Fireworks at the Front: Brock’s Benefits

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.

fireworks at the front
Art by George Weekes, 1914-18. Used with permission of the Weekes family. For more information on George Weekes’ paintings and WWI, see http://www.pmb.ox.ac.uk/content/art-george-weekes-gallery-1-wartime

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.