on dangerous missions as part of the Flying Corps:
that is why the work in the air will always demands the daredevil. That is why the world will thrill to the deeds of the airmen, to the wild swoop through the shrapnel upon the mark for the bomb, to the vaunting swoop above the trenches that belch forth searching bullets’ (17th October 1914)
Dare-devil had been recorded in the relevant section of the OED (printed in 1894, and provided with evidence 1794-1874), but Clark, rightly, suggested yet another change was at work, embedded in the ways in which one could, in a time of war and via flight, find new ways in which being ‘recklessly daring’ might be manifest. The OED1 entry remains unrevised in OED Online. See dare-devil, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 22 December 2014.
** aerial scouting (Evening News, 4 Sept 1914): ‘ThTheir usual plan is to send out aeroplanes, which are followed by a Zeppelin with explosives’
War, as many writers have explored, is a profoundly alienating experience, wrenching those who participate in it – whether voluntarily or otherwise – away from their familiar paths and patterns of life. Language, as the Words in Wartime project confirms, was, in many ways, to be part of this same process. A diverse range of words acquired new meanings and senses, or were forced into new combinatory forms and creative combinations; others faced sudden obsolescence or an equally unexpected rise to public prominence.
Language could, however, also be used to familiarize the entirely unfamiliar, offering an at times bizarre domestication of the alien world of life at the Front. It was by processes of this kind that, as in Edmund Blunden’s later poem ‘Trench Nomenclature’, the shells which rained down on the battlefield could be depicted in terms of the firework displays of peace-time: “Thence Brock’s Benefit commanded endless fireworks by two nations,// Yet some voices there were raised against the rival coruscations”. Brock’s fireworks had, since 1865 provided free public displays (‘benefits’) which were held once a year at Crystal Palace in London. Transferred to the battlefield, such forms – as earlier news reports attest – could draw attention to the paradoxical beauty which war could offer, here by means of the colours and brilliance of the bursting shells set against the dark skies of the Western Front.
Nevertheless, the irony of such transferred meanings was also plain; the public displays which took place over the battlefields of WWI were staged with a rather different intent, while the benefits which might be conferred were, with typical trench humour, highly dubious. As the 1972 Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, the diction of Brocks benefits became a staple aspect of war narratives. Evidence in the dictionary is traced back to 1920, first being attested in Phillip Gibbs’s Realities of War: ‘They…opened such a Brock’s benefit that the enemy must have been shocked with surprise’, as well as in, say, as Ian Hay’s Willing Horse (1921): ‘The Germans were furnished with bombs which exploded on impact; ours were of the Brock’s Benefit type, and had to be lit with a match’. The legacy of such diction continues across the twentieth century: as Robert Burchfield noted in his 1972 definition in the Supplement, the sense was that of ‘a brilliant illumination at night, esp. in war, from searchlights, flares, artillery, etc.’.
No evidence, however, derives from the war years themselves. While Brock’s benefits can vividly evoke the visual experience of battle ( as well as its camaraderie), they are – by the nature of the evidence available even in the modern OED – attested only with hindsight, and witnessed in retrospective narratives of the war years. Clark’s eye for detail in his notebooks provides therefore what might well be one of the early ancestors of this phrase, dated to September 1914:
‘Captain Berners, of the Irish, who was at the depot, was the life and soul of our lot. When shells were bursting over our heads he would buck us up with his humour about Brock’s displays at the Palace’ (Star 22 September 1914).
While this differs from the collocation which would, in time, later be habitualized, the direct speech which the Star reports contains its salient elements; the ‘Palace’ is ‘Crystal Palace’, and shells are – through the medium of words – transformed, if only temporarily, into Brock’s fireworks which explode without malign intent. As in other aspects of trench slang, humour and the play of words could enforce a sense of solidarity and resistance in which meaning spanned life before the advent of war, as well as the dislocations which conflict would bring.
In 1914, the entry for siege and related words was a relatively recent addition within the still on-going Oxford English Dictionary. Completed four years before the outbreak of war, this had detailed a range of meanings, though its salience in terms of conflict was plain; as the entry explained, siege in this sense denoted ‘The action, on the part of an army, of investing a town, castle, etc., in order to cut off all outside communication and in the end to reduce or take it’. Supporting evidence in the Dictionary began in 1300 and extended to 1876. ‘The penetrating power of the arms which would now be used at a siege is far greater than it used to be’, as the most recent citation had warned.
