Writing a “barbed-wire war”

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,

Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.

Wilfred Owen , ‘Exposure’ (1917)

That wire or barbed wire could become a feature of sustained poetic interest would have seemed inconceivable before WWI began. A late nineteenth-century innovation (and credited to Joseph Glidden in Illinois), the term had, in fact, been omitted from the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in yet another instance which challenged its intended status as ‘inventory’ of the language as a whole. ‘Of a horse’, the OED instead specified under barbed, describing an animal which is ‘armed or caparisoned with a barb’. That steel and iron could be barbed or hooked was confirmed by evidence from the Bible, as well as eighteenth-century translations of the Odyssey or, most recently, a translation of Homer’s Iliad from 1870. In the dictionary, barbs are described in relation to spears and arrows, plants, and hooks — but not wire. Only in September 2009 would barbed wire gain its own entry in the OED (here as part of the on-going revision for its third edition).

In 1914-15, as Andrew Clark confirms in the Words in War-Time archive, these gaps In the historical record of words and their use could, however, seem all too plain. He noted down the absence of barbed wire in the OED, while tracking its sudden prominence – as adjective, noun, and verb — in contemporary news reporting. ‘They have prepared elaborate trenches, and barbed wire approaches to protect the position of the heavy guns behind the hillcrests’, an early report in the Daily Express stated on Saturday 19th September 1914. ‘The Austrians retreated on Yanov, where there were strong entrenchments with barbed wire entanglements and other obstacles’, another extract in the archive confirms. By October, as the Evening News declared, barbed wire was seen as a salient component of the war experience, being placed on a level with shrapnel in defining the perceptual reality of conflict, and the difficulties and dangers which this brought:

This barbed-wire war, which, next to the German shrapnel, is about the only thing our men frankly express a fear for (Evening News October 1st 1914)

barbed wire
Shell bursting amongst the barbed wire entanglements on the battlefield at Beaumont Hamel, December 1916 © IWM (Q 1688); http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205072930

To see shrapnel and barbed wire put on the same level can perhaps surprise. Yet other evidence which Clark assembled in the archive supports this view, stressing the sense of powerlessness which both could inflict. In contemporary news reporting, barbed wire can, of course, be used to evoke an idealised heroic disregard for physical circumstance, alongside an exemplary fearlessness; ‘Neither ditch nor barbed wire could stop them’, the Scotsman comments in another extract, here celebrating the Highlanders’ change against the German army in October 1914. Yet, as the extract below suggests, its connotations were often very different. The original agricultural uses of barbed wire were distanced. Instead it was repeatedly translated into a formidable – and forbidding – aspect of life of the Western Front. ‘Talk about entanglements!’, Private G. Watts of the Cheshire regiment exclaims, for example, in another ‘Letter from the Front’ which was subsequently reprinted in the Daily Express:

Give me shells and bullets before them. A man never knows how useless struggling is till he gets into loose barbed wire. Every movement mixes him worse, and he is lucky if he can keep his face out of the spikes. Some of our chaps will carry ugly marks all their lives. My legs are pretty well ornamented, and one boot is cut four times across the upper and toe (Daily Express, October 20th 1914)

Even if it had been used in conflict before the onset of WW1,it is clear that the use of barbed wire after 1914 would capture attention, and imagination, in highly distinctive ways. Long before Wilfred Owen, barbed wire could serve as a form of shorthand for human vulnerability, and the toll that war could bring. An article in the Daily Express in May 1915 focusses, for example, on the ‘death-tortured no-man’s land’, depicting the ‘bullet-ploughed ground between the blood-spattered hedges of barbed wire’ (Daily Express, 15 May 1915).

As the Words in War-Time archive confirms, barbed wire was, in effect, to be complete with its own sub-lexicon (and other significant patterns of change) in what became another characteristic aspect of writing trench warfare. Entanglements, as Clark noted, was another term in constant use in 1914-1915, bringing ready familiarity to a form which, while a long-established part of  military campaigns, was also consolidated in distinctive ways in the early months of WWI. Entanglements, as a range of citations affirms, were, in effect, to become synonymous with barbed wire;

Clark’s private life, too, confirmed its pervasiveness. A letter from his brother in Scotland commented on the wire-entanglements along the coast in Scotland in November 1914. Clark’s diary in December 1914 likewise provides a careful description (and diagram) of a barbed-wire entanglement as encountered on a visit to the training camp in Braintree; its short stakes are connected by two rows of wire, and with additional wire looped and relooped between the rows to form an intentionally impermeable defence.

