Having a go

In his book A Minstrel in France in which he describes his time in France giving concerts to the troops, the Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder freely discusses his emotional response to the death of his son Captain John Lauder. John Lauder is a constant presence in the book, leading his father onward to support the troops, not just Scottish ones, but Canadians, English, and others. Lauder reports conversations with his son about the fighting, he quotes from his letters and tells stories of John’s childhood. The Lauder family were as distressed as any other family by the news of their son’s death, but Lauder is something of a rarity in putting into print his emotions and the possibility of expressing them in action.


    And when I thought of the Germans who had killed my boy a terrible and savage hatred swept me, and I longed to go out there and kill with my bare hands until I had avenged him or they had killed me too. (Chapter 8)

    It was all I could do, I tell you, to restrain myself – to check that wild, almost ungovernable impulse to rush to the guns and grapple with them myself – myself fire them at the men who had killed my boy. I wanted to fight! I wanted to fight with my two hands – to tear and rend, and have the consciousness that I flash back like a telegraph message from my satiated hands to my eager brain that was spurring me on. (Chapter 15

And following lunch on a visit to a Canadian gun emplacement there comes the opportunity to actually realise the deep desire for revenge:


   And so we sat and talked, as we smoked, after the meal, until the Major rose, at last, and invited me to walk around the battery again with him. I could ask questions now, having seen the men at work, and he explained many things I wanted to know – and which Fritz would like to know, too, to this day! But above all I was fascinated by the work of the gunners. I kept trying, in my mind’s eye, to follow the course of the shells that were dispatched so calmly upon their errands of destruction. My imagination played with the thought of what they were doing at the other end of their swift voyage through the air. I pictured the havoc that must be wrought when one made a clean hit.

   And, suddenly, I was swept by that same almost irresistible desire to be fighting myself that had come over me when I had seen the other battery. If I could only play my part! If I could fire even a single shot – if I, with my own hands, could do that much against those who had killed my boy! And then, incredulously, I heard the words in my ear. It was the Major.

   “Would you like to try a shot, Harry?” he asked me.

   Would I? I stared at him. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was as if he had read my thoughts. I gasped out some sort of an affirmative. My blood was boiling at the very thought, and the sweat started from my pores.

   “All right – nothing easier!” said the Major, smiling. “I had an idea you were wanting to take a hand, Harry.”

   He led me toward one of the guns, where the sweating crew was especially active, as it seemed to me. They grinned at me as they saw me coming.

   “Here’s old Harry Lauder come to take a crack at them himself,” I heard one man say to another.

   “Good for him! The more the merrier!” answered his mate. He was an American – would ye no’ know it from his speech?

   I was trembling with eagerness. I wondered if my shot would tell. I tried to visualize its consequences. It might strike some vital spot. It might kill some man whose life was of the utmost value to the enemy.

   It might – it might do anything! And I knew that my shot would be watched; Normabell, sitting up there on the Pimple in his little observatory, would watch it, as he did all of that battery’s shots. Would he make a report?

   Everything was made ready. The gun recoiled from the previous shot; swiftly it was swabbed out. A new shell was handed up; I looked it over tenderly. That was my shell! I watched the men as they placed it and saw it disappear with a jerk. Then came the swift sighting of the gun, the almost imperceptible corrections of elevation and position.

   They showed me my place. After all, it was the simplest of matters to fire even the biggest of guns. I had but to pull a lever. All morning I had been watching men do that. I knew it was but a perfunctory act. But I could not feel that! I was thrilled and excited as I had never been in all my life before.

   “All ready! Fire!”

   The order rang in my ears. And I pulled the lever, as hard as I could. The great gun sprang into life as I moved the lever. I heard the roar of the explosion, and it seemed to me that it was a louder bark than any gun I had heard had given! It was not, of course, and so, down in my heart, I knew. There was no shade of variation between that shot and all the others that had been fired. But it pleased me to think so – it pleases me, sometimes, to think so even now. Just as it pleases me to think that that long snouted engine of war propelled that shell, under my guiding hand, with unwonted accuracy and effectiveness! Perhaps I was childish, to feel as I did; indeed, I have no doubt that that was so. But I dinna care!