As Clark realised, writing war in the autumn of 1914 seemed nevertheless to require some readjustment in the ways in which siege was used and understood. Used in contemporary news reporting, siege took on new resonances and implications, evoking not the sense of enclosure by which towns and castles had historically been surrounded, but instead the state of stasis on a battlefield in which positions — and battle lines — were, quite literally, entrenched. ‘No longer a battle, but a siege’ as a headline in the Scotsman declared on 23 September 1914. The accompanying article detailed on a form of warfare in which staying power, endurance, as well as elaborate defensive positions, were all conspicuous:
It is no longer a battle, but a siege, the Germans having constructed along the hundred miles of front from the river Oise to the Meuse a series of small fortresses, consisting of old forts and disused quarries. Bomb-proof shelters, formed of bags of cement, and subterranean passages connect the basements of the heights of Pommiers with the open country, whereby the enemy is victualled and supplied with ammunition’ (Scotsman 23 Sept 1914)
If we now associate WWI with the familiarization of trench warfare(a term which was, in fact, also omitted from the OED’s first edition)** it was, as Clark’s notebooks reveal, the diction of sieges, and siege warfare, which, as here, would initially assume prominence. Siege war, Clark later reflected, was a term of striking currency in October and November 1914. ‘We are slowly advancing in the regional of the Vosges and in Lorraine, where a regular siege war has been in progress for two days’, as the Evening News reported on September 2nd. Both siege war and siege warfare presented other absences from the contemporary OED (and indeed, we might note, from its modern equivalent). For Clark, their newness seemed significant — a way of exploring in words a war in which movement seemed all too limited. As in the quotation below, taken from the Evening News, siege warfare is placed in inverted commas or scare quotes — a device which makes visible both the lexical departures (and extensions) which were at stake:
The “siege warfare” of the river Aisne continues (Evening News 25 Sept 1914)
This was, in reality, what would come to be known as the First Battle of Aisne. As the article continues, the ‘battle began on 12th Sept, this is the fourteenth day’. The ‘siege’ — and the military stalemate it invoked — would come to an end on 28th September, when fighting was abandoned without a decisive victory being achieved by either side.
Siege warfare of this kind depended on extensive fortifications – and trenches – which brought, as Clark realised, a wide range of other new forms of diction in their wake. If the Scotsman on 13th October 1914 stressed the ‘value of trenchesin the present battles’, here too, the OED — and its record of language on historical principles — seemed to have swiftly been left behind. The OED‘s definition had, for example, been written in June 1914 — but could already seem remote from the kind of methods which were being widely deployed on the Western Front:
3. Mil. An excavation of the kind described in sense 2 a, the earth from which is thrown up in front as a parapet, serving either to cover or to oppose the advance of a besieging force. Chiefly in pl. (OED1/ OED2)
In the dictionary, illustrative evidence began in 1500 and extended to 1879 with an embedded definition from Cassell’s Technical Education: ‘When this excavation is behind the mound it is called a trench’. As the OED added, trench was ‘More particularly applied to the ditch or excavation’.
For Clark, an article in the Scotsman on Friday 11th September already, however, served to provide a very different set of associations:
The defeat of the Marne has not left the enemy unprepared, and the formidable nature of the defence works, through anticipations of a possible retreat all along the present front … is enabling them to make a firm stand. The enemy’s trenches north of Chalonsare a metre (just over a yard) deep, with shell shields every twenty metres, and rest chambers. The multiple lines of the trenches are flanked with further defence works.
Clark drew attention to other unrecorded forms here – neither rest chambers nor shell shields were explained in these senses in the OED. Trenches, as later posts will explore, came to require an extensive and abundant metalanguage. Already in the autumn of 1914, it was clear that they formed a space in which those engaged in the conflict were – both literally and metaphorically – “dug in”, in what would also form a significant shift in language over the course of the war. As a telling first-hand account (from the Scotsman on 21st September 1914) had recounted:
We are slowly beating them back. We have to do it foot by foot, for they have huge guns, and their fire is terrible…Well, we dig ourselves in. We British lads have learned the lesson, and then we go on fighting and fighting until the moment comes when we can make our advance. We crawl up and again we dig ourselves in, and so on.
