Communication will find a way

In last Thursday’s broadcast of the BBC radio serial ‘Home Front’, it was noticeable how little reference there was to the war. One character, a former prisoner of war, stands out as someone suffering from the guilt and shame, much of it self-projected, of having somehow failed the grand story. But there were no postcards or letter joyfully received, no news of disasters or successes, no farewells to leaving soldiers. The mood was one of the war as just there, the environment of the time, one of the hardest things to convey, so important, yet so unenlivened by features; the unsaid, as has been noted before, saying a lot.


In January 1915 the war was still providing the Home Front with novel titbits, many of them relating newly-acquired customs and odd occurrences to do with communication.


Exchange of courtesies


In January 1915 the magazine The Penny War Weekly carried a couple of stories about contact across no man’s land; in the first narration, the use of the red flag and spade carry a sense of authenticity – it would be easy to do, maybe funny once or twice, and then sticking in the mind, even if not repeated. ‘We are noblemen’, though? It’s too posh, absurdly so; it smacks of the public school educated officer upholding standards of decency and playing the game, an ingrown sense of superiority underlined by the observation of British soldiers laughing at the Germans. We might almost imagine the line being written in Times New Roman. The journalistic introduction – ‘An exchange of courtesies’ suggests the slip into formality, and, by highlighting it, its improbability. Or maybe it was thrown up as an immediate reaction – in a way a mistake, but one that suited the journalistic context, and indeed the moral causus belli. Or most likely, as this was told by a soldier in the 2nd Scottish Rifles, this was a claim for superiority of the Scots over the English; possibly some of the German soldiers opposite would have observed an animosity within British ranks, just as British soldiers noted an antipathy between Saxons and Prussians. Expressed animosity between Scots and English is rare in the documentation, but hints of it are spotted here and there, Graves noting the words of an adjutant that ‘the Jocks … charge like hell – both ways’, and the frequent comments in different kinds of texts on the unintelligibility of the Scottish accent. It tends to go in one direction.




The second story, told in reported speech, proposes that either these words were used, in mocking false social informality, or much stronger terms were used. Presumably this story was conveyed in writing, so was immediately more formal than speech – the construction as a single sentence could argue either way, but the use of ‘for’ and ‘as’ propose a fairly formal awareness of planned speech. But ‘chaps’ sounds like an informal term of the kind that gets picked up in second language use, without the awareness of the level of social familiarity required for it to be acceptable. ‘Chaps’ is too familiar in this situation, where we would expect ‘Tommy’ or, conversely overfamiliar in a knowingly challenging way, ‘mate’. Alternatively it could have been used mockingly, and replied to equally mockingly, using a form of exchange more appropriate to the middle-class drawing room, and thus mocking, and defusing, the conflict situation.


Though it is tempting to assume that these have been tidied up for home consumption, this is of necessity an assumption. We have to read texts like this as multilayered. Throughout his Death of a Hero (1929) Richard Aldington uses the term ‘mucking’. Lt Claude Sisley in an article in the Athenaeum noted that documentation in print of soldiers’ speech was inherently inauthentic as it omitted the obscene expletive that was used every fourth word.




We know that ‘mucking’ stands for ‘fucking’, we know that that that could not be printed at that time and this substitution makes the text legally and socially acceptable, and we know that many – certainly all former soldiers – knew that ‘mucking’ stood for ‘fucking’. But we also know that in that situation it carried no meaning beyond shock, and very quickly lost that power, and that it was just an intensifier – for which any word could stand in. As John Brophy later pointed out, the time to worry was when it was omitted in soldiers’ speech. It is possible that many middle class soldiers, brought up in a culture of tea and Sunday school (and R H Mottram proposes this for a substantial proportion of the serving soldiers) would have preferred not to swear; did they go half way to what was expected of them without lowering their own standards of speech, and say ‘mucking’? After all, we often do not let rip with the worst that we have in our vocabulary, even under extreme stress – we say ‘Jeez’ or ‘Sugar’. Avoiding swearing may have been for some soldiers a way of maintaining personal standards in this most degrading of situations. Maybe the throw-away use of ‘noblemen’ and ‘chaps’ was a way of momentarily climbing out of the mud.


For early birds, booking is now open for the September conference. The programme will be up in the next few weeks.



Not just translating

How much the move into another language reveals differences of attitude and manners; for a new Anglophone learner of Spanish the utterance ‘traeme una botella de tinto y dos vasos’ in Spanish sounds imperious, officious even. It can suggest that Spanish is more direct, less polite, rather than that this is normal, standard Spanish, and not impolite at all; indeed the ‘could you bring me a bottle of wine?’ to a Spanish-speaker might sound obsequious and tremulous, rather than polite. Simple phrasebook translations do not help the speaker shift from his or her own language mindset into another way of thinking/feeling/speaking. Changes within languages over time, with developments of status-change due to political developments may give the same result, for example the taboo words in contemporary English that came from Old English, and which were not taboo but standard terms in Old English; an Old English glossary in the Cotton Ms Cleopatra A III gives testiculi : ‘bulleacas’.


The English in English-to-French phrasebooks, based on English designed for travelers, often seems inappropriately polite, and mirrors the idea of the English second lieutenant bringing to no man’s land the manners of the minor public school, and bringing too the inappropriate French phrases learned in such schools. Such academic prescriptions were mocked in an advertisement in Punch, October 1918, where Cavanders introduced ‘the “American Doughboy”’ in their advertising campaign for Army Club cigarettes, showing him reading a French and English Phrase Book, and saying ‘Can’t make nothing of this gol-darned French phrase book. All about the wooden leg of the gardener and the pens of my aunt, and that kind o’ junk’. This was perhaps unfair; it is doubtful that any phrasebook published at this time would offer such phrases, though they often displayed the politeness of a trip to the opera rather than to the local estaminet.