   There was no report by telephone from Normabell [Major Normabell, his previous guide] about that particular shot; I hung about a while, by the telephone listeners, hoping one would come. And it disappointed me that no attention was paid to that shot.

   “Probably simply means it went home,” said Godfrey. “A shot that acts just as it should doesn’t get reported.”

   But I was disappointed, just the same. And yet the sensation is one I shall never forget, and I shall never cease to be glad that the major gave me my chance. The most thrilling moment was that of the recoil of the great gun. I felt exactly as one does when one dives into deep water from a considerable height.

   “Good work, Harry!” said the Major, warmly, when I had stepped down. “I’ll wager you wiped out a bit of the German trenches with that shot! I think I’ll draft you and keep you here as a gunner!”

   And the officers and men all spoke in the same way, smiling as they did so. But I hae me doots! I’d like to think I did real damage with my one shot, but I’m afraid my shell was just one of those that turned up a bit of dirt and made one of those small brown eruptions I had seen rising on all sides along the German lines as I had sat and smoked my pipe with Normabell earlier in the day.

  “Well, anyway,” I said, exultingly, “that’s that! I hope I got two for my one, at least!”

   But my exultation did not last long. I reflected upon the inscrutability of war and of this deadly fighting that was going on all about me. How casual a matter was this sending out of a shell that could, in a flash of time, obliterate all that lived in a wide circle about where it chanced to strike! The pulling of a lever – that was all that I had done! And at any moment a shell some German gunner had sent winging its way through the air in precisely that same, casual fashion might come tearing into this quiet nook, guided by some chance, lucky for him, and wipe out the Major, and all the pleasant boys with whom I had broken bread just now, and the sweating gunners who had cheered me on as I fired my shot!

(Chapter 17)


And with that Harry proceeds to give a concert, using an enormous shell crater as a theatre. It was a gruelling tour, with as many as six concerts a day, and up to 1,200 in the audience; and it included a trip to his son’s grave.


It is interesting to compare this with the poem by Apollinaire Peu de Chose, discussed in a blog in April 2016, describing the distancing effect of the artillery war and the randomness and ‘inscrutability’ of this kind of conflict, the breakdown of cause and effect. And interesting also to see Lauder teetering on the edge of the idea of the futility of it all and the realisation that the intended victims of his shot would be so similar to his son; though this is perhaps the wishful thinking of a modern reader – there is some frustration that his reaction is not that what he has done is the same kind of thing that some one has done to his son, but a reversal of that direction, that what he has just done might have a response from the German guns, that someone might do the same to him. The tit-for-tat becomes a source of fear rather than reflection.


There are many ways this story, this action, could be read: as artillery franc-tireur activity, or artillery warfare as part of total war in which civilian munitions workers were as much part of the conflict as a civilian firing a gun (is there something mocking in the soldier’s comment on civilian involvement in ‘“Here’s old Harry Lauder come to take a crack at them himself,” I heard one man say to another.’?), as the privileging of the socially powerful, as part of Lauder’s war effort as a metonym for the revenge desire felt by so many bereaved families (Lauder’s book was published in 1918). It can be compared with two other texts about civilian involvement in artillery firing.


This from Arnold Bennett’s Over There: War Scenes on the Western Front (1915), in which Bennett writes as a journalist embedded with the French Army; in this section he and his party are being shown ‘the illustrious “seventy-five”’:


   He is perfectly easy to see when you approach him from behind, but get twenty yards in front of him and he is absolutely undiscoverable. Viewed from the sky he is part of the forest. Viewed from behind, he is perceived to be in a wooden hut with rafters, in which you can just stand upright. We beheld the working of the gun, by two men, and we beheld the different sorts of shell in their delved compartments. But this was not enough for us. We ventured to suggest that it would be proper to try to kill a few Germans for our amusement. The request was instantly granted.

   “Time for 4,300 metres,” said the Lieutenant quickly and sternly, and a soldier manipulated the obus.

   It was done. It was done with disconcerting rapidity. The shell was put into its place. A soldier pulled a string. Bang! A neat, clean, not too loud bang! The messenger had gone invisibly forth. The prettiest part of the affair was the recoil and automatic swinging back of the gun. Lest the first shell should have failed in its mission, the Commandant ordered a second one to be sent, and this time the two artillerymen sat in seats attached on either side to the gun itself. The “seventy-five” was enthusiastically praised by every officer present. He is beloved like a favourite sporting dog, and with cause. (pp45-6)


Well, certain phrases jump out: ‘this was not enough for us’, ‘to try to kill a few Germans for our amusement’, ‘The prettiest part of the affair’. But also how the process is likened to hunting, with the analogy of the gun as sporting dog.