Yet, as Clark added, entanglement in this sense was another absence from the OED as it then existed. Added later, the dictionary would usefully track usage back to 1834. It provided, too, the definition, 3. Mil. An extensive barrier arranged so as to impede an enemy’s movements; an abatis formed of trees and branches, or an obstruction formed of stakes and barbed wire. Yet, as Clark would have commented, this arguably misses the point, as least as far as Words in War-Time is concerned – in WWI, the key issue was the seamlessness by which wire and entanglements came to be yoked together – in language as in life.** Features such as these, and their frequent iteration whether in popular news reports and private letters, combined to give the resonant image of ‘the wire’ in the diction of WW1 – where the ellipsis of the characteristic barbed serves as an all too eloquent testimony of the prevalence, and deadly familiarity, of this aspect of conflict.

Entanglement. The OED’s definition (see entanglement (n.), OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 10 February 2015.) merges the various physical forms which entanglements can have. While accompanying evidence –see below — shows the historical development, what is absent is the clustered usages, and marked connotations, of WWI — in ways which would, for Clark, clearly justify his self-appointed enterprise

1834 J. S. Macaulay Field Fortif. iv. 83 The boughs of the brushwood..interlacing with one another, will thus form a very good obstacle, called an entanglement.

1876, 1879 [see wire entanglement].

1899 Westm. Gaz. 17 Nov. 2/1 Where a wood enters into the scheme of defence, an abattis–in this case called an ‘entanglement’–forms naturally one of the best resources of the defenders.

1916 ‘Boyd Cable’ Action Front 47 Slowly and cautiously, with the officer leading, they began to wend their way out under their own entanglements.

1917 [see wire n. 1 e].

1922 Blunden Shepherd 69 They’ve all died on the entanglements

Watching change in progress: shrapnel

The aim behind Clark’s ‘Words in War-Time’ project was to look at language, history, and their interrelationship, at close quarters. While the Oxford English Dictionary applied historical principles to language from 1150 to the present day, Clark aimed to look at language, and history, as it happened – testing historical principles in the everyday and as prompted by what gradually emerged as one of the most significant historical events of the twentieth century. A range of words can, in different ways, reveal, and confirm, change in progress (in language and war alike) in the autumn of 1914 – confirming, too, Clark’s intuitions about the salience of observing language in a period of unprecedented historical change.

Shrapnel, mentioned briefly in an earlier post, was, for example, particularly interesting in the changing patterns of use that Clark’s early notebooks reveal. This had, in fact, been one of the most recent entries in the OED as it then existed.  The relevant section of the dictionary had been published in late March 1914; as the image below illustrates, the history of shrapnel was tracked from 1806 when the inventiveness of General Shrapnel in the Peninsular war gave his name to this new mode of attack and defence. Shrapnel, the OED wrote, was ‘A hollow projectile containing bullets and a small bursting charge, which when fired by the time fuse, bursts the shell and scatters the bullets in a shower’. As this definition indicates, the shrapnel is the casing, and the contents are the bullets. Constructions such as shrapnel shell, as in the quotations from 1870 and 1890, make this meaning particularly clear.


Tracking language in use in September and October 1914, this meaning of shrapnel, as Clark demonstrates, is, as expected, often in evidence. An article headed ‘The Battle of Soissons. A View of the Fighting’, which Clark took from the Scotsman on the 16th of September described, for example, the paradoxical beauty of war:

As a panoramic scene the engagement was beautiful. The day was cold and clear. The city, particularly the cathedral, stood out in bold relief in its little valley, while the shrapnel exploded above it in balloon-like floating white puffs. Occasionally black smoke rose where the siege shells burst.

In this account, shrapnel – just as in the OED — is a single entity which explodes, scattering its contents to fall with intentionally devastating effects on those below. Other comments in the same article make this sense particularly plain:

the French shrapnel exploded low and accurately’

My first view of the fighting was shrapnel bursting about the beautiful two-steepled cathedral’.

Yet, at the same time, another transferred use also starts to be perceptible in Clark’s notebooks. Here, shrapnel instead comes, by a process of semantic extension, to designate the contents of the shell rather than the shell itself. By the 28th of September, for example, the two senses co-exist, as in the following extract from the Scotsman:

As soon as the French infantry deploy their ranks and appear in the open they are met with showers of shrapnel, which also is not as deadly as it looks from a distance. Then follows the hurried “tat-tat-tat” of machine-guns from the woods and spinneys, and then the long rattle of musketry from the trenches along the ridges.