The realisation that schoolboy French would be of limited use, no doubt led young soldiers to learn from dedicated phrasebooks useful utterances before they went to France – Craig Gibson in Behind the Front noted that many Australian soldiers equipped themselves with a phrasebook before arriving in France. How much use were the phrases learned, not so much in terms of offering the right translation as much as the attitude suggested? ‘I should like some matches’, and ‘I wish to telegraph’, offered the publication How to Say it in French published by J W Arrowsmith (profits to the War Relief Fund), with a front cover illustration of a Tommy and Jean Bonhomme (and note that there is documentation of these terms being disliked by soldiers). ‘Thank you, Madam, for your hospitality’, offers Speak French, a Book for the Soldiers, published in Cleveland, Ohio, for American soldiers went equipped with a moral duty of politeness too, which would hopefully pay dividends (‘Good morning, my boy. We are American soldiers, friends. Have you seen a German airplane here? Where did it fall?’). In this environment the terseness of ‘I want someone to come with me as a guide’, ‘Carry this’, ‘Talk slowly’, and ‘Walk quickly’ of What you Want to Say and How to Say it in French of W J Hernan (undated ‘War Edition’) strikes an unusually authentic note.


There is a fine line between recognising and enabling likely sequences of conversation, and going beyond to scripting interactions. The last page of How to Say it in French, which differs from most in giving the French first, offers the sequence ‘Parlez-vous français?’ ‘Non, pas du tout.’ ‘Quel Dommage.’  The exchange, studied to the point of being learnt, becomes reproducible, even where not strictly accurate – in this case it is a self-contradiction. Not just foreign phrasebooks but slang glossaries published at home served this purpose; they were in effect doing the same thing, allowing the recruit to converse with the veteran at the Front in his own language. Tim Cook, in Fighting Words: Canadian Soldiers’ Slang and Swearing in the Great War, quotes the Listening Post 10 August 1917, which offered American soldiers the following advice: ‘Study this list thoroughly, and when you arrive in the trenches you will be able to greet the old soldier in his own language’. No doubt the ‘old soldier’ was less than impressed by the new arrivals’ familiarity with language carved out of the experience of shellfire. For these glossaries not only taught the language, they proposed a familiarity with the situation, which may have softened the shock for many soldiers, and given them a speech model they recognised. No doubt many of the phrases were out of date by the time there came an occasion to put them into use, hollow forms which actually served to separate the veteran from the rookie, creating shibboleths of experience.


But any attempt to place slang, or a foreign language, or sociolect, in a context or dialogue might become reproducible, especially in situations of stress. Drill terms, taught till they were automatic, served a purpose: Graves observed a soldier killing an adversary and uttering the exact words taught during bayonet drill. Equally, slang expressions like ‘being a landowner in France’ served the purpose of protection from the awfulness of reality, and might become as formulaic as peacetime condolences. Phrases originating in the military that have survived for generations – ‘Up Guards and at ’em’ and ‘Steady the Buffs’ – might make a transition into civilian life and situations far removed from the original.


Is it possible to see this as is a scripting process? Teaching people how to speak the war, as if it were a performance? And if so, who scripts the performance, and what story do they want to tell? The Soldiers’ English-German Conversation Book compiled by Henry Buller and published in 1915 certainly had an agenda. Its subtitle reads ‘arranged for his daily use when in Germany and dealing with the various conditions in which he will find himself’. While we do not know when it was compiled, it seems likely that this is reflecting the ‘over by Christmas’ mentality of autumn 1914. The last few pages create a scene of postwar reconciliation that was rapidly drifting into a distant future in 1915, and becoming more fictional.


Buller 110

Buller 112

Buller 114


These lines read like the script for a performance, which itself takes us into difficult territory: the war as performance, with Bill and Harry and Alf putting on the costume of the Tommy character and learning their moves alongside the lines to Tipperary. Anyone who has ever performed knows the way that character, lines, make-up and costume can carry you through.


This is not to say that phrasebooks alone can create events, or even a zeitgeist; however, it would be equally rash to contend that they did not reflect one. The selection process – which phrases to translate – was presumably derived partly from consultation with people with some military experience, partly drawn from existing travelers’ phrasebooks, partly from the editor’s discretion, and partly from attitudes towards speakers of the language. “First Aid” to the Swahili Language issued by the ‘Army YMCA. British East Africa’ (undated but 1916-18) carried on its inside back cover Kitchener’s ‘Letter to every soldier’, with its familiar valediction ‘Do your duty bravely. Fear God. Honour the King.’, whose rhythm and imagined intonation, if not exact words, echoed through the following years. Its uprightness is reflected, almost literally, at the end of the preceding page’s ‘14 Health Hints for East Africa’.


Swahili end

Swahili end det

Again, towards the end of the book, the end of the war is explicitly scripted – while trench journals were offering scenarios of the war lasting into the 1950s (see earlier blogpost). What does the selection of phrases tell us about the expected interaction with Swahili-speakers? The first page is ambivalent – ‘As regards pronunciation, Kiswahili is a very simple language. The accent is almost invariably on the last syllable but one.’ We are informed that we should pronounce the language on its own terms, but equally that it will not demand much of us. But the terseness and hectoring on page 12 reveals the reality of the attitude towards indigenous people, as the phrasebook scripts the relationships expected by and of the British Empire.

Swahili 12







Pill Box, Pillbox, Pill-Box. What’s in a Name?

The word “pill box” (or pillbox, pill-box) is often today defined as a structure which gets its name from a resemblance to a tablet or medicine container. This etymology is often perceived as being historically factual, and has found its way into an oft-quoted dictionary, Brophy and Partridges dictionary editions of WW1 slang, which will be addressed in the text below, and even the modern on-line Wikipedia. However, it has been found that this presumption is unlikely to be correct and the origins of the word have little to do with medicinal storage.