Finally, an anonymous diary by a nurse on the retreat eastwards from Antwerp in 1914; at one point in November she finds herself near a gun emplacement: ‘The Major looked down at me and said, “Would you like to have a shot at the Boches?” and I said “Rather!”’

(A War Nurse’s Diary, (1918), p. 59)






Mutiny. Or not

Ahead of William Butler’s presentation at the East London branch of the Western Front Association (18 May), on ‘The British Army, Discipline, and the Demobilisation strikes of 1919’, we offer this on the use or avoidance of the term ‘mutiny’, from Words and the First World War.


Though grousing was seen as a safety-valve against a breakdown in discipline, major difficulties did arise, and required a renegotiation of language. ‘Mutiny’ was what happened in Russia, Germany or Austria; it did not happen to allies on whom you were totally dependent, even the French. ‘Riots’ and ‘disturbances’ happened, but were explainable, if not excusable, on the grounds that they were about the living conditions of ‘our boys’ (and the Etaples incidents were ultimately blamed on the MPs and the ‘canaries’); during the war ‘mutiny’ existed only as a potential, for example in the form of words used to prosecute and fine Sylvia Pankhurst in November 1918, for ‘attempting to cause mutiny, sedition or dissatisfaction’ (Grantham Journal, 2 November 1918, p. 7). The actions at Etaples and Boulogne in September 1917 and at Le Havre in December 1918 were conspicuously under-reported, though major disturbances which took place on home territory could not be ignored. In March 1919 Canadian soldiers at Kinmel Camp, near Rhyl, awaiting demobilisation rioted, resulting in the deaths of five men, with injuries to a further twenty-one (Lancashire Daily Post, 7 March 1919, p. 5) – newspaper reports gave varying figures for the casualties. The activities here were reported as ‘disturbances’ (Western Times, 7 March 1919, p. 12), ‘Camp Riot’ (Lancashire Daily Post, 8 March 1919, p. 2) and ‘Rioting’ (Essex Newsman, 8 March 1919, p. 1). The Lancashire Daily Post reported that, according to the camp commandant Col M. A. Colquhun, one man had ‘raised the red flag in an attempt to introduce Bolshevism’, while the Western Timesreported that ‘a cry, “Come on Bolsheviks” was raised by Canadian soldiers, said to be Russian’. Yet the headlines for the Western Times article include the innocuous sounding ‘Canadian Troops Get Out of Hand’.

The Derby Daily Telegraph reported that when the offenders were brought to court martial ‘the charges were mutiny and failure to suppress mutiny’ (Derby Daily Telegraph, 16 April 1919, p. 3). It appears that ‘mutiny’ could be used when suppressing and punishing this kind of action, but there was an effort not to raise the importance of protest while it was happening by giving it the title of ‘mutiny’. But at the same time such a loaded term could be treated light- heartedly: in November 1918 the Yorkshire Evening Post reported the story of a Canadian battalion mascot that had been sold for beer-money, provoking a strike by some of the men. The article reports: ‘It caused the only mutiny in the story of the battalion’ (Yorkshire Evening Post, 6 November 1918, p. 4). Mild though this might be, this incident did involve an action taken against authority; in ‘Another Camp Riot’, an article in the Sunderland Daily Echo reported on fighting between black soldiers and white soldiers awaiting travel to America and the Caribbean, following an outbreak of insults and retaliation, which had been largely controlled by fellow-soldiers (Sunderland Daily Echo, 17 April 1920, p. 6). The newspaper reported that ‘nothing very serious happened’, though the word ‘riot’ was used, just at it had been for the incident at Kinmel Camp.

