Writing war and peace in 1914-15: pacifists, peace-plotters, and peacettes

In terms of language, peace and war exist in a state of mutual definition. Peace, as Samuel Johnson states in his Dictionary of 1755, is ‘Respite from war’. To be peaceable is likewise to be ‘Free from war; free from tumult’. Defining war, it is ‘the exercise of violence’, together with ‘force’ and ‘resistance’ which instead assume prominence in the entry Johnson writes. Peace, by definition, is regained only once war comes to an end.

In reality, of course, things may not be quite so clear cut. Attitudes to war-like activity, as well as to peace activism in 1914-15 can, as the Words in War-time archive confirm, reveal a number of interesting shades of meaning. Militarism and the act of participating in military engagements were, for example, carefully kept apart. Used as a further means of distinguishing enemies from allies, militarism – and the pursuit of war which this implies — was confined to descriptions of the enemy. It was unambiguously derogatory. Continue reading

Shellitis and shell-shock: language and the psychological side-effects of war.

In February 1915, Captain Charles Myers published what he termed ‘A contribution to the Study of Shell-Shock’ in the medical journal the Lancet. Presenting three detailed case histories, he concluded that, rather than ‘hysteria’, such cases ‘constitute a definite class among others arising from the effects of shell-shock’. Such studies were important in the legitimization of the psychological side-effects of war. Hysteria, as Myers was well aware, was a label which, unlike shell-shock, had widely served to undermine the seriousness (and validity) of what was being experienced by those who, traumatized, returned from war. Language, here and elsewhere, intersected with real-world history, documenting not only events but how events (and illness) were to be understood.

As earlier posts have explored, WW1 had, from the beginning, generated a wide-ranging vocabulary of nerves and nerviness. Long before the formal currency of shell-shock, the diction of to shatter the nerves was widely prevalent. It was an expression which was ‘in constant use’, together with related forms during 1914-15, as Andrew Clark observed, here alongside an entry in the archive from the Daily Express which focussed attention on the psychological stress of war:

The effect on the nerves is terrible, and I suppose it is intended to shatter the nerves of our men. Only the strongest can stand it for long, and most of us found it best to stuff our ears with cotton wool or tear up our handkerchiefs for the same purpose’ (Daily Express, September 2nd 1914)

Nerve-wracking as a distinctive property of the instruments of modern warfare, was picked up two days later in the Evening News. Both injury and attack could take many forms, Continue reading