‘If the Cap Fits You‘ appeared as the text of a poster issued by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915. Like many advertisements both then and now, it played with a carefully calibrated set of meanings. On one level, the familiar idiom of ‘if the cap fits, wear it’ raises questions of identity and individual affirmation. On another, this idiom was targeted via a specific type of cap and the diction of direct address. As the image confirms, the metaphorical ‘cap’ is now to be seen in terms of the khaki service cap, while the obligation to ‘wear it’ is re-interpreted via the action of ‘joining- up’, and the identity politics of active service.
In terms of language, this can, in fact, raise other interesting issues. In 1914-15, the cap, as here, formed the prototypical image of the British soldier, functioning not only as an item of uniform but able to emblematise wider issues of national and ideological identity. Helmets, in contrast, operated in a similar way for the enemy. While helmet in the sense ‘a defensive cover for the head’, which is either made with, or strengthened with, metal, had long existed in English, usage from early in the war confirms a careful divide in this respect, As in the extract below (taken from the Scotsman in September 1914), helmet operates as a form of semantic shorthand or ethnonym (‘a proper name by which a people or ethnic group is known’). In what becomes a pervasive pattern of writing the enemy, helmet connotes not merely an item of clothing, but the enemy per se.
German troops have apparently been interspersed with the Austrian soldiers in the entrenchments for the purpose of raising the moral of the latter. What this moral is worth is apparent from a report received from a correspondent on the frontier, stating that after the Russian attacks on the “bluecloaks” – namely, the Austrians – took to flight, while the “helmets” i.e., the Prussians, were prepared to die to the last man, and perished accordingly.
The German helmet, referring to the spiked leather and metal pickelhaube was to be a distinct, and distinctive, marker. In other words, To appropriate the diction of the recruiting poster, in this light, If the cap fits, one is British. if the helmet fits, one is not.
This does not, of course, mean that helmets were not used at all by the British troops — but rather that, until the autumn of 1915, core meanings and contexts of use were somewhat different. A demand for helmets was, for example, common from the early weeks of war. “You ask me if I want anything’, states a letter in the archive (reprinted in the Scotsman in December 1914). As the writer elaborated, the answer was a definite ‘Yes’: Continue reading →
War can, all too easily, throw maps into disarray, relocating boundaries and reassigning territory whether lost or gained. Language too, as earlier posts have explored, can present other challenges for cartography. Name and renaming can take place, both formally and informally, in the light of on-going events. In WW1, newly adopted place names such as Petrograd can, for instance, eradicate what seemed unduly Germanic connotations in the earlier St Petersburg. ‘Foreign fields’, to misquote Rupert Brooke, could, in other ways, become — if not “for ever England” — then at least a temporary place of habitation, signalled by ironic appellations such as “Hyde Park Corner” or “Buckingham-palace Road”. Trenchland, a term used in the Daily Express in May 1915, could, as the Words in Wartime archive confirms, require a highly creative A-Z.
Names could, however, be used with even more freedom. Louvain, for example, was early appropriated into allied propaganda as a symbol of German depredation, and the associated conflicts of culture and kultur. If Louvain continued to designate a particular place on the map, this was now located in occupied Belgium as well as reduced in size; almost 12% had been destroyed, including the eighteenth-century university library, together with the books, manuscripts, and incunabula it had contained. As both place and name, Louvain, for the duration of the war, was freighted with meanings which deliberately evoked German barbarism and violation. To germanise, as the Daily Express noted in 1914, had, in this respect, gained “a new definition for the dictionaries of the future” –that is “to burn, destroy, raze to the ground, wipe out, reduce to a shapeless mass of unrecognisable rubbish; see also Louvain, Namur, Rheims, Arras, etc”.
Louvain could, by extension – and with equally negative intent – also be used as a verb in its own right. As in the heading “Louvaining in Galicia” which appeared in the Daily Express in December 1914, this was restricted to German activity. As the associated article added:
two German corps which are subjected to severe pressure by the Russian forces are wandering about in all directions, trying to effect communication with the main army, “Louvaining” and looting on their way’.
“To Louvain”, as here, is to ransack and pillage, amplifying the widespread imaging of piracy which also attended popular constructions of German identity at this time.
