“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

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/27747

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.”

Continue reading

Being compelled to go to war; raids, recruits, and the “Round-Up” in 1916

As the previous post explores, the early months of 1916 witnessed a number of new stages in recruitment for the armed forces. The Derby scheme represented the last stages of volunteerism, enabling men who had attested to be called up – in another newly pervasive form of words – in groups. As the 1916 booklet When I Join the Ranks explained, “The “calling up” of any Group is effected by means of a general Proclamation, giving one month’s notice, but each individual soldier also receives a notice by post actually summoning him and giving him a fortnight in which to settle his affairs’

who's absente
Imperial War Museum. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/itm/object 27747

There were nevertheless large numbers of men who still remained outside this system – some excluded by age or disability, or by work in spheres which were deemed important enough to secure exemption from active service. Others – at least rhetorically – were often deemed to fall into the domains of shirkers and slackers, words which took on increasingly gendered patterns of meaning between 1914-18. While shirker is, on the surface, gender-neutral, it was, ‘for the duration’, a term freighted with connotations of evading and avoiding military service in ways which pertained only to male spheres of use. Slacker was similar. Both operated as terms of male opprobrium, in narrowly specific senses which pertained to the absence of active participation in the war.

While men might have “failed to come forward”, either as part of the Derby Scheme or in the months and years before its introduction, the question of (non)-participation was, however, to became much more pointed with the introduction of conscription or compulsory service, first announced in the Military Service Bill of January 1916 (though not fully implemented until May). “Compulsion becomes law”, the Daily Express announced on May 26; as of to-day ‘the Military Service act’ would ‘make a soldier of every man, married or unmarried, in Great Britain between the ages of eighteen and forty-one’. While the wider ramifications of this – especially in terms of the refusal to serve, will be considered in later posts — this post will focus on other aspects of evasion and attempted control in the diction of what came to be known as the round-up or rounding-up

Some young men, hearing that a “round-up” was impending, unsuccessfully tried to escape during the progress of the match, and with a number of others were detained for enquiries.

Raid at Newmarket. A Military “Round-Up” on the racecourse. Newmarket racecourse was raided to-day by a strong force of military and police in search of absentees from service. .. The rounding up continued during the day.

The round-up, as a contemporary note from 1916 in the Words in War-Time archive explains, was used to designate “attempts made, by police raids, in places of amusement, in search of men of military age who were shirking service”. Continue reading

“Soldiers-to-be”: Language and liminality in the wake of the Derby Scheme

 

derby scheme

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5061.

Like the bride-to-be, the diction of the soldier-to-be has an interesting liminality. The bride-to-be is not yet a bride; the promise has been made, but not yet fulfilled. The formal union lies in the future. Nevertheless, if framed by a kind of temporal expectation, events may still not materialise quite as planned. Not all brides-to-be become brides; decisions made earlier might be regretted or revoked. Second thoughts might prevail, while the advertised wedding might not come to pass.

Soldiers-to-be participates in some of this flux of meaning and status, if relocated to a rather different sphere. Here the expected union is that of active service, while ‘to-be’ adroitly picks up the gap between a stated commitment to fight, and its realisation. As in the age-old divide between word and deed by which the true hero is defined, the soldier to-be could occupy an interestingly liminal space.

It appears as yet another lexical item which remains unrecorded in formal lexicography. Picked up in the Words in War-Time archive in early 1916, it appears, for example, in advertising campaigns directed at the ‘Derby Men’ or, on other words, at a specific sub-category of men who had attested under Lord Derby’s scheme, formally the Group Scheme, in the autumn of 1915. The ‘Derby Scheme’ (variously referred in news discourse of the day the Derby crusade or Derby experiment, with various degrees of reservation) aimed to boost enlistment among the millions of eligible men who, as National Registration had shown, remained at home (some, admittedly, in protected forms of employment). Under the ‘Scheme’, one could enlist for immediate service, thereby passing from civilian or civvie to soldier with immediate effect. But, as in the case of soldiers-to-be, one could ‘attest’ and remain at home, bearing only to the obligation to embark on active service once summoned to do so, or ‘called up’.