Several claims have also been made that the word first appeared in The Scotsman, 17th September 1917: however it had already appeared in print, on the front page of The Times August 2nd 1917, immediately following the beginning of Third Ypres, which became better known as Passchendaele. Describing the attack which launched the Third Battle of Ypres, 2 days earlier, the war reporter wrote:

The favourite type of German stronghold is a structure of concrete made all in one piece, and not built of blocks, which has been named “the German pill box”. Used singly they are merely shelters or substitutes for dugouts. With the proper internal arrangements and loopholes they are machine-gun posts, or clustered together they make redoubts. They are not easily destroyed by shell-fire, but so terrific was our bombardment of the area attacked that these pill-boxes, where they were not shattered, were thrown upon their sides or left ridiculously standing on their roofs. Some are big enough to hold 20-30 men”.


It has also been written that the British first encountered these structures during the Battle of Third Ypres, which is incorrect.  The British began making concrete machine gun posts in 1915 (as recorded by 7th, 57th, 70th,  509th, Field Companies R.E. and others), as did the Germans.  There are numerous records of “concrete machine gun emplacements” and shelters being constructed in 1916 R.E. War Diaries. It has been stated that the name arose because of the circular shape. However, between 1915, when both sides began making shelters of bullet and shell-proof concrete, and 1917, there were very few circular concrete machine gun posts. The vast majority were square or rectangular in plan. The British produced some circular pill boxes later, in the summer of 1918: the Moir Pill Box, a 6ft diameter, 2 man (gunner and loader) emplacement which was pre-cast in Richborough, Kent, and some formed of pre-cast blocks on the East Anglia coast. The Australian Engineers also designed and built, near Messines, an observation post formed within up-ended elephant-iron sections. The Germans, later in the war, also produced some standard designs and patterns for structures, with standard fittings, all of square or rectangular shape. In practice it is very difficult to produce a circular concrete shape without special formwork. Those built in the field, in both forward and rear positions, by both Germans and British utilised materials to hand, most commonly wooden boards and planks, sheet corrugated iron, wood fascines, existing and broken masonry and available building materials.


Fig 1


An existing example of an early (1916) British concrete construction, (observation post) at Le Rutoire, France, shows how it was cast against corrugated iron sheeting.


fig 2Fig 3Fig 4


Some typical examples of those being constructed by the Germans around Ypres in late 1916/early 1917. The methods of formwork, giving the shape (rarely or never circular), and camouflage can be seen. These constructions proved considerable obstacles during the fighting in 1917.


fig 5


A number of examples of the above constructions still exist in the Ypres area, nowadays generally devoid of the formwork and camouflage. A particularly famous one, in Tyne Cot Cemetery near Passchendaele, Belgium, is shown. The name is often stated to have been given by Northumberland Fusiliers to cottages, which reminded them of similar cottages at home, which stood here; however other suggested origins are the Tyne river (Marne, Seine and Thames Farms are nearby) and the anglicisation of the ’t Hinnekot (chicken coop) belonging to the Heveraet/Debruyne families who farmed here up to the start of the fighting. This pill box and 2 adjacent ones proved considerable fortifications against the British and Australians, who captured them after very heavy fighting, with many losses.


Shell-proof cover was often produced, by both sides, by laying concrete over curved elephant –iron cupolas, although the floor plan was rectangular.

Fig 6


Existing typical British shelter in Belgium, comprising concrete poured over “elephant-iron” cupola. The Germans used a similar pattern.


The British started constructing “concrete machine gun emplacements” in 1915, 2 years before the term “pill box” appeared in print, as did the Germans.  There are numerous records of “concrete machine gun emplacements” and shelters being constructed in 1916 R.E. War Diaries. Many RE Field Companies and infantry units, providing working parties, had experience of constructing these structures, as there was much labour involved in excavating footings, carrying materials, mixing and placing concrete. RE, machine gun battalion and Divisional records almost always refer to “concrete machine gun emplacements” or “concrete dugouts”.  It is unlikely that any Tommy would say that he was working on a “concrete machine gun emplacement” and it is likely that a slang term was adopted fairly early on. However, few officers, in writing the daily War Diary, used the slang terms spoken by troops.


The first written description – “Pillar Box” appears in the war diary of 63rd Field Company R.E., 9th (Scottish) Division, who recorded in their work schedule of observation and machine gun posts and around Ploegsteert Wood and Hill 63 in March 1916.

fig 7

Over the late summer of 1917 the term pill box became widely accepted and began to appear in war diaries and other documents. By October the term was widely used. The Intelligence Summary of 1st Anzac Corps, dated 5th September 1917, planning for the forthcoming taking over of the front lines and subsequent attacks on the German trenches and “pillar boxes” at Ypres by the Australians described the obstacles expected. This was recorded in the Official History of Australia in the War 1914-18 (Bean)(1).


fig 8


The term “pillar box”, and the form “pillbox”, are given in the British Official History of the War (Edmonds)(2) describing the Battle of Messines Ridge in June 1917.

fig 9

Other terms were also coined, such as the 8th Devons using both “pepper box” and “pill box” interchangeably.  A report for the daily war diary, written the day following the events, on an attack on the German lines by this battalion at the opening of the Battle of Broodseinde, a forerunner of the battle of Passchendaele, contains many references to pepper boxes, pill boxes, and concrete dugouts as in the extract example below (underlined in red as original typing indistinct):


“Blockhouse”, from the Boer war, and “concrete dugout” were frequently used  in daily war diaries until the slang “pill box” became more officially accepted and used in records and plans. “MG nest” was also used in some instances by the Canadians, and later the Americans, although not widely adopted by the British. “Concrete fort” was also used, generally in descriptions of German defences. A search of usage within war diaries and contemporary official documents shows the wording had three presentations: ‘pill box’, ‘pillbox’ and ‘pill-box’. Of the 3, the first, ‘pill box’ was most commonly used to describe both British and German constructions, in much greater numbers than the other 2, probably about sixty per cent of the time.