Siege warfare, seen in these terms, required new lessons which those involved in WWI quickly assimilated in order to survive. To dig in, as used here, was to be a new military sense, later defined in the OED as ‘To excavate a trench or the like in order to withstand an attack or consolidate a position’. Recorded from the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (which was published in 1989), the sense is given as dating from 1917. In reality, as Clark’s first notebooks attest, it was, of course, in use from the early weeks of war; ‘The Germans are digging themselves in upon almost all points of their position’, as the Scotsman stated on 18 Sept 1914. As Clark argued, uses of this kind informed other new senses of words such as entrenched, as well as signalling still other distinctive intersections of language and history.
**This section of the OED was revised in June 2014; trench warfare is now taken back to 1887, though its use in signifying ‘A protracted dispute or prolonged state of discord characterized by stubborn adherence to established positions, opinions, etc., and persistent sniping between opponents’ is given as dating from 1915.
The adventures of the Mechanical Mounted Infantry continued to draw press attention across the autumn of 1914, bringing other new patterns of language in their wake. One form which Clark assiduously noted down in this context was the carabineer cyclist, a combination which was (and indeed remains) unrecorded in English dictionaries. As we are informed at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/carabineer, for example, carabineer is now a distinctly historical form, and is labelled accordingly. Its definition, however, suggests a history which is by no means in alignment with WWI and the evidence of words in war time which Clark provides. As the entry explains, a carabineer is ‘A cavalry soldier whose principal weapon was a carbine’, Cavalry, if we follow the link, provides the further meaning ‘(In the past) soldiers who fought on horseback’, as in ‘the cavalry charged up the hill; the army numbered around 100,000 cavalry’. ‘In previous wars, horsed cavalry had performed such a role, but cavalry were generally of little use in the trenches of the Western Front’, as a further example avers. Carabineer cyclists are distinctly anamalous in this light.
Such definitions have, of course, their own place in history. The first citation for carabineerin the Oxford English Dictionary is, for example, from Nathan Bailey’s 1721 Universal Etymological English Dictionary: ‘Carabineers, horse-men who carry Carabines’. Later examples in the OED confirm the continuity of this sense. Nevertheless, if, as modern lexicography suggests, cavalry is traditionally the essence of the carabineer, then extracts such as the one below, taken from the Daily Express on the 30th September 1914, offer rather different readings in which the (German) cavalry is placed in marked opposition to the carabineer cyclist, whose superior skill (and mount of a rather different kind) is clearly made to win the day:
A Belgian carabineer cyclist showed me a cavalry cap, with the familiar skull and crossbones embroidered on the front, which he tore from the body of a horseman after shooting him in a wood near Erpe on Saturday afternoon.
This is taken from a first-person (and first-hand) report of a war correspondent who, as here, sought to provide an eye-witness account of the realities of events at the front. Against the stasis of meaning which English dictionaries suggest, carabineers had, at least in this context, clearly moved on, riding bicycles rather than horses, even if the gun remains an essential aspect of their armoury. Clark provides another similar example from a news report headed ‘Roadside Battle Pictures’: ‘Another carabineer cyclist pounds along the road, and slows up long enough to shout, “We are to advance.” (Daily Express, 30th Sept 1914).
In 2014, the OED entry for carabineer meanwhile still remains rooted in a far earlier time. First published in 1888, it has, as yet, not been updated, and its most recent evidence dates from 1873. The entry for carbine reveals similar problems of time and change: ‘A kind of firearm, shorter than the musket, used by the cavalry and other troops; ‘a kind of medium between the pistol and the musket’ (Johnson)’. Evidence stops in the mid-19thC, and includes examples such as the Duke of Wellington’s Dispatches from 1815 (‘I will apply for the Carbines for your Cavalry’) and W. Greener’s Gunnery in 1858 (‘Double rifled carbines can be constructed of so light a weight that their exclusive use for cavalry is not far distant’). Nevertheless, as my history colleague at Pembroke confirms, carbines – at least for the British – no longer defined the carabineer in WW1, though – as for the Belgian forces — carabineer (as title) could be used to define particular regiments in the infantry. News reports in the autumn of 1914 frequently refer to carabineers, though carabineer cyclists represent a new departure on both counts, and in ways which extend, of course, to language and the combinatory forms which specific points of history can yield. Entries of this kind provided still more justification for Clark’s self-appointed role in watching language change, and recording the potentially ephemeral forms which could, as here, arise.