“Trench fever”: health, sickness, and the art of having a lousy war

sick bay
‘The Sick Bay’. Copyright- Imperial War Musueum. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/16862

‘The general health of the troops on war service’ is ‘actually better at this moment than it is at home’, the Scotsman announced in March 1915. ‘Modern Medical Science. Mitigating Disease in warfare’ appeared as the celebratory heading of a further article the following month. Even in July 1915, the same tone of congratulation was apparent; if some 6500 British soldiers had, by that point, been killed on Turkish soil alone, nevertheless, as readers were informed, ‘not even a microscopical portion of the fatalities is traceable to any weakness in the condition of our men’. ‘Our army’s extraordinary good health’ and ‘wondrous immunity from disease’ were soundly commended. ‘Never have soldiers entered upon a campaign in better physical fettle’, the Scotsman proclaimed.  In contrast to the Boer War, when typhoid had ‘killed a far greater number of our men than did the enemy’, here, too, the conditions of an eminently modern war had come to prevail:

it is safe to say that had a war of the magnitude of the present struggle, and conducted like it under siege conditions, entailing great hardships, prolonged exposure to the most inclement weather, and the billeting of large numbers of men in insanitary quarters for many months together, been undertaken by the British nation a few years ago, it would have been accompanied by an outbreak of disease which would have decimated our forces

By no means restricted to the Scotsman, articles of this kind appear across the spring and summer of 1915 in a wide-ranging and robust discourse of health.

For modern readers, this evocation of good fortune amidst the realities (and casualties) of WWI can appear somewhat anomalous.  It was resonant, too, of a certain proleptic irony.  Headlines in August 1915, for example, foreground another new locution – and a previously unknown condition in which ‘physical fettle’ was noticeably lacking while the ‘wondrous immunity from disease’ had apparently disappeared.  ‘Mysterious Disease like Influenza’, the Daily Express instead announced on 18th August, describing a rather different facet of life at the front. This was trench fever, an illness which, as its name confirmed, would come to be seen as yet another distinctive aspect of trench warfare.  Continue reading

“If the caps fits…”. From hats to helmets in Autumn 1915.

if the cap fits
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5156); http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/28446

‘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

Being under fire: flammenwerfer and liquid fire in 1915

under fire
L’enfer. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 4415; http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/16659

To be under fire is perhaps an inevitable condition of war. Across the Words in War-Time Archive, the phrase appears with striking frequency, appearing in sources which report on action from the Front as well as in the purple prose by which, early in the war, the ‘sublime comradeship’ of war could, as in the extract below, be extolled:

Comradeship! It is a wonderful word, a binding of soul to soul, heart to heart in a bond that death alone can sever. Comradeship, which breeds simple faith, fine endurance, noble self-sacrifice rising to self-obliteration. What a splendid virtue! To see it on the battlefield, under fire, is to see it transfigured, consecrated into the sublime (Daily Express 10 Sept 1914)

Outside rhetorical positioning of this kind, fire occupied a prime place in military diction, whether in assessments of firepower (‘the total effectiveness of the fire of guns, missiles, etc., of a military force’, a word first used in 1913 according to the OED) or in offering accounts of fire-trenches – another form which antedates WW1 (it is dated to 1909 in the OED) but which was swiftly assimilated into the complexities of trench warfare after 1914. Fire-screens (in uses still unrecorded in the OED) and fire-steps become—among a range of other forms — other common components in narrating conflict at this time:

A major led his men instead of using them in the conventional fashion as a fire screen, and was shot down before he had gone twenty feet. A mere handful of soldiers had followed him, and these, too, were mown down by machine guns (Daily Express, 1915-03-02)**

From the beginning of the war, fire – as ‘flame’ rather than with reference to the various projectiles which might be used — had, however, also been used as weapon per se. A propensity to use flame was, for example, often depicted as a further manifestation of German barbarity, underpinning the characterisation of the enemy as firebugs in the sense ‘an incendiary’ or someone who was, by definition, inclined to use arson. Arch-firebug (in a particularly Germanic compound) was similar, while carbonize, as other posts on this site have explored, likewise comes into marked prominence in early news reporting (and atrocity propaganda).