A pre-cast block and beam system was developed:




Poured or in-situ concrete patterns were also produced:

fig 15



The Royal Engineers who designed and constructed the various emplacements preferred the term ‘pill box’. ‘Pillbox’ and ‘pill-box’ were also used, and ‘pillbox’ as one word has increased in usage and is nowadays probably the most commonly used. The author has however maintained the use of ‘pill box’ when writing, as being more historically correct.


Of the many concrete constructions built in France and Belgium by both sides during the First World War, only a small proportion were intended as to be used by machine gunners. Most did not have loopholes or apertures for firing from within. The majority were simply to be used as shelter from artillery and aerial bombardment for unit headquarters, aid posts, artillery command posts, observation posts, and engineer protection etc. Many would be known today as a ‘bunker’, although this term was not used 1914-18, and they were generally known as ‘dugouts’ even when above ground. The vast majority were of poured and cast in-situ concrete, against whatever shuttering could be supplied or found, with the Germans producing a small number of pre-cast block structures in 1917, and the British producing pre-cast block and beam patterns in 1918. With the exception of the Moir Pill Box, all were square or rectangular.


Circular Pill Boxes

Circular pill boxes were quite rare. This is because constructing a round shape in concrete, especially when reinforced with iron, is quite difficult, especially in battlefield conditions, and needs special formwork. The advent of pre-casting, in factories behind the lines, did make this possible.


The French had a number of circular protective posts made of cast steel, adopted from earlier border forts, but these were few in number due to transport practicalities. The Germans produced machine gun emplacements and shelters utilising pre-cast blocks in 1917, but their designs were all square or rectangular, comprising 4 walls of concrete blocks and a roof cast in place. The British adopted this idea, improving the system to use both blocks and beams, as in Figures 14 and 15.


The only circular pill box in usage on the western front was that designed by Sir Ernest Moir: interlocking circular segmented concrete blocks, cast at Richborough, Kent, with a metal cupola, sent out to France and Belgium in kit form in the summer of 1918.

Fig 17


With the increased threat of a German invasion after the winter of 1917/1918 (which became the Spring Offensive, Operation Michael, launched against the British, beginning  21st March 1918, when the Germans almost pushed the British army back to the channel ports) the coastal defences in eastern England were greatly strengthened.  A series of circular pattern emplacements comprising pre-cast concrete blocks was constructed by Royal Engineers, of 64th Division, Home Defence Force, in spring and summer 1918 to produce machine gun/rifle posts and a number of these, at least 12, can still be found on the East Anglian coast today.


It has been claimed(3) that these structures are the origin of the name pill box, but by the time of their construction the term had been in use in France and Belgium for two years. When the 1940s coastal defences were constructed, with the renewed threat of German invasion, again most structures were not circular in plan, but rectangular or hexagonal, because of the normal casting of concrete against formwork. By now the name pill box was synonymous with fixed defences.


Probably the first dictionary definition is given in Weekley’s Etymological Dictionary of Modern English in 1921(4):

“Pill-box, small concrete fort, occurs repeatedly in offic. Account of awards of V.C. Nov 27, 1917.”

Subsequent post-1918 dictionaries of soldier’s slang such as Fraser and Gibbons’ Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (5) (1925) and Brophy and Partridge’s Songs and Slang of the British Soldier (6) (1930) do not support the description of a tablet container. Fraser and Gibbons give the following:

PILL BOX-: The name, from the shape (often circular) in plan and roughly suggesting a ship’s conning tower) for the German ferro-concrete small battle-field redoubts or forts, employed from the autumn of 1917 onwards to defend sections of the line in Flanders. Some of the larger were quadrilateral in shape. They were garrisoned by small detachments of infantry with machine guns and were proof against anything except a direct hit by a big gun. The capture was often effected by infantry with hand grenades flung into the entrance at the rear or through the loopholes while other infantry kept down German rifle fire by shooting at the loopholes.


Although the shape described (“often circular”) and the chronological origin (“autumn of 1917”) can be debated, there is no reference to medicinal containers.

Brophy and Partridge, in their original 1930 edition, give:

A small fortification of reinforced concrete used especially for machine guns. A German invention.

Again, no mention of shape. However a later (1965) edition, with a changed title(7) enlarges on this and perpetuates the description of the shape: the above definition plus a second sentence:

The English name is from the cylindrical shape.

This later edition also refers to ‘Moir’s Pill-Box’, “a cylinder shaped machine-gun turret” and gives a technical description of this pattern of factory pre-cast machine gun emplacement manufactured in England in summer 1918. (See Figure 18 above for an existing example of this pattern). It also states that these pill boxes were used during the Second World War:

They became much better known during the 1939-45 (Hitler) War.

The author has found no evidence that the Moir Pill Boxes erected in 1918 in France and Belgium were used 1939-45 on what was the Western Front, although it is known that the British, in 1940, did use First World War defences when being pushed back, eg Hill 60 south of Ypres.


Note: As a result of this research and correspondence with the editors of the Oxford Dictionary, the Oxford Online Dictionary has amended its definition of pill box from originating with the Germans in 1917 to the following:

Mil. A small concrete fortification used as a gun emplacement, observation point, etc. The first pillboxes were built by the British and German armies in 1915, during the First World War (1914–18).

It is expected that at some time in the future, when re-edited, the printed Oxford English Dictionary will carry similar wording.



  1. Official History of Australia in the War 1914-1918. Vol iv 1917. CEW Bean.
  2. Official History of the War. Military Operations,1917, vol II. Sir JE Edmonds.
  3. Journal of the Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society. Vol 5, No 1, 1991.
  4. An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Ernest Weekley. 1921.
  5. Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases. Fraser and Gibbons, 1925.
  6. Songs and Slang of the British Soldier. Brophy and Partridge. 1930
  7. The Long Trail: Soldier’s Songs and Slang 1914-1918. Brophy and Partridge 1965.



