Unspeakable war? Looking at language in Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others (1916)

A woman chauffeur. IWM (Q30803)

Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others, published in 1916,  offers a striking demonstration of the changes which war had brought – not only in its setting (the novel is based in events in 1915), or in its stance (it is often seen as the first anti-war novel of WW1), but also in its language. If war is, as on p.14, described as ‘unspeakable’, it is the range and diversity of its speakabilities which can instead leap from Macaulay’s pages. If core words remain the same, the narrative — from its opening chapter – sets out a langscape of sense and allusion which would have left pre-war readers firmly in the dark. What, after all, is to do one’s bit (p.9)? And why is knitting, and the knitting of body-belts (ibid; and p.82) suddenly so important?.** What are ambulance cars, and why is a woman driving one in France?

Non-Combatants could, in such ways, often deliberately remind its readers of the sudden foreignness of the present. Ambulance car is a term common in 1914-18, though one which the OED had not – and still has not – included. Betty –who drives it – sends letters home which are marked ‘on Active Service’ – here in uses which, if again common in WW1,  sit uncomfortably even with the modern OED definition of this term (‘direct participation in military operations as a member of the armed forces’).  That such letters can be described, metaphorically, in Chapter 1 as  ‘bits of shrapnel, crashing’ into the world at home testifies to other patterns of change.

As other posts on this site have explored, shrapnel was an early marker of  change in  Words in War-Time, hovering – for the duration, as well as afterwards – between its traditional meaning, here as defined by the OED  March 1914 (‘A hollow projectile containing bullets and a small bursting charge, which when fired by the time fuse, bursts the shell and scatters the bullets in a shower’), and its newer familiarised sense which Macaulay makes use of here: ‘fragments of a bomb, shell, or other object thrown out by an explosion’.  Shrapnel as a more literal referent appears too, used in an account of war trauma, located in a hospital at home. Nervy  (often used as an early euphemism  for shell shock)  serves in the same passage to draw language and time closely together.

‘I hate not having a bath after hospital. But one can’t grudge it to the dear lamb. How do you think he looks, Alix? Rather nervy, he is still. That’s the worst of a head wound. You know Mahoney, Margot, that Munster Fusiliers man with a bit of shrapnel in his forehead? The other men in ward 5 say he still keeps jumping out of bed in his sleep and standing to. The only way they can get him back is to say ‘Jack Johnson overhead,’ and then he scuttles into bed and puts his head under the pillow; only sometimes he scuttles under the bed instead, and then the only way they can get him out is to say ‘Minnie’s coming,’ and he nips out quick for fear of being buried alive.

Seen through the lens of language, Non-Combatants and Others can therefore — a mere two years into the war — offer a telling illustration of Words in War-Time, and the shifting contemporaneities of both use and understanding. Continue reading

“Archibald, Certainly Not!”: Words and Weapons no.4

A British "Archie" in action
Ein britisches Flugabwehrgeschütz in Aktion, 1917. A British “Archie” anti aircraft gun in action, 1917.

George Robey’s rendition of the music-hall song ‘Archibald, Certainly Not’ perhaps provides  an unlikely accompaniment to the First World War. It deals with the comic archetypes of domestic – and specifically marital – strife. The unfortunate Archibald is subject to continual reproof and correction from the moment he ties the knot. Denied a honeymoon, the opportunity to play cricket, or a piece of roast chicken, Archibald’s endeavours are, in each case, firmly curtailed by the refrain ‘Archibald, certainly not’. Even outside the domestic sphere, Archibald is apparently doomed to identical processes of castigation and control:

I once strolled through a field, and there a mad bull came across.
It gamboll’d with me playfully and quickly won the toss!
Of course I sued the owner, and the day the case was fought,
The judge exclaimed when I said, “Sir, let’s have the bull in court!”