As in this highly visual account, the showers of shrapnel fall from the shells which have already exploded; meaning is taken in directions which the OED entry of six months before had conspicuously not included. As Clark realised, equally significant in this respect was the rise of new compounds (in both adjective and noun) such as shrapnel splinter  and shrapnel bullet. These serve to consolidate the patterns of semantic transfer at work, making plain the shift in the physical form that shrapnel is assumed to have, as well as its changing orientation of sense:

we have a lovely little hutch … just room for three to lie down, and the top is shrapnel-splinter proof. We have had one or two bits landing on it. [‘Stories of the Fighting’, Daily Express October 20th 1914]

In the case of these arrows and bullets it is sufficient to release them, without any initial momentum because the speed which they gather in flight, due to gravity, ensures their reaching the earth with considerable velocity, which increases in proportion to the height of the aircraft… In the case of shrapnel bullets, weighing, say, twenty to the pound, this would mean a striking energy of 160 foot pounds’ (Daily Express 19th September 1914)

Mme. van Dessalaere was struck in her right leg by shrapnel bullets, and her recovery is not expected … shrapnel struck her down (Daily Express, October 7th 1914)

Shrapnel in the last two examples is transferred to the bullets  which fall with lethal force to earth; in the former, it  is a ‘splinter’ – designating the ‘bits’ that shells contain rather than the shell per se (although this may, of course, also signal the ‘bits’ of the disintegrating shell). As the final example confirms, however, shrapnel can also be used without the specifying bullets to indicate the mode of injury and attack.

As in the quotation from the Scotsman above, sense-divisions of this kind also  came to contribute to common images of the ‘rain’ or ‘hail’ of shells in contemporary accounts of the life at the front. ‘The moment a few battalions had crossed, shrapnel began to rain in on our men as if from the blue above’, as the Evening News noted on October 1st 1914, in an article entitled ‘Heroic Royal Engineers’. Another similar example occurs in the Daily Express on October 20th 1914:

‘We spent two days in the trenches under a rain of shell fire, and we got quite clever in judging the distance at which their shells would burst by the hum of the blooming things’ [‘Thrilling adventures in the Retreat from Antwerp’, Daily Express, October 20 1914]

In the autumn of 1914, Clark can therefore reveal the play of  meaning and changing familiarization of this word as both noun and adjective. For a time, in popular comment in the autumn of 1914,  shrapnel can ambiguously designate both whole and part, projectile and the hostile contents of the shells which sailed overhead. By the end of October, the OED entry of six months earlier was therefore distinctly out of date. History – and language – had moved on. Shrapnel had not only one sense but three. If meaning begins, historically, in a single type of shell, it swiftly extends, during the terrible familiarization of WW1,  to denote the contents of that type of shell. As war advances, however, it can, in turn, lose its reference to this specific shell-type, designating, more broadly, the devastating contents of bombs, together with the kinds of widespread injury they cause, as in compounds such as shrapnel wounds, shrapnel injuries. The meaning ‘Fragments from shells or bombs’  is ‘Now the usual sense.’, as the modern OED notes, dating such use to October 1914. ** As Clark confirms therefore, while General Shrapnel — in yet another eponym of English — gives his name to this spherical projectile, it was language in use along the front, and by soldiers rather than generals, which instead gradually changed the patterns of signification which remain in use today.

** The revised OED entry can be seen at shrapnel, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 1 December 2014.

Shattering the nerves: sound effects in WWI

Nerves – and the importance, as well as difficulty, of keeping one’s nerve — was a recurrent image which runs through reports of war in the autumn of 1914. To have nerve was to be commended; the word had been used figuratively in denoting bravery, vigour, and force since the Renaissance. The specific sense ‘coolness in adversity or danger; boldness; courage, assurance’ is documented from 1809 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet, by the eighteenth century, nerve could also point in other, diametrically opposed, directions. Used in the plural, nerves suggested not valour but nervousness, a heightened sensitivity to events which by no means augured well in a time of war. Nerve and nerviness could, as a result, work in mutually exclusive ways. If nerviness is documented only from 1916 in OED Online (being attested in Vera Brittain’s letters),** the reality of language practice in WWI, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, was very different. Already in August 1914 readers of the Daily Express were reassured about the calm fortitude of the British Expeditionary Force. ‘No ‘nerviness’’, the headline on 27th August proclaimed, in a sense which the following article also elaborated:

There is no trace of that “nerviness” so noticeable among the recruities of the early days of South Africa.

Such certainties could, however, be called into question as war advanced. That modern warfare was an attack on the nerves –as much as the body — was often made plain. Long before the term shell-shock come into use, journalists – and soldiers –repeatedly drew attention to the debilitating effects of the sheer noise of battle, by which nerves could be racked and shattered, and in which an ‘attack of nerves’ might overpower even the strongest men. As Clark notes, for example, idioms in which the nerves were shattered attained marked familiarity across the autumn of 1914 and into 1915. If shatter the nerves remained (and remains) absent from the OED (the relevant section of the Dictionary was completed in March 1914), Clark again provides carefully documented evidence –tracking a responsiveness of words to war, and the unprecedented contexts it brought into being:

The effect on the nerves is terrible, and I suppose it intended to shatter the nerves of our men. Only the strongest can stand it for long, and most of us found it best to stuff our ears with cotton wool or tear up out handkerchiefs

as a first-hand account in the Daily Express of 2nd September 1914 proclaimed. ‘Noise seems to count for a lot with the Germans’, another report (in the same newspaper) laconically observed on 19th September 1914.