Peter Oldham is a (retired) concrete technologist with over 40 years experience of concrete construction materials and methods. A Fellow of the Institute of Concrete Technology, he has studied WW1 constructions for many years. Books written include Pill Boxes on the Western Front and Armageddon’s Walls: British Pill Boxes and Bunkers, 1914-1918, as well as battlefield guides (“Messines Ridge” and “The Hindenburg Line”). A recent paper in the Institution of Civil Engineers “Magazine of Concrete Research” was entitled “From Extemporised to Engineered. Developments in Concrete Technology During the First World War”.










Saying a little, saying a lot

We are re-posting today an article about a set of four postcards, with simple messages of the sort we are accustomed to read on postcards of the early twentieth century, a period when the postcard was the easiest way of communicating at a distance for those who could not afford the telephone, that is, most people. The relatively low cost of postage (it went up to a penny in 1918) and the number of postal deliveries, up to 12 daily in a city, meant that the postcard was used with as much alacrity as texting is now, and with as little apparent import: the weather, somebody’s health, ‘come over Tuesday’, seldom anything special. Except that within these postcards written between members of the Radley family of Bethnal Green, London, there are a few, very few, words about a soldier called Dan:



17 April 1915 (postmark Homerton E.)

Dear Lill Pleased to say I have heard from Dan he has been in the trenches and is now resting 3 weeks [.] come over Tuesday




3 May 1915 (postmark Homerton E.)

Dear Alice and Lill

I was very busy last week and had my kitchen done up and also I have been washing today [.] I am very worried at present as I havent heard from Dan since the 11th of last month [.] I see their Regt has been fighting again [.] Hope Mother is well Bertie sends his love to Grandma if you are coming over Tuesday will you let me know



11 April 1917 (postmark Winton) (picture of the Upper Gardens, Bournemouth)

Dear Mother, have you got quite settled down yet, and how do you like your new home? Aunt is much better and all being well we shall come home next week. Dan is in France. Bert is quite well and sends his love to Grandma, also my self, what do you think of the food going up each time, Love to you all




Date illegible, but 1917 (postmark Bognor)

Mrs Ames 3 Lyon St Bognor

Dear Lill and Mother [&] Alice

I find your hat has been very useful, it has been so windy. We have had the weather fine all day and wet at night. We are both having a fine time. I wish I could get a card or letter from Dan I have not heard since I have been here. We went and saw 7 day Leave you would like it if you went[.] Hope you are all well[.] Bertie sends his love to Grandma he wishes you all were here with him.

Seven Days Leave was a spy melodrama, licensed by the Lord Chamberlain’s office on 22 January 1917. You can read the synopsis on the excellent website by Great War Theatre  Sadly, no advertisement for the production appears in the Bognor Regis Observer for 1917.


The images of the first two postcards require identification: was she a well-known actor, a generic model, an aristocratic beauty? More work needs to be done on how women at the time read published images of women, apparently designed for the male gaze. How to read them against the other tow images, of peaceful landscape.

What also stands out is the brevity of some of the phrases – ‘Dan is in France’, ‘Dan … has been in the trenches and is now resting 3 weeks’ – is quite shocking, as is the mundane context of life continuing, people taking holidays, washing, visiting. Yet, what has to be said and what can be said is said – Dan is in France, I have not heard, I wish I could get a card or letter from Dan, he has been in the trenches, I haven’t heard from Dan, his Regt has been fighting. What more could be said? The details were not given to those at home, this is all they knew, and so it was the only experience they could turn over in their minds; did they know that ‘resting 3 weeks’ did not mean that Dan was out of danger, and that ‘resting’ meant marching, training, drill, burial parties, delousing? In the May 1915 postcard the writer has seen that ‘their Regt has been fighting again’, news presumably obtained from newspapers, with the worrying wait for news from or about the individual; and indeed she states that she is worried.

Did the limited space of the postcard in fact assist the writer? The Field Service Postcard with its extreme limits on the nature and amount of information that could be conveyed allowed the soldier to accede to prescribed statementsy virtue of the fact that it said hardly anything, The soldier, without having to worry about saying the ‘right’ thing, said the most important thing – ‘I am alive’. And enterprising stationery companies printed similar cards that could be sent from home, creating correspondences flowing across the Channel, communications of both the said and the unsaid. The absence of information, the brevity of expression, the entrusting of the expression of one’s most valued thoughts to another, is itself a major aspect of the linguistic experience of the war.

message cards


No D Radley is listed among the First World War dead in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.


Revue, a melting pot of performance and languages

John Mullen in his survey of British popular theatre during the war years, The Show Must Go On (2015), describes the impact that revue had on the entertainment-seeking classes:


‘The music hall had its rivals and some of them were becoming threatening: the war years saw the rapid rise to prominence of the revue. Several hundred revues were presented during the conflict; some of the biggest variety theatres abandoned traditional music hall to do only revue.’


Revue differed from music hall in that instead of a series of individual acts, such as Harry Lauder or Vesta Tilley, each vying for status and a higher billing, and thus the potential of profitably playing more than one theatre per night, revue told a usually loose and vague story, with the whole company involved, more or less prominently; the star and the chorus girl both contributed to the whole, rather to than their own presentation. Plot lines were often little more than the backdrop to audience-pulling song and dance numbers and highly costumed tableaux; the show and the hit number were interdependent. Such opportunism inevitably brought criticisms of decline: Mullen quotes MacQueen Pope in Twenty Shillings to the Pound saying ‘True music hall was dying, largely because its individualists had sunk their individuality, the very backbone and marrow of Variety, into team work called “revue”.’ Perhaps so, but perhaps this was a reflection of the times, as the overwhelmingly powerful experience of society became that of conscripted men becoming numbers, casualty lists, names on a memorial.


