The comforts of war

Comfort, as Clark noted, was a term which moved into marked prominence in the autumn of 1914. The word had, of course, long existed, being borrowed — here in other manifestations of war, language, and their intersection — from Old French confort after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The native equivalents (frefran, to comfort; frofre, comfort), used throughout Old English, had gradually been displaced. War, just as in later years, could bring both loss and gain when seen in terms of language.

Comfort in WWI assumed however, distinctive new meanings. Its long-standing existence as abstract noun – variously signifying, as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, aid, consolation, solace as well as relief (especially in periods of want or distress) — could, as a range of articles in September and October 1914 confirm, acquire a strikingly materiality. Comfort can be manufactured and despatched, consumed and worn. A letter in the Scotsman on Thursday 11th September 1914 drew attention, for example, to the changing use of this term:

“Your readers may have observed that the formal sanction of the Admiralty has now been given to the supply of “comforts” for the men of the fleet’.

Here, the framing quotation marks set the new form apart, registering the departures which comforts of this kind present. Home comforts existed, by definition, within the intimacy, warmth, and protection of the domestic space. In this light, those serving in the Admiralty or at the Front were, of necessity, comfortless, rendered remote from consolations of this kind. The warmth of home was displaced by far more testing physical conditions. Comforts (usually appearing the plural) were, as a result, often seen in a tangible and physical form; they are items which will bring comfort, allaying the physical deprivations of war. Early uses in Clark’s notebooks focus in particualr on the sense of warmth, stressing comfort as a commodity that can be manufactured at home, before being despatched to those in need.

The letter in the Scotsman, for instance, carefully specifies the forms which comforts in a time of war might best take: ‘the articles which at the moment will be most use to officers and men in ships afloat are cardigan jackets, 44 inches chest; jerseys full size; Balaclava helmets, mufflers 2 yards long, 10 inches wide, fingerless gloves, mittens’. Such comforts will, quite literally, warm the recipient. Doing one’s bit in a time of war would, by extension, assume interestingly gendered forms, as a further article in the Daily Express makes plain:

‘The admiralty authorities have issued a list of knitted articles that are specially required by the sailors during the cold weather, and there is no doubt that wives and mothers will be only too glad to set to work to provide these necessary comforts’ (Daily Express, 21 Sept 1914).

Here, the inverted commas of comforts have disappeared. The word is assumed to be familiarised, together with the actions it required. Against sailors and the ‘men of the fleet’ who work for the national cause, the article evokes a set of home-workers, engaged in working parties, where dedicated industry and application of British women must also play their part. Knitting recipes, it declared, were clearly ‘invaluable at the moment’; Clark noted down this new compound (still not in OED), noting too the diction of the home-worker (as well as cardigan jackets – both of which offered other absences within the OED as it then existed).**

The war effort, as here, could clearly take many forms. Across Europe, a shared image of female endeavour would be a subject of comment, as well as patriotic endeavour. ‘Every female in Germany between twelve and eight is busy knitting– in the streets, in omnibuses, in doctors’ waiting-rooms, in tea-rooms, everywhere. They knit bandages, wristlets, and the like, for all the soldiers in the field’, as the Daily Express had commented on Fri 11 Sept 1914.  The need for comfort crossed national boundaries, and political divisions. Wristlet, as Clark observed, was another unfamiliar word, as well as another novel form in which comfort might be manifest. Lumbago belts and body belts presented other forms unrecorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. The image of a surprisingly home-spun army – on both sides — can be pervasive.

So too can a sense of the pressures, and moral obligation, placed on those at home at contribute in this way. ‘The Government intends to have every soldier provided with a belt to ward off those chills which cause so many deadly ailments on a battlefield’, an article in the Scotsman on 28th October 1914 declared: ‘it behoves every person to do their utmost to provide these comforts with as little delay as possible, and so assist these brave men to maintain their health, and enable them to withstand the rigours of the coming winter campaign’. If those at the Front fight the literal enemy, those at home were to aid in combatting cold as another enemy that might bring defeat as well as death. Endeavour is made reciprocal,

Here, too, expectations of a lengthy campaign – and a coming war winter – are plain. War is made a collective enterprise in which anyone and everyone should contribute. Comforts meanwhile, as later posts will explore, would expand to include a wide and increasingly diverse range of commodities.***

**Home-worker (defined as ‘A person who works at home, esp. as distinguished from one working in a factory or office’) would eventually be recorded in the OED, in a separate entry, in September 2011. Evidence would be traced back to 1843, though the entry is silent on uses between 1902 and 1973. The distinctive senses of WWI, with their commitment to voluntary industry in a shared war effort, arguably also remain absent in this definition. Cardigan jacket still remains absent.

**** Lumbago belts (still not in OED) clearly required more ingenuity in their construction. The article recommends use of  ‘a work undershirt or a set of men’s pants, the sleeves or legs of which, as the case may be, are worn round the waist, and fixed with webstraps or buckles’ such that ‘the main part of the garment’ is ‘allowed to hang down the back like an apron’, in order to protect against the cold of war.

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