Souvenirs and relics: language, memory, and memorialisation in 1914-15.

souvenir
A book of drawings and poems by soldiers in hospital in Neuilly between 1914-15. Contributed on behalf of Jacques HENNARD. Copyright: Creative Commons. See http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu/en/contributions/12642

A souvenir, in the relevant fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary, first published in January 1914, was defined as a ‘token of remembrance’ – one which usually, as it specified, took the form of ‘a small article of some value bestowed as a gift’ and, as such, constituted something ‘which reminds one of some person, place, or event’. Souvenir spoons are recorded in a citation from 1893, and souvenir cards in a citation from the Daily News in 1900. Notions of value were, however, in reality, able to be constructed in emotional as well as (or, indeed, often instead of) monetary terms, being based in the perceived significance of the event or occasion, or the circumstances with which the object in question was associated. Above all, the souvenir was defined by its role in commemoration, whether  in private or public forms. It was a keepsake, the Dictionary explained – something kept for the sake of remembrance.

That war was, from the beginning, also made part of similar processes of commemoration and active recall is also clear. Some of this was, of course, deeply ironic, in ways which already took meaning and use in newly distinctive directions. Souvenir, a word identified as unassimilated and ‘alien’ in the OED (being prefaced by the distinctive ‘tram-lines’ or || by which non-naturalised forms were marked out), would, for instance, quickly acquire a set of subversive associations. ‘All shells are called “souvenirs”’, as a ‘Letter from the Front’, reprinted in The Star in November 1914, explained. Souvenirs of this kind came to embody an ironic form of gift-giving in which the enemy proved extraordinarily generous. That the Allies were, in turn, rendered wholly mindful of the Germans by such means was plain; as in the previous post, the image of Tommy, sheltering in his trench while shells of various kinds whizz overhead, is highly evocative. Gifts of this kind were best accepted from a distance – as well as reciprocated in kind. Were Tommy to be unlucky, such acts of remembrance were moreover inscribed in all too visceral ways. An article headed ‘Argument over a Bullet’, detailed in the Scotsman in March 1915, records in considerable detail the argument which ensued between two hospitalised soldiers over the same bullet – the “souvenir” in question — which had, in fact, passed through both of them.

Souvenir would, in such ways, participate in the kind of creative redeployment evident in so many other words for weapons at this time (see e.g. woolly bear, Jack Johnson, coal box). Continue reading

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