Revue did provide for its audiences ample opportunities for both the well-worn model song, the risqué song, and the topical song. These did have to undergo inspection by the Lord Chamberlain, effectively the censor of performance scripts, whose office, from the evidence of a few original manuscripts in the British Library, was occasionally rather naïve, and not ideally equipped for the international nature of the new model of performance. La Revue Tricolore, scheduled for performance at the London Pavilion from 14 June 1915, was imported from France, and based on the loose story of a French company having to go on tour following a fire at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Its front page carries, like many of the others, a stamp stating that it was typed by ‘Mrs. Marshall’s Type Writing Office, 126, Strand, W.C.’, but also a handwritten note from the French manager and producer Jean Fabert – ‘Apprové par la Censure française avec felicitations’ – which Ernest Bendall, acting as examiner for the Lord Chamberlain’s office read as ‘flirtations’. Bendall gave a generous assessment to the script and lyrics for La Petite Revuette, August 1915, describing as ‘innocent self-advertisement’ both the slight story revolving around two people’s desire to go to the theatre where the revuette is to be performed, and the lyrics of ‘Tipperary Turk’ aka Mike O’Burke, who is captured by ‘a hundred thousand Turks’ and held in a harem, or ‘Mam’selle Marie’, who, coming inevitably from ‘gay Paree’, brings with her a strong line in sexual innuendo.


La Revue Tricolore moves freely between French and English, and would have perplexed an audience not well-versed in both languages, while La Petite Cabaret, licensed on 24 May 1915 for performance in Wakefield and Scarborough, has little French beyond its title, the manuscript comprising mostly music hall style patter, but presumably appealed to the enthusiasm for the entente cordiale.


The Anglo-Belgian Revue, from May 1918, may have been written for a mixed audience of Anglophones and Belgian refugees. Its subtitle, I Am Sorry … Savez vous, indicates that the language here associated with Belgians is French, but there is the occasional ‘Bodferdek’ which indicates a familiarity with Flemish too. Theatre historians/etymologists would spot the appearance of the chorus/chairman character as two figures, the compere and the commere, male and female, ‘father’ and ‘mother’. Sadly, it is not possible to post images of the manuscript, hence the transcript, with its errors and lack of accents copied exactly as set down in Mrs Marshalls Type Writing Office. What is curious for this date is a song celebrating a phrasebook. The characters include a Costermonger, ‘the Lady Macbed’, a Food Controller and his Belgian assistant, while the story at this point is carried by Rosalie and le Poilu, who are exploring London:


La Commere:   Oh, excuse me I will show you … Have you just come on leave?

Le Poilu:          Je vous demande pardon, mais je ne comprends pas un mot d’Anglais  Si ce n’est Food Controller

Rosalie:              Oues, Oues, ca est le ministre de la boustiffaile

La Commere:     Oh.. I am sorry ….  You don’t speak English and I cannot speak French …. But only a little… une toute petit peu..

Le Poilu:           Un p’tit peu …  mais c’est mieux que rien … C’est par des ruisseaux que commencent les grandes rivieres…. Un jour, peut etre, vous parlerez tres bien…

La Commere:   (giving him a vocabulary)  No … Mais vo parlez.. English   Look here is a little book to learn English ….  It is quite easy.

Le Poilu:           (reading the first words.)    I love you….  Je vous aime

La Commere:   Très bien     mais vous parlez bien

Rosalie:              Oues, si tu commences par lui dire que tu l’aime Bodferdek …  qu’est ce que tu vas une fois lui dire quand tu seras sur la seconde page…?

La Commere:   Ça ete très facile …. Vô voyez ….  Are you alone in London?

Rosalie:               Elle demande si tu es seul sur Londres ?

Le Poilu:           Oui … pour le moment au moins!

La Commere:   Oh, ça ete shocking ….  You can’t be like that alone   Shall I show you the town?

Rosalie:               Elle demande si tu beux voir la ville … Ça est quelque-chose …. Bodferdek ….  Moi, je m’en vais, savez-vous …  si elle va te montrer comme ça sa ville ….. tu peux lui montrer ce que nous avons chez nous sur le derniere du palais de justice …  Tiens, voila une carte postale de  Bruxelles ….. je l’ai toujours sur moi, parceque quand les Anglais me  demande si je suis allée pour une fois sur St Pauls Cathedrale ou sur le Tour de Londres, ils dissent, “Mais vous n’avez rien vu de si beaux?” Alors je rèpond, “Rien vu de si beau”, mais Bodferdek, il n’y a rien de plus beau que ce que j’ai dans mon poche … et alors je leur montre les Marolles Manieken …. …  Oh, ils dissent “Shoking”’ mais ils aiment de regarder. Allons au revoir,  tu saies et amuse-toi bien pendant que tu es sur Londres.

Le Poilu:           (a la Commere) Je vous remercie beaucoup ….. Mais comment faire pour parler

La Commere:   parler …  O, … so easy ..

Air       La Baya           (duo)

Elle                  To speak English, it’s so easy

                        With that book, mon petit ami

                        I am sure you will certainly

                        Speak very well presently

Lui                   L’Anglais n’est certes pas difficile

                        Pour celui qui sait le parler

                        Moi j’ai la langue assez debile

                        J’pourrai bien essayer

Elle                  Yes, yes, yes, yes, vo d’vez essayer

                        Je vois que vous etiez malin.

Lui                   No, no, no, no vous, vous trouper

                        Je n’suis pas l’inventeur Turpin

Elle                  To gether we shall be very happy

                                    Mon Petit.


C’est charmant, epatant, et meme amusant

De se rencontrer subitement aussi

You and me, all ready, we may be happy


Donnez moi le bras et vous s’ez mon mari

Mrs M [sic]:     C’est vraiment    Extraordinaire …. Comme vous dites en Français … Puisque madame veut bien vous montrer Londres   Je vous souhaite bon voyage … et “happy holiday”

Coster:            Yus.  ‘appy ‘olidays indeed,  — and wot abart me   …. Still waitin’ for me bloomin’ tickets ?