Seen in terms of language, then, the Derby Scheme yielded a range of interesting forms. Hall’s Wine, the ‘supreme tonic restorative’ which frequently advertised its efficacy for the diverse forms of nerve-strain witnessed as war advanced, would, for example, rapidly seize this opportunity too. While targeted marketing was therefore aimed at soldiers at the Front, a further assault was aimed at the soldier-to-be whose anxiety levels, as the advertising campaigns noted, might well be on the rise. Unlike the enlisting fever or khaki fever attested in earlier comment on the war, soldiers-to-be had hitherto proved resistant to contagion of this kind. Now, however, ‘many and many a man’, as the advertising copy proclaimed, was to be fetched from occupations on the Home front for a set of ‘new and arduous duties’:

The next few months will take many and many a man from desk and office and factory to make of him a soldier. In thousands of cases these workers will be ‘softened’ by their sedentary lives, will indeed be far from fit to tackle their new and arduous duties. In every case Hall’s Wine will be found most helpful

Addressed directly to the ‘soldier-to-be’, advertising of this kind neatly exploited the linguistic and military limbo of this section of the Derby Scheme. As it stressed, ‘workers’ will be made into ‘soldiers’, while the ‘sedentary’ must be made ‘fit to tackle’ war. Continue reading

“Pinkers”, “pink forms”, and being “in the pink”.

‘I am still in the pink. Terribly dirty, but as happy as a kid with mud. Still in the same place. Awful slaughter. Two more of our men were wounded last night by a shell. One had three fingers blown clean off’.

This letter was reproduced in the Evening News in October 1914 from where, carefully clipped out (and with in the pink underlined), it made its way into  the Words in War-Time archive.  Originally written by Corporal Bert —- [the surname is elided],  it reassured his family in Walthamstow of his continued good health at the Front.

image
Royal Library of Belgium; Free Access-Rights Reserved.

Moving from private to public domains, the letter hence participated  in the contemporary recording of war (newspapers such as the Evening News regularly sought out first-hand testimony of this kind, offering, too, the promise of monetary reward).

Seen in term of the archive, however, it was to participate in living history of a different kindIn these terms,  in the pink signalled  a phrase which was, as yet,  unattested in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary  (the section dealing with words in the range Ph-Piper had been published eight years earlier, appearing in June 1906). It would, in fact,  emerge as one of the most characteristic idioms of war-time discourse, constituting a familiar item in letters to and from the Front, as well as being appropriated into a range of other domains. Continue reading

Recruits and shirkers: identity politics in the early days of war

enlist
Parliamentary Recruiting Committee; L. S. and Co. Austrian National Library. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved

To recruit, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, has long been in use in English. The first evidence of its military sense occurs in 1655; the corresponding noun was recorded from 1626. Yet, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, the early weeks of war quickly brought other aspects of use into play. Here, too, Clark’s interest in ephemera of all kinds again clearly worked to good effect. Gathering up evidence of lexical and material culture alike, he quickly sent a set of recruiting posters for safe storage to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Meanwhile, in his notebooks, he commented on recruiting poster as a noun, finding only silence when he tried to look it up in the OED as it then existed.**

In the context of WW1, a recruiting poster was, Clark explained, a printed bill which invited recruits to join the army, He provided a clipping from the Daily Express on August 29th 1914 in careful illustration. The language of recruiting, as Clark’s first notebook records, would in fact neatly mirror the highly public pressure to join up, and ‘do one’s bit’. As the Scotsman reported on Saturday 5th September 1914, Edinburgh had recently witnessed both recruiting marches and recruiting parades. For Clark these confirmed two new combinations which also remained – and remain – absent from the OED, Continue reading