The silence of death: war in 1914

death
Casualties after a charge [France]. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood. The British Library. Copyright Public Domain marked
 

On the other side of recruiting was, of course, the action that had to be performed, and the realities of combat and war. The diction of war-reporting in the British press in this respect often evokes a sense of jolly camaraderie in these early weeks — the derring-do of ordinary men who are united as ‘pals’ and ‘chums’ in heroic ventures abroad, defending the innocent, and fighting for honour and justice, and, as in the Star on the 5th September 1914, never quailing even when placed before ‘bullets thick as bees’. This language is vivid and colloquial, often constructed in direct speech, as here in reporting another episode of conflict in the Daily Express in September 1914:

Who was the coolest man under fire? I am safe in giving the biscuit to young Tommy Brown, who lay in the trenches smoking a cigarette while he picked out the blue devils coming up to the attack. He had to throw his “butt” away in the end to engage a couple of Germans with his bayonet, but he came through’

Reading the popular press in his endeavour to document the words of war, Clark notes down locutions such as take the biscuit (not in the first edition of the OED as it then existed), and the commendatory sense of cool (dispassionate, controlled; unmoved by events). The Germans are blue devils (forming part of a wider trope in which war is often seen as hell); Continue reading

Advertisements