It must have been a difficult session for Mr Bendall; what was going on behind the Palais de Justice in Brussels, or was it better not to know? What did the Lord Chamberlain’s office make of ‘Bodferdek’ and ‘ouès’, as far as we can tell being Parisian accent transcriptions for a Flemish term of annoyance and the standard French ‘oui’ respectively? Comments and corrections invited here. The revue was licensed for performance at the Margaret Morris Theatre in Chelsea, which is still there, on the corner of Flood Street and Kings Road.


Mixed-language revues and concert parties (influenced by pierrot shows and seaside entertainments, and a more genteel, temporary and light-hearted form of music hall) continued after the war; concert parties were more suited to the army situation and allowed the quick coming together of a bundle of talented and enthusiastic individuals.

Acorns prog 2
















Third Call for Papers: Languages and the First World War II Conference, 10-12 September 2018

Context of the conference

Following a successful first international conference on Languages and the First World War (University of Antwerp and the British Library, June 2014), two successful books of essays (Palgrave-MacMillan), and the following that has been built up (@LanguagesFWW and the blog), the organisers are pleased to announce the second Languages and the First World War conference for 10 and 12 September 2018.

The 2018 conference will be held at Europe House, Westminster (10 September) and at KU Leuven Belgium (Brussels campus, 12 September).

The 2014 conference opened up to an international audience the idea of approaching the conflict from a linguistic viewpoint; while we imagined this falling into two main areas – developments within languages, and influences between languages – the papers delivered and subsequent essays in the volumes widened the scope considerably, to include the rise of interpreting as a profession, the ideas of reticence and withheld communication in soldiers’ letters, the role of soldiers’ publications in the management of dialect, the racial, ethnic, gender and political dynamics of languages, dialects and rhetorics, and the collecting of linguistic data during and after the war.

Flags Fr

Scope of the conference

The 2018 conference will broaden the scope of the subject of languages and the First World War. While 2018 as the final centennial year suggests a concentration on the end of the war, Languages and the First World War II also aims to extend the subject area into the aftermath of the war. Also, the period 2014-2018 has given the opportunity for much in-depth exploration of topics that have arisen from the wealth of conferences, books, papers, symposiums and the opening up of archives and collections.

We would therefore welcome abstract submissions from academic researchers as well as from educational practitioners, museum and archive staff, heritage organisations and non-profit organisations and associations (including cultural, youth, local history).


Possible topics

Papers are invited that

  1. Discuss the causes, progress and aftermath of the war from a language point of view.
  2. Explore less discussed physical territories with complicated geo-political wartime and aftermath shifts.
  3. Analyse the many interpretations of language in place.

Causes, progress and aftermath of the war from a linguistic point of view include, but not exclusively, dialect, slang, swearing, officialese, the language of mourning, the language of international post-war negotiation, interpreting, multilinguism, propaganda, popular media, correspondence, graffiti, non-verbal communication systems, the language of regimental diaries, memoirs and phrasebooks, all will be considered.

We would particularly welcome contributions on specific languages relating to geo-political complexities. These include Balkan languages, Turkish, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Greek, Portuguese, Arabic, Indian languages, African languages, Chinese, and Japanese.

The First World War created many linguistic interpretations. These include the linguistic aspects of treaties such as the Versailles Conference; and the rhetorics of resettlement, avoidance, resentment, occupation, reconciliation, pilgrimages, battlefield guides, commemorations and memories. There are also languages and shifts in language use in relation to racial orientiation and the deliberate absence of languages, the omission of the other.

Papers can easily be cross-disciplinary, but within a context of monolingualism or multilingualism. In that respect, cross-cultural mediation and translation can be seen as a means for ideologies of acculturation or isolation.

Porte-Bonheur pc

Panels and posters

The organisers are equally interested in proposals for panels. PhD students are invited to submit posters for a poster session during the lunch break.

As with the first conference the organisers aim to publish at least one volume stemming from conference contributions. The first conference papers were published by Palgrave-MacMillan, who have expressed interest in publishing further texts.

Keynote speakers

Associate Professor Amanda Laugesen, Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre

Professor Marguerite Helmers, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

Scientific committee

Our scientific panel comprises:

  • Marnix Beyen, University of Antwerp
  • Elke Brems, University of Leuven
  • Peter Doyle, London Southbank University
  • Hilary Footitt, Uinversity of Reading
  • Jane Potter, Oxford Brookes University
  • Jonathon Robinson, British Library
  • Katya Rogatchevskaya, British Library
  • Professor Odile Roynette, Université de Franch-Comté
  • Tamara Scheer, University of Vienna
  • Tom Toremans, University of Leuven
  • Luc Vandeweyer, Rijksarchief Brussels
  • Antoon Vrints, University of Ghent


sign language

Abstracts and proposals for panels or posters

Abstracts of 250 words to be sent to by 21 March, 2018.

Please make sure you refer to the preferred location for your paper (London OR Brussels), or that you are able to attend both legs.

Confirmation of acceptance: 30 March, 2018.



The conference organisers have applied for funding and support so that students (BA, MA and PhD) can attend the conference for free.

Further funding has been requested in Belgium so that a limited number of Belgian PhD students can attend the London leg.