Being under fire could, in such instances, be rendered strikingly literal. That the newly devised Black Maria was ‘intended to set things on fire’ is, for example,also carefully documented in Andrew Clark’s examination of the new words and meanings of war, while words such as fire-lighter take on newly specific senses in recounting German methods of attack:

Quantities of “fire lighters” – so indispensable to a German army on the march – are stored with tins of benzine one of the military depots on the outskirts of the city. It would be an easy matter for a brigade of these well-trained incendiaries to set Brussels ablaze from end to end in an hour.

Following came the bearers of heavy tubes of petrol fitted with sprays, with which they drenched the woodwork and furniture of each room thus exposed, then the firelighters with their long torches, smeared with a substance which makes them glow like live coals and emit an intense heat without flame.

Dated to September 1914, the firing of Belgian cities such as Louvain is thereby depicted as a two-stage process. Fire-lighters (sense 1) are devices which spray petrol which are used to prepare the ground. Then come the fire-lighters (sense 2) — the ‘well-trained incendiaries’ who, bearing ‘long torches’, ignite the fuel.

As other articles explore, however, still more terrifying was the conflation of these two stages by means of a single weapon. This yielded another new word together with a range of associated synonyms. As the Daily Express explained to its readers in July 1915, for example, it was the flammenwerfer  which was used to direct ‘liquid fire’ not at  physical structures such as buildings or streets, but at soldiers in the trenches. Continue reading

Seeing the invisible foe – keeping the enemy in your sights in early WWI

trench periscope
“Watching the Boche trench through a periscope”, http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu Contributor: John Warwick Brooke

In the autumn of 1914, journalists repeatedly returned to the problem of what the Daily Express termed ‘the invisible foe’. War had become, quite literally, one of entrenched positions. Yet, as journalists pointed out, they could, as a result, be faced with a task of describing a confrontation which was, paradoxically, often removed from the powers of direct observation. ‘It is part of the impressiveness of this war that there is normally nothing to be seen’, as the Daily Express commented in November 1914:

When one talks of the front, meaning the point of nearest actual contact between the opposing forces, one speaks of something which cannot be seen even by a spectator standing (if one were so rash) within fifty years of the leading trenches.

Seeing – and the various exigencies of not being seen – would, as one might expect, bring its own pressures to bear on language, Continue reading

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

States of Siege: language before “trench warfare”


In 1914, the entry for siege and related words was a relatively recent addition within the still on-going Oxford English Dictionary. Completed four years before the outbreak of war, this had detailed a range of meanings, though its salience in terms of conflict was plain; as the entry explained, siege in this sense denoted ‘The action, on the part of an army, of investing a town, castle, etc., in order to cut off all outside communication and in the end to reduce or take it’. Supporting evidence in the Dictionary began in 1300 and extended to 1876. ‘The penetrating power of the arms which would now be used at a siege is far greater than it used to be’, as the most recent citation had warned.

As Clark realised, writing war in the autumn of 1914 seemed nevertheless to require some readjustment in the ways in which siege was used and understood. Used in contemporary news reporting, siege took on new resonances and implications, evoking not the sense of enclosure by which towns and castles had historically been surrounded, but instead the state of stasis on a battlefield in which positions — and battle lines —  were, quite literally, entrenched. ‘No longer a battle, but a siege’ as a headline in the Scotsman declared on 23 September 1914. The accompanying article detailed on a form of warfare in which  staying power, endurance,  as well as elaborate defensive positions, were all conspicuous:

It is no longer a battle, but a siege, the Germans having constructed along the hundred miles of front from the river Oise to the Meuse a series of small fortresses, consisting of old forts and disused quarries. Bomb-proof shelters, formed of bags of cement, and subterranean passages connect the basements of the heights of Pommiers with the open country, whereby the enemy is victualled and supplied with ammunition’ (Scotsman 23 Sept 1914)