Proper names of this kind, as well as their idiosyncratic extensions, are typically excluded from formal lexicography though, as the Words in War-Time archive illustrates, such forms can be very useful in exploring the localised meanings of both place and time. Scarborough, for example, assumed similar transformative senses in early propagandist use. The injunction to ‘Remember Scarborough’ in early 1915 was, for instance, not intended to evoke memories of a small British sea-side town and its suitability as a holiday destination (as it might perhaps today). Instead, as associated iconography confirmed, Scarborough (attacked in December 1914), drew on a sense of threatened civilian innocence and human vulnerability as set against German ‘frightfulness’ in bombing areas remote from any battlefield. The ‘meaning’ of Scarborough was highly topical, drawing – as feminine pronouns also stressed – to tropes of gender and violation which ‘the rape of Belgium’ had already made familiar. “As a reminder of the nature of the enemy with which the nation has to deal, stricken Scarborough directs the attention of the world to her shrapnel-splashed streets and walls” and “shattered roofs and gables, the twisted iron beams, the wrecked interiors, and the list of the dead’, as the Scotsman explained in December 1914.
What the Dardanelles was to ‘mean’ would, by the spring and summer of 1915, offer other possibilities in terms of the linguistic geographies of place. Continue reading →
By January 1915, Andrew Clark was by no means alone in his sense that language and war were intersecting in particularly fruitful ways. As an article in the Evening News, which Clark carefully extracted for the Words in War-Time archive, comments:
The ingenuity of the British soldier in inventing picturesque names for the various engines of destruction brought to bear against him is well known, and with the development of new weapons the number of nicknames in use has been extended until they form a language which is most bewildering to a stranger.
The article was headed ‘Tommy’s Slanguage’ in ways which drew attention to the lexical creativity which already seemed particularly in evidence on the Western Front. Slanguage, a blend or portmanteau of slang and language, was — perhaps predictably — another form which drew Clark’s own attention, not least since, as he quickly established, it represented yet another absence in the relevant section of the OED (which had been published three years earlier, in September 1911). Slanguage was thus doubly valuable for the Words in War-Time project – as a word about words it had an obvious thematic pertinence. Moreover, as in Clark’s early emphasis on the kind of word-pictures which would be vital in reporting and recording war, slanguage was described in terms which drew attention to the visual and picturesque quality of the coinages which had, within the first months of war, already come into being.
Some elements of this changing discourse of war have already been discussed in earlier posts. In terms of weapons, Jack Johnsonsand coal boxes, as the Evening News likewise observed, presented striking metaphors for what were, in other respects, terrifying ‘engines of destruction’. Continue reading →
Words, as the Scotsman explored in September 1914, played a role which, in a range of ways, often moved outside the merely representative. As other posts on this site have explored, language in WWI can, of course, easily reveal changes in material culture or the gradual extension (or restriction) of meaning in response to particular events. Yet, as the Scotsman stressed, words, not least by strategic acts of renaming, could also be used to embody a stance of defiance and undaunted resistance, of opposition and deflected power. The range of familiar epithets which the German howitzer shells were to acquire across WWI offered an eloquent example. Coined in the trenches and widely seen as representative of the ‘slanguage’ which drew comment across the war years, the names and meanings used in this respect would, at least verbally, deliiberately undercut the power and intimidating effects of the missiles launched against the Allied lines. As the Scotsman explained, for example, here just a few weeks into the war:
the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell filled with high explosive, which detonate with terrific violence, and form craters large enough to act as graves for five horses. The German howitzer shells are 8 to 9 inches in calibre, and on impact they send up columns of greasy black smoke (‘The German “Jack Johnsons”’, Scotsman 25 Sept 1914)
This passage contains a number of elements which were already highly resonant of time and place. Both crater and detonate, as Andrew Clark commented, drew on meanings which, if familiar across the autumn of 1914, had by no means been so before. A crater was an ‘excavation or cavity formed by the explosion of a mine; the funnel’ as the contemporary OED (in a section published in 1893) had explained, providing evidence from the Penny Cyclopaedia in 1839 (‘The dimensions of the crater or funnel formed by the explosion depend on the amount of the charge’; ‘The ratio between the diameter of the crater and the length of the line of least resistance’).** Yet, as in the extract from the Scotsman above, crater in WW1 would primarily signify the immense holes which shells made as they exploded. Meaning had moved on; encountering a convalescent sergeant on a train coming from Oxford in November 1914, Clark had been reliably informed that the larger shells created craters large enough to swallow a small cottage. The OED definition could seem particularly inadequate. Detonate, as the Words in War-Time archive also confirms, presented other departures. In the OED as it then existed, detonate was a transitive verb meaning ‘To cause to explode with sudden loud report, in the act of chemical decomposition or combination’. This could seem equally out of place. ‘On Tuesday the enemy’s guns were active in the afternoon. It is believed that the bombardment was due to anger because two of our howitzer shells had detonated right in the enemy’s trenches, which was full of men’, as the Scotsman noted on Monday 12th October 1914. Surely detonate now meant ‘to explode’, Andrew Clark suggested alongside the range of extracts which he gathered up as relevant evidence of change.