For interest or further questions, please contact Languages and the First World War at


2,6,1,d 3x Black cat


Bridge, brioche, berries and bridge rolls

Sometimes adoptions of words between languages are hard to spot; Philip Durkin in The Oxford Guide to Etymology (OUP, 2009, p 56-7) cites the English word ‘cranberry’, for which the first part ‘is totally opaque to a speaker of modern English who does not know something of the history of the word’. Apparently the humble cranberry has given its name to ‘cranberry morphs’, elements of words which appear to have come from nowhere. It is probably an adoption into English from Low German, arriving in North American English in the 17th century, and derives ultimately from a word cognate to ‘crane’, cranes being white. Durkin proposes that, due to some similar plants having white berries (‘snowberries’) ‘the name may simply have been transferred from the white-berried type to the red-berried type, and indeed the white-berried type do appear to have been the first to be given this name’. There follows some argument about ‘snowberry’ possibly deriving from the time when the plant bears its berries, though it is unclear how this connects to cranberries. The discussion then moves onto strawberries, whose etymology is ‘far from obvious’ (code for ‘nobody knows’); various ideas have been put forward – the appearance of the plant’s runners, or the appearance of small seeds on the surface. The cranberry mystery may be cleared up, but ‘strawberry’, like the fruit itself, the only temperate fruit with its seeds on the outside, remains an anomaly; and it seems that actually the seeds are not seeds, and neither is the strawberry a berry.


But presumably these etymological hypotheses were put forward by people who believed in them. At what point does ‘it must be because’ type etymology cross over into reasonable conjecture?


Alan Davidson’s magisterial Oxford Companion to Food (2nd edition, 2004) does not stoop to include bridge rolls, that bland white pretence for bread and the natural home for squashed boiled egg or jam that featured so often in children’s teatimes in the 1960s. The OED defines a bridge roll as ‘a soft, oval, bread roll’, with the earliest citation being: ‘Social Tea … Bridge Rolls and Cress, White and Brown Bread and Butter’, from Good Housekeeping, 1926. John Ayto’s The Diner’s Dictionary (2013) offers the following: ‘They appear to be quite recent creations—the term is not recorded before 1926—but by the mid-twentieth century they had become omnipresent in Britain at occasions such as children’s parties, their filling seeming almost invariably to be egg and cress. Since the 1960s they have gone into a decline. The origin of their name is not clear, but the likeliest explanation is that they were originally intended to be eaten at afternoon parties at which bridge was played.’


While agreeing with Ayto’s assessment of the fate of the bridge roll, the hypothesis of the association with bridge parties is a bit too reminiscent of the strawberry stories; it might work as a stop-gap etymology, but only until something better turns up. However, there is strong circumstantial evidence for another pathway, via a similar looking, though much more pleasant tasting, bread from across the Channel. Around the end of the nineteenth century recipes for ‘brioche rolls’ occasionally appeared in British papers and magazines: ‘If the making of the brioche rolls is considered too much trouble’ (Hampshire Telegraph, 9 May 1891); ‘short cake, milk toast, milk rolls, and brioche rolls’ (Daily Telegraph and Courier, 10 November 1893); ‘Brioche Rolls’ (Bradford Daily Telegraph, 15 April 1903) [the ‘Telegraph’ title for all these papers is incidental, we think]. The Modern Baker (1908) tantalizingly describes brioche, in a recipe, as suitable for ‘savoury sandwiches … made up as fingers’, and though this describes them as ‘cakes’ rather than ‘rolls’, the finger-shaped roll for a savoury sandwich-filling is as good a description of a bridge roll as one could get.


The sudden strengthening in 1914 of the association between Britain and France brought thousands of young men, used to taking afternoon tea, and no doubt amenable to continental breakfasts, as officers to tables where brioche would have been a common sight. ‘Brioche rolls’ to ‘bridge rolls’ is a little step; and fortunately there is evidence for ‘bridge rolls’ appearing at a very well-known place for taking afternoon tea – not a Lyons Corner House, but Maison Lyons, in Oxford Street, in 1916.


bridge rolls 1916

An advertisement for Maison Lyons in Oxford Street, London, 1916, showing bridge rolls at 6d a dozen. Note the absence of ‘brioche rolls’ among the patisserie.


This combining of French and English continued through the twenties, as both ‘Maison Lyons’ and ‘brioche rolls’ continued to be seen frequently, though sadly not together: ‘Vienna Bread and Rolls, Brioche Rolls, French Bread’ (Chelmsford Chronicle, 24 March 1933); while MacArthur’s, advertising in the St Andrews Citizen 7 January 1928, advertised ‘VIENNA BREAD, SPECIAL PAN, BRIOCHE FINGERS, and BRIDGE ROLLS’. The question as to whether they were cakes or rolls presumably depended on their sweetness; May Byron’s Puddings, Pastries and Sweet Dishes (1929) implies, by its very title as well as the four ounces of sugar in the recipe, that the designation ‘cake’ was appropriate for that brioche.


This is not to say that there was no social association with the game of bridge: both teatime rolls and bridge, known from 1902 as ‘Auction Bridge’, would have featured in lazy early twentieth-century afternoons. Bridge was a fairly new game still by 1914, first recorded in 1886, when it was called ‘biritch or Russian whist’ (Ernest Weekley, Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 1922). According to Weekley it was a card game of Russian origin, but the origin of the word was unknown, the Russian name of the game being vint, ‘screw’.


A thumb-through of the IWM reprint of the 1922 publication Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry Into “Shell-shock” stops on the page on which W H Rivers advises Lt James Butlin not to play bridge as it ‘tended to keep you too much in the house’. It seems very much an officers’ game, in keeping with the ‘social tea’ of 1926. American Frederick Pottle in Stretchers – The Story of a Hospital Unit on the Western Front (1929) describes playing at the casino in Mont Dore, a fashionable spa town; at the other end of the comfort scale there is a ‘bridge party’, amongst the officers described in Eliot Crawshay-Williams’ Leaves from an Officer’s Notebook (1918) ‘which would play bridge on the altars of the gods, the tombs of the Kings, or the shield of a waggon during action’.




The nearest available thing to bridge rolls seem now to be called ‘finger rolls’ – from shape perhaps, but not size, and the number in the pack here seems rather unthought-out; they are bigger than bridge rolls too. Incidentally they connects to the brioche called main de St Agathe in the Savoie town of Saint-Pierre d’Albigny, shaped to signify the hand and fingers of that saint, whose hand was severed as she defended herself against torture. The ‘fingers’ are traditionally tipped in red, though not with strawberry jam.