A similar observation appeared in the Evening News on September 2nd:

It’s the quantity, not the quality of the German shells that is heaving effect on us, and it’s not so much the actual damage to life as the nerve-racking row that counts for so much.

The noise of battle – and the extent of mechanised warfare across a front which, even in early September, stretched, for instance, from the Vosges to Peronne (as the Scotsman  reported), was unparalleled. Shells and shrapnel repeatedly scream and screech across the skies (in a range  of new collocations of English), testing the nerves as well as bringing danger in other forms: ‘The scream of shrapnel did not daunt us and, yelling and shouting, we became frantic and so did our horses. The rifle fire was soon silenced, as we must have ridden down the German infantry and cut them to pieces’, as an article in the Evening News stated on 29th September 1914. ‘The shells screeched hour after hour’, the Scotsman notes on 17 September 1914. The men were faced by a ‘terrestrial thunderstorm’, as the Evening News commented on 19th September 1914, attempting to suggest somehwar of what modern battle was like.

Trying to convey the reality of war on these terms was challenging, requiring other distinctive forms of ‘word-imagery’ and ‘word-pictures’ to make their way into use. As Clark notes, a strikingly expressive vocabulary can appear. This, too, often remains absent from the OED:

As soon as the French infantry deploy their ranks and appear in the open they are met with showers of shrapnel, which also is not as deadly as it looks from a distance. Then follows the hurried “tat-tat-tat” of machine-guns from the woods and spinneys, and then the long rattle of musketry from the trenches along the ridges

as a lengthy and descriptive article in the Scotsman stated on 28 September 1914. This confirmed, too, a new (and newly familiarised) sense of shrapnel, by which it came to be understood as ‘fragments from shells or bomb’s, rather than explosive shells per se). Shrapnel was documented in the OED in this sense from October 1914 (in a section revised in June 2014). Here, too, Clark’s evidence antedates the formal record of English and its history.

News discourse, as Clark notes, could strive for a marked sense of the onomatopoeic in this respect.

The rattle of the machine guns supplemented the noise of the naval guns. Then the field artillery added to the chorus. But all this noise could not drown the irregular rat-tat-tat of the infantry’ [ ‘British Squadron off the Belgian Coast: Shelling the Germans’, Scotsman 21 October 1914].

Likewise, the Daily Express on September 2nd draws attention to the ‘r-r-r-r-r–h of the Maxims’, while ‘the peculiar zh-zh-zh-zh of the shrapnel’ featured in the Daily Express on 14th September 1914. ‘You could hear the mitrailleuse ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta’, wrote a journalist in the Daily Express on October 17th 1914, describing an ‘air-duel’; similar was the click-click-wh-wh-wh -of the murderous machine’, here in attempts to evoke the flight of an ‘aerial pirate’ over Paris in the Evening News on 3rd September 1914.

Modern war-reporting can, of course, use not only print and the form of the written word, but also sound itself. In broadcast news, we can be offered an experiential directness – the war-reporter not only speaks directly, but the sounds of war can provide an all too evocative backdrop to events. Writing war in 1914 was very different; the BBC – and national radio — would not, for example, be formed until after the war. If we have war reports (and sound recording) for WWII, it was print which dominated in WW1. News reporting can, as a result, often engage with a determined attempt to covey the sounds and texture of war in ways which are highly distinctive. As a later post on this site will explore, however, other media were already starting to emerge. ‘The Cinemagraph is going to be a damning witness against the Germans in this war. The Kinemacolour pictures … reveal to those who cannot see it with their own eyes, the full tragedy of Louvain and the other towns destroyed by the Kaiser’s shining amour’, we are, for example, informed early in September 1914. ‘Pictures’ and ‘word-pictures’ would, in this respect, importantly come to co-exist. As Clark noted, this visual language was also absent from the OED as it then existed, offering still further scope for his documetnary ventures in the war of words.

** See nerviness OED Online (revised Sept 2003),sense 2: ‘The quality or condition of being nervous.

1916:  Vera Brittain Let. 1 Sept. in Lett. Lost Generation (2012) 248.  “To have the face of a leader of men strong almost to unscrupulousness combined with an almost entire absence of self-esteem, and an excessive reserve & nervy-ness & shyness, is certainly an incongruity”.