If we now associate WWI with the familiarization of trench warfare (a term which was, in fact, also omitted from the OED’s first edition)** it was, as Clark’s notebooks reveal, the diction of sieges, and siege warfare, which, as here, would initially assume prominence.  Siege war, Clark later reflected, was a term of striking currency in October and November 1914. ‘We are slowly advancing in the regional of the Vosges and in Lorraine, where a regular siege war has been in progress for two days’, as the Evening News reported on September 2nd. Both siege war and siege warfare presented other absences from the contemporary OED (and indeed, we might note, from its modern equivalent). For Clark, their newness seemed significant — a way of exploring in words a war in which movement seemed all too limited. As in the quotation below, taken from the Evening News, siege warfare is placed in inverted commas or scare quotes — a device which makes visible both the lexical departures (and extensions) which were at stake:

The “siege warfare” of the river Aisne continues (Evening News 25 Sept 1914)

This was, in reality, what would come to be known as the First Battle of Aisne. As the article continues, the ‘battle began on 12th Sept, this is the fourteenth day’. The ‘siege’ — and the military stalemate it invoked — would come to an end on 28th September, when fighting was abandoned without a decisive victory being achieved by either side.

Siege warfare of this kind depended on extensive fortifications – and trenches – which brought, as Clark realised, a wide range of other new forms of diction in their wake. If the Scotsman on 13th October 1914 stressed the ‘value of trenches in the present battles’, here too, the OED — and its record of language on historical principles — seemed to have swiftly been left behind. The OED‘s definition had, for example, been written in June 1914 — but could already seem remote from the kind of methods which were being widely deployed on the Western Front:

3. Mil. An excavation of the kind described in sense 2 a, the earth from which is thrown up in front as a parapet, serving either to cover or to oppose the advance of a besieging force. Chiefly in pl. (OED1/ OED2)

In the dictionary,  illustrative evidence began in 1500 and extended to 1879 with an embedded definition from Cassell’s Technical Education: ‘When this excavation is behind the mound it is called a trench’. As the OED  added, trench was ‘More particularly applied to the ditch or excavation’.
For Clark, an article in the Scotsman on Friday 11th September already, however, served to provide a very different set of associations:

The defeat of the Marne has not left the enemy unprepared, and the formidable nature of the defence works, through anticipations of a possible retreat all along the present front … is enabling them to make a firm stand. The enemy’s trenches north of Chalons are a metre (just over a yard) deep, with shell shields every twenty metres, and rest chambers. The multiple lines of the trenches are flanked with further defence works.

Clark drew attention to other unrecorded forms here – neither rest chambers nor shell shields were explained in these senses in the OED. Trenches, as later posts will explore, came to require an extensive and abundant metalanguage. Already in the autumn of 1914, it was clear that they formed a space in which those engaged in the conflict were – both literally and metaphorically – “dug in”, in what would also form a significant shift in language over the course of the war. As a telling first-hand account (from the Scotsman on 21st September 1914) had recounted:

We are slowly beating them back. We have to do it foot by foot, for they have huge guns, and their fire is terrible…Well, we dig ourselves in. We British lads have learned the lesson, and then we go on fighting and fighting until the moment comes when we can make our advance. We crawl up and again we dig ourselves in, and so on.

Siege warfare, seen in these terms, required new lessons which those involved in WWI quickly assimilated in order to survive. To dig in, as used here, was to be a new military sense, later defined in the OED as ‘To excavate a trench or the like in order to withstand an attack or consolidate a position’. Recorded from the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (which was published in 1989), the sense is given as dating from 1917. In reality, as Clark’s first notebooks attest, it was, of course, in use from the early weeks of war; ‘The Germans are digging themselves in upon almost all points of their position’, as the Scotsman stated on 18 Sept 1914. As Clark argued, uses of this kind informed other new senses of words such as entrenched, as well as signalling still other distinctive intersections  of language and history.
**This section of the OED was revised in June 2014; trench warfare is now taken back to 1887, though its use in signifying ‘A protracted dispute or prolonged state of discord characterized by stubborn adherence to established positions, opinions, etc., and persistent sniping between opponents’ is given as dating from 1915.