“Archibald, certainly not!
Just show what other evidence you’ve got!”
But he cried when I said, “Please forgo it…
Because I must stand up to show it.
“Archibald-certainly not”

The recurrent patterning by which Archibald’s every endeavour is rebutted and repulsed, was, however, to effect an interesting transfer into the diction of the war. As an article in the Evening News in January 1915 indicates, it was by this point seen as yet another component in the lexical ingenuity of war-time English. While the article draws attention in general terms to ‘the ingenuity of the British soldier in inventing picturesque names for the various engines of destruction brought to bear against him’, Archibald  features as an item of specific interest. It designates ‘for some unknown reason’ the  ‘anti-aircraft gun’, the writer explains.  As in so many other cases, the language of Front and Home Front had apparently diverged. Here, a proper name had inexplicably been used to ‘christen’  an inanimate object. Both, admittedly, began with the same letter but at least in this article the transfer is seen as entirely opaque.

Across the Words in War-Time archive, however, the prevalence of this usage is clear. As a further quotation from December 1914 confirms, for instance, attributions of this kind were already part of common parlance at the Front. ‘High-angle guns firing shrapnel’ are ‘commonly known as “Archibalds”’, the Daily Express explains for the benefit of its own readers. Used with reference to the enemy, Archibald offered a ready personification of agency and attack: 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

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

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

The bombshells of WW1: women, words, and weapons

black maria
‘Plug Street’ (Ploegsteert) Village : An Unusual Compliment To One Of Our Airmen: A ‘Black Maria’ To Himself – Copyright: Imperial War Museums. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/12057#sthash.lGzq8PI3.dpuf

The naming of weapons runs through literature as a commonplace of heroism and of war. Arthur wields Excalibur while Beowulf uses the sword Hrunting against Grendel, and gains Naegling from  his lord Hygelac. J. R. R. Tolkien, Professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford from 1925, and a soldier in WW1 form 1915, appropriated this literary heritage in the Lord of the Rings, creating a range of expressive names and epithets within his text; modern fantasy fiction (and its online forms) has likewise taken over this convention with marked enthusiasm. That soldiers in WW1 should also refer to weapons by names or descriptive epithets can, in a number of ways, be placed in this same tradition. As earlier posts have explored, a range of identities – from Jack Johnsons, woolly bears, to coalboxes — can be mapped on to types of shell, drawing on a range of visual and other metaphors.
Even here, however, certain differences are plain. In Beowulf and the Hobbit alike, weapon names are strongly individualised; weapon and name are passed down within heroic culture, part of a process of collective memory and understanding. Names evoke respect and reverence, while descriptive attributes are positive, drawing attention to lineage, prowess, strength, and/or aesthetic qualities. Though there are exceptions, the creative appellations of WW1 are, in contrast, applied most memorably not to personal possessions but to the array of devices that the enemy deploys. The expressive potential of names is, by the same token, subversively redirected; German bombs, as we have seen, can be made to evoke the clouds of dusts emitted by coal boxes in domestic settings, or, as for Jack Johnsons, can draw on telling images of the ‘other’ which delegitimise in different ways. As the Words in Wartime archive often explores, the tone is that of irreverence, and lack of respect.

the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell foiled 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. On account of this they are 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.

This post, however, will examine another strand within this pattern of naming and renaming – one by which female names can be appropriated, and women rendered quite literal bombshells. As in the extract above, for example, Jack Johnsons are accompanied by Black Marias (the terms are, in reality, synonyms, if aligned with different gender identities) while, in other patterns of evidence in the Words in War-Time archive, we can encounter Big Berthas, Sloppy Kates, or – in the Dardanelles in the spring and summer of 1915 – the questionable charms of Asiatic Alice or Asiatic Annie. Minnie as a sobriquet of the German minenwerfer offers another comparable form. Continue reading

Babies and “War-babies”: writing language in history in 1914-15

war baby.medium
A British soldier’s family of three. The Army Children Archive, Copyright: Creative Commons.