Over the past hundred years some debate has taken place, not explicitly, as to whether the incidents at Etaples in September 1917 should be called ‘mutinies’, ‘riots’ or ‘disturbances’; in this case protests about an arrest in the training camp led to a fight with military police, an accidental death, a large-scale breakout from the camp, drunkenness, fighting, a court martial and one execution. In 1930 the Manchester Guardian carried an article about ‘The Mutiny at Etaples’ (Manchester Guardian, 13 February 1930), while in 1982 Lt Col C. E. Carrington had no hesitation in referring to ‘the Etaples mutiny’ (Letter to e Times, 11 March 1982). For Jay Winter the incident ‘that has been described as a mutiny was nothing of the sort’, and it is ‘stretching the term considerably to call this set of events a mutiny at all’ (Winter, J, The Experience of World War I, (Oxford: Equinox, 1988), p. 159); for Dan Todman in his discussion of the 1986 BBC production of The Monocled Mutineer, based on the events, the word ‘mutiny’ appears both within quotation marks and with none (Todman, D, The Great War, pp. 336, 114).

While strikers during the war were seen as working against the war effort, and were deeply resented by soldiers, terms of mutiny were not applied to them, nor to striking workers a er the war. For these situations metaphors of conflict were applied: one union compared an employers’ federation pamphlet to ‘the most dangerous of the poison gases used in the late war’ (Amalgamated Engineering Union quoted in B. Waites, A Class Society at War, (Leamington Spa: Berg, 1987), p. 72), while Lloyd George’s secretary Philip Kerr called for ‘a manifestation of the trench spirit’ in requiring trades unions to accept lower pay (Ibid., p. 73). ‘Mutiny’ seems to have been a taboo word, something that could not exist within the British forces: its seriousness was debased in the Navy, where the word was used as a slang term for rum or grog.

The Conversation Book, by Cicely Fox Smith



I ‘ave a conversation book, I brought it out from ‘ome;

It tells the French for knife an’ fork, an’ likewise brush an’ comb

It learns you ‘ow to ast the time, the names of all the stars,

An’ ‘ow to order hoysters, an’ ‘ow to buy cigars.


But there ain’t no shops to shop in, there ain’t no grand hotels,

When you spend your days in dug-outs, doin’ ‘olesale trade in shells ;

It’s nice to know the proper talk for theatres an’ such,

But when it comes to talkin’, why, it doesn’t ‘elp you much !


There’s all them friendly kind o’ things you’d naturally say

When you meet a feller casual- like an’ pass the time o’ day

Them little things as breaks the ice an’ kind o’ clears the air,

Which, when you turn the phrase-book up, why, them things isn’t there.


I met a chap the other day a-roosting in a trench,

‘E didn’t know a word of ours nor me a word o’ French ;

An’ ‘ow it was we managed, well, I cannot understand,

But I never used the phrase-book, though I ‘ad it in my ‘and.


I winked at ‘im to start with ; ‘e grinned from ear to ear;

An’ ‘e says “Tipperary” an’ I says “Sooveneer”;

‘E ‘ad my only Woodbine, I ‘ad ‘is thin cigar,

Which set the ball a-rollin’, an’ so well, there you are !


I showed ‘im next my wife an’ kids ‘e up an’ showed me ‘is,

Them little funny Frenchy kids with ‘air all in a frizz;

“Annette,” ‘e says, “Louise,” ‘e says, an’ ‘is tears begun to fall ;

We was comrades when we parted, but we’d ‘ardly spoke at all.


‘E’d ‘ave kissed me if I’d let ‘im, we ‘ad never met before,

An’ I’ve never seen the beggar since, for that’s the way of war;

An’, though we scarcely spoke a word, I wonder just the same

If ‘e’ll ever see them kids of ‘is – I never ast ‘is name !


2,6,1,c Dict how to say it in Fr copy

By Cicely Fox Smith, in her book Fighting Men, published in 1916. Cicely Fox Smith does not get an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, but Wikipedia lists 37 books by her, mostly nautically themed; she also made a collection of sea shanties. Her work was widely published in magazines, and certainly popular in the first half of the twentieth century; there was a danger that her work would be forgotten, until her collected poems were published in two editions in 2012 and 2015. She used the name C Fox Smith until ‘she was well established’, according to Wikipedia; a familiar story.