Most significant, however, as the Scotsman article continued, was the disjunction which, in terms of language, came to be apparent between the ‘terrific violence’ of the howitzer shells – and the various verbal strategies which soldiers deployed in order to refer to them. They are, as it noted:
irreverently dubbed “coal boxes”, “Black Marias,” or “Jack Johnsons” by the soldiers. Men who take things in this spirit are, it seems, likely to throw out the calculations based on loss of moral so carefully framed by the German military philosophers.
Words, the Scotsman argued, could in such ways be seen as reflective of the wider psychology of war. Irreverence – and the deliberate mismatch of form and thing – could be precisely the point. As in the reassignment of howitzer shells to the diction of coal-boxes, a deliberate reductiveness (and diminution) was often at work. As the OED explained, a coal-box had hitherto been part of domestic diction, being used, as in Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants, to refer to a receptacle for coal as used within the home: ‘Leave a Payl of dirty Water, a Coal-box…and such other unsightly Things’, Swift had written in 1745. Relocated to WW1, the coal-boxes which assailed the Allies were deemed equally ‘unsightly’, not least in terms of their ‘greasy black smoke’ which shells of this kind emit upon impact. As another extract in the Words in War-Time archive confirms:
These German shells are 90lbs., and on account of their dense black smoke they have been christened “Coal Boxes.” Everyone says, “Mind the coal-box.” They do dreadful damage’’ (Evening News, 9 October 1914)
Such uses relied, in effect, on a form of metaphorical transfer; the soot emitted by domestic coal-boxes when the latter were placed roughly upon the ground is made comically analogous to the shells and their intentionally devastating effects. As in other aspects of trench slang, appellations of this kind are deliberately transgressive — confirming, too, a refusal to submit (quite literally) to German terms. Jack Johnsons were similar. As the Evening News explained in January 1915, they denoted, in essence, larger types of the same weapon (‘The shells of the 8.27 in. and 11.2 in. howitzers are indiscriminately termed “Jack Johnsons,” “Black Marias,” and “Portmanteaux”’). In this instance, however, renaming drew on the American boxer who was the world heavyweight champion in 1914 – and whose punch was legendary. Here, too, however, visual analogy played a part; Johnson’s nickname was ‘The Big Smoke’ (the fact that Johnson was black was, as the Daily Express explained in a later extract in the archive, not entirely immaterial). As Adrian Gregory explains in a comment below, the fact that Johnson was scheduled in 1914 to fight a French opponent had an obvious pertinence too.
As a number of news articles note, however, the real significance of verbal play of this kind lay in its evocative symbiosis of word, meaning, and attitude. As the Evening News commented, for example, while Kaiser Wilhelm II had characterised the British Expeditionary Force as a ‘contemptible little army’, contempt could easily be reappropriated — and redirected:
The strong point of our “contemptible little Army” has all along been its refusal to be terrified either by the weight of numbers or the use of the most terrible engines of destruction that have ever been employed in warfare. The shells of the new large calibre Krupp howitzer were to strike terror into the hearts of the “treacherous” British. Instead the “Jack Johnsons” of the Fatherland have been treated by our troops with regrettable levity, and though they have done their work effectively enough in a material sense, our moral has remained unaffected (Evening News Thurs 1 October 1914)
Here, if the ‘regrettable levity’ of the Allies receives comment, it is, of course, entirely ironic. Instead levity is commended while the resulting expressions symbolise the undaunted spirit with which conflict was faced. Words – and the power to name – can, the Evening News argued, importantly deflect and destabilize the kind of terror which had been intended. Moral (MnE morale) remained intact.
**crater. A definition ‘the cavity formed by the explosion of a shell’ was added in the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary which was published in 1933. It tracked usage back to 1855 and the conflict of the Sebastopol campaign, as well as adding later examples from WWI, dating from December 1914 onwards. Evidence from October 1914 was added later, though Clark’s evidence on crater from September 1914 still remains of interest. See “crater, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 12 January 2015.
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.
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.