Baby can be a surprisingly prominent form in the discourse of early WWI. As earlier posts on this site have explored, it can, compounded with –killer and -killing, be made to act as a resonant image of German ‘frightfulness’ and its deployment against the innocent and vulnerable. ‘Scarborough’s Scorn for baby-killers’, as a headline in the Daily Express announced on December 22nd 1914; ‘The mere discussion in this country of the desirability of making air raid reprisals on German towns has been sufficient to inspire numerous earnest appeals to the Kaiser to put an end to the baby-killing activities of the Zeppelins’, the Express added in a similar mode in October 1915. Elsewhere in the Words in War-Time archive, baby can be used in depicting the surrogate family bonds of trench and army life. ‘It is odd that the N.E.D. [i.e. Oxford English Dictionary] has no heading or quotation for ‘baby’ in the sense of youngest member of a regiment’, a note in the archive states, providing plentiful evidence for contemporary usage in this respect.

Other familial imagery of babies in a time of war is perhaps more disturbing. The introduction of baby howitzers offered, for example, a form of familial narrative based on the deadly progeny (and fertility) of modern war. ‘New Terror for the Trenches’, as an article in the Evening News proclaimed in November 1914, While, as it commented, “the huge howitzers which were used in the reduction of the Belgian forts were, perhaps, the most surprising feature of the Teuton’s artillery equipment”, a new baby howitzer now promised to deliver twelve-inch shells from three inch guns. If with rather different resonances, the same diction could, of course, also be applied to British weapons. As in the extract below, this offers telling illustration of the shift of meaning which a change of orientation can bring:

The different types of our own ordnance also all have their designations. A certain heavy howitzer whose dull boom is easily distinguishable above the reports of any other piece is affectionately termed “Mother,” while another is, somewhat inappropriately called “Baby”. (Evening News,January 1915).

It is, however, human fertility, and the conflicted issue of the war baby, on which this post will focus. This, too, was to be a distinctive use of the early years of WW1, not least in the contrastive senses it came to acquire. War baby demonstrates a clear narrative of change in the first year of war. Continue reading

Words, weapons, and WWI No.3: Gas! Gas!

gas warfare
Gas Warfare in WW1. Attack photgraphed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reservedhttp://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205288286

In the Words in War-Time archive, gas is yet another word for which linguistic productivity – and the potential for wide-ranging physical assault – would disturbingly unite in 1914-15. Written before war began, the relevant entry in the OED had documented modern uses in which gas was used to light domestic space and gas-engineers were ‘engaged in the making of gas, or in regulating its supply’ — ‘especially in theatres’, the Dictionary added. It tracked, too, industrial, as well as medical and scientific applications. The diction of war and conflict was, however, absent. The familiarity attested by Wilfred Owen’s ‘Gas! Gas!’ (in his ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ of 1917), and the salience of gas as a weapon of attack, remained unknown. Only in 1933 was the entry changed and the Dictionary brought firmly up to date. ‘First used in the war of 1914-18 by Germany on April 22, 1915’, the 1933 Supplement states with striking specificity; gas, it confirmed, now signified asphyxiating gas and poison gas. A range of collocations – gas shells, gas mask, gas bomb (among others) – all attest to the legacies of a changing langscape of war.
The Words in War-Time archive offers its own narrative of this transition from innocence to the realities (and diction) which came to accompany this particular facet of ‘modern war’. If anxieties were expressed about gas and the effects of war in August 1914, these could, for example, centre on an envisaged disruption in the supply of gas mantles (another form which, as the archive confirms, was as yet unrecorded in the OED). As a headline in the Evening News announced on 8th Sept 1914, ‘A famine of gas mantles is threatened’:

Mr. J. Thacker stated that one could hardly prophecy what would happen next .. Seventy-five per cent of mantles were imported from Germany

Nevertheless, language can also offer interesting correctives to the image of gas in WWI as a defining aspect of German frightfulnessper se. Continue reading

Watching language change in WW1: on being a dud


“He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;

And then, of course, they started with five-nines

Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud”.

Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Counter-Attack’ (first drafted in the summer of 1916) reveals a ready familiarity with the duds one might encounter at the Front. Here, if the ‘five-nines’ in line 2 of the extract above reference the German 5.9 inch artillery shells, their high success rate is emphasised too. In the attack Sassoon describes, duds – shells which fail to explode – are absent. ‘Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst’, as the poem continues.

National Library of the Netherlands – Koninklijke Bibliotheek: Soldier with a 16 inch German “dud” which fell in the Belgian lines. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved

It is nevertheless worth remembering that speakers of English from before war would have struggled to comprehend the lines as thus composed. As the first edition of the OED records – here in a section published in 1897 — duds in English referred primarily to clothing or to things. One could wear duds, or possess them. In neither case, however, did they resemble elements of military hardware. ‘Girls knit away small fortunes … on little duds that do nobody any good’, as Harriet Beecher Stowe stated in her novel Little Foxes in 1866. ‘How precious are all the belongings of a first baby; how dear are the cradle, the lace-caps, the first coral, all the little duds which are made with such punctilious care and anxious efforts of nicest needlework’, we are told in Anthony Trollope’s The Three Clerks (1857).

Andrew Clark’s work on the Words in War-Time archive draws early attention to the shift which a few months of war had brought in this respect. Reading the Daily Express on Wednesday 13th January 1915, he found an article headed ‘Jig-saw of mud’. The text took the form of another ‘Letter from the Front’ – identified as being from a sergeant to his wife, and offering an important sense of authentication for the experiences that are described. Language and its changes, as Clark stressed, can, of course, be authenticated in similar ways. Continue reading

Words, weapons, and WWI No.2: Woolly bears and whizz-bangs

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:

woolly bear
A woolly bear ? Explosion over a trench. Bibliothèque nationale de France @Public Domain marked.

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 Johnsons and coal boxes, as the Evening News likewise observed, presented striking metaphors for what were, in other respects, terrifying ‘engines of destruction’. Continue reading

Watching change in progress: shrapnel

The aim behind Clark’s ‘Words in War-Time’ project was to look at language, history, and their interrelationship, at close quarters. While the Oxford English Dictionary applied historical principles to language from 1150 to the present day, Clark aimed to look at language, and history, as it happened – testing historical principles in the everyday and as prompted by what gradually emerged as one of the most significant historical events of the twentieth century. A range of words can, in different ways, reveal, and confirm, change in progress (in language and war alike) in the autumn of 1914 – confirming, too, Clark’s intuitions about the salience of observing language in a period of unprecedented historical change.

Shrapnel, mentioned briefly in an earlier post, was, for example, particularly interesting in the changing patterns of use that Clark’s early notebooks reveal. This had, in fact, been one of the most recent entries in the OED as it then existed.  The relevant section of the dictionary had been published in late March 1914; as the image below illustrates, the history of shrapnel was tracked from 1806 when the inventiveness of General Shrapnel in the Peninsular war gave his name to this new mode of attack and defence. Shrapnel, the OED wrote, was ‘A hollow projectile containing bullets and a small bursting charge, which when fired by the time fuse, bursts the shell and scatters the bullets in a shower’. As this definition indicates, the shrapnel is the casing, and the contents are the bullets. Constructions such as shrapnel shell, as in the quotations from 1870 and 1890, make this meaning particularly clear.


Tracking language in use in September and October 1914, this meaning of shrapnel, as Clark demonstrates, is, as expected, often in evidence. An article headed ‘The Battle of Soissons. A View of the Fighting’, which Clark took from the Scotsman on the 16th of September described, for example, the paradoxical beauty of war:

As a panoramic scene the engagement was beautiful. The day was cold and clear. The city, particularly the cathedral, stood out in bold relief in its little valley, while the shrapnel exploded above it in balloon-like floating white puffs. Occasionally black smoke rose where the siege shells burst.

In this account, shrapnel – just as in the OED — is a single entity which explodes, scattering its contents to fall with intentionally devastating effects on those below. Other comments in the same article make this sense particularly plain:

the French shrapnel exploded low and accurately’

My first view of the fighting was shrapnel bursting about the beautiful two-steepled cathedral’.