Easter quiz

The answers to last week’s quiz:

1. A. The First Hundred Thousand by Ian Hay

B. The Patriot’s Progress by Henry Williamson

C. In Parenthesis by David Jones

2. Aeroplanes dropped eggs, mine-layers laid them.

3. HMS Achilles. He would have been very cross, but it’s not a bad description of his temper.

4. A First World War linguistic urban myth, widely repeated: a Scottish soldier in France asks for ‘twa oofs’, and is pleasantly surprised when he is given three; until he has to pay for them.

5. It’s a grenade.

6. ‘Les bombes jetées au temps de Pâques’ (René Delcourt, Expressions d’Argot Allemand et Autrichien).

7. In early 1918 there was a tank battle tactic that involved tanks being hidden and brought to bear on the flank or rear of the enemy. This strategy was described by tank commander as tanks emerging ‘from their holes like savage rabbits’.

8. The ‘Herbaceous Borders’ were a group of Royal Navy sloops named after flowers: Fraser and Gibbons give :HMS Aster, Begonia, Candytuft, Carnation, Geranium, Lobelia, Lupin, Penstemon, and Foxglove; but Wikipedia prefers Azalea, Begonia, Camellia, Carnation, Clematis, Heliotrope, Jessamine, Myrtle, Narcissus, Peony, Snowdrop and Zinnia, noting they were also called the Cabbage Class.

9. The eagle on the cap-badge.

10. It seems to be a large gun/egg handled by rabbits, blowing out German Easter wishes. Honest.


Easter card a

Easter card b


Easter Egg Hunt

The eggs are here, and we award a virtual egg for our Easter quiz. Answers next week.

1. Where you can find these signs for estaminets?






B             20190415_160725

C                    20190415_160921


2. According to Brophy and Partridge, what was the difference between ‘dropping eggs’ and ‘laying eggs’?

3. ‘Egg Shells’ was the name of which Royal Navy ship, which took part in the sinking of the German auxiliary cruiser Leopard?

4. Why was the Scottish soldier delighted when he tried to buy two eggs?

5. According to Brophy and Partridge, an ‘egg’ was not a grenade, but a bomb; but what was an ‘egg bomb’?

6. What were ‘Ostereier’?

7. What were ‘savage rabbits’?

8. What were the ‘Herbaceous Borders’?

9. What did American soldiers call by the name ‘the chicken’?

10. Can you make out what is going on here?



Who am I talking to? And what is he saying?

Heimburger and Horne’s introduction to the reprint of F Sulzberger’s Deutsch-Französischer Soldaten-Sprachfuhrer (1916), excitably titled Si vous mentez vous serez fusillé after one of its more notable translated statements, gives an important reference to Eugène Plumon’s 1914 phrasebook Vade-Mecum for the use of Officers and Interpreters in the Present Campaign. The title alone should alert us to the range of its burden, immediately referencing Latin as a lingua franca, a term which itself calls up many questions. Heimburger and Horne state ‘Eugène Plumon, officier interprète français auprès du corps expéditionnaire britannique en France, a publié une liste de termes équivalents concernant les aspects militaire et technique de la guerre et le fonctionnement des deux armées alliées dès l’automne 1914. Les sujets traités touchent aux besoins quotidiens d’une armée en campagne don’t la satisfaction depend d’une population civile présumée bienveillante (lodgement, transports, ravitaillement) et à l’impératif d’une collaboration opérationelle avec une armée amie.’  [Eugène Plumon, French interpreter with the British Expeditionary Force in France, published a list of equivalent terms concerning the military and technical aspects of the war and the operation of the two allied armies in the autumn of 1914. The subjects dealt with the day-to-day operations of an army in the field in which satisfactory outcomes depend on a civil population presumed to be benevolent (accommodation, transport, supplies) and on the imperative of operational collaboration with a friendly army.]


Vade Mecum


The assumption then is that this is a book for French interpreters working with British forces, in which the French-speaker would need to be able to speak to the Anglophone, and to be able to understand what the Anglophone is saying. Thus we would expect to see a pattern of statements and questions being presented first in French and then in English, while the expected answers (rarely presented in phrasebooks at this time) would follow the reverse pattern.  By the time of the third edition (with 12,000 copies printed to date), whose prefatory note is dated 15 March 1915, the scope of the book had widened considerably. The advertising text preceding the title page is presented in French, and advertises an English-Flemish Military Guide for the Present Campaign, and Guide des Armées Alliées en Allemagne. The preface to