Yet, at the same time, another transferred use also starts to be perceptible in Clark’s notebooks. Here, shrapnel instead comes, by a process of semantic extension, to designate the contents of the shell rather than the shell itself. By the 28th of September, for example, the two senses co-exist, as in the following extract from the Scotsman:

As soon as the French infantry deploy their ranks and appear in the open they are met with showers of shrapnel, which also is not as deadly as it looks from a distance. Then follows the hurried “tat-tat-tat” of machine-guns from the woods and spinneys, and then the long rattle of musketry from the trenches along the ridges.

As in this highly visual account, the showers of shrapnel fall from the shells which have already exploded; meaning is taken in directions which the OED entry of six months before had conspicuously not included. As Clark realised, equally significant in this respect was the rise of new compounds (in both adjective and noun) such as shrapnel splinter  and shrapnel bullet. These serve to consolidate the patterns of semantic transfer at work, making plain the shift in the physical form that shrapnel is assumed to have, as well as its changing orientation of sense:

we have a lovely little hutch … just room for three to lie down, and the top is shrapnel-splinter proof. We have had one or two bits landing on it. [‘Stories of the Fighting’, Daily Express October 20th 1914]

In the case of these arrows and bullets it is sufficient to release them, without any initial momentum because the speed which they gather in flight, due to gravity, ensures their reaching the earth with considerable velocity, which increases in proportion to the height of the aircraft… In the case of shrapnel bullets, weighing, say, twenty to the pound, this would mean a striking energy of 160 foot pounds’ (Daily Express 19th September 1914)

Mme. van Dessalaere was struck in her right leg by shrapnel bullets, and her recovery is not expected … shrapnel struck her down (Daily Express, October 7th 1914)

Shrapnel in the last two examples is transferred to the bullets  which fall with lethal force to earth; in the former, it  is a ‘splinter’ – designating the ‘bits’ that shells contain rather than the shell per se (although this may, of course, also signal the ‘bits’ of the disintegrating shell). As the final example confirms, however, shrapnel can also be used without the specifying bullets to indicate the mode of injury and attack.

As in the quotation from the Scotsman above, sense-divisions of this kind also  came to contribute to common images of the ‘rain’ or ‘hail’ of shells in contemporary accounts of the life at the front. ‘The moment a few battalions had crossed, shrapnel began to rain in on our men as if from the blue above’, as the Evening News noted on October 1st 1914, in an article entitled ‘Heroic Royal Engineers’. Another similar example occurs in the Daily Express on October 20th 1914:

‘We spent two days in the trenches under a rain of shell fire, and we got quite clever in judging the distance at which their shells would burst by the hum of the blooming things’ [‘Thrilling adventures in the Retreat from Antwerp’, Daily Express, October 20 1914]

In the autumn of 1914, Clark can therefore reveal the play of  meaning and changing familiarization of this word as both noun and adjective. For a time, in popular comment in the autumn of 1914,  shrapnel can ambiguously designate both whole and part, projectile and the hostile contents of the shells which sailed overhead. By the end of October, the OED entry of six months earlier was therefore distinctly out of date. History – and language – had moved on. Shrapnel had not only one sense but three. If meaning begins, historically, in a single type of shell, it swiftly extends, during the terrible familiarization of WW1,  to denote the contents of that type of shell. As war advances, however, it can, in turn, lose its reference to this specific shell-type, designating, more broadly, the devastating contents of bombs, together with the kinds of widespread injury they cause, as in compounds such as shrapnel wounds, shrapnel injuries. The meaning ‘Fragments from shells or bombs’  is ‘Now the usual sense.’, as the modern OED notes, dating such use to October 1914. ** As Clark confirms therefore, while General Shrapnel — in yet another eponym of English — gives his name to this spherical projectile, it was language in use along the front, and by soldiers rather than generals, which instead gradually changed the patterns of signification which remain in use today.

** The revised OED entry can be seen at shrapnel, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 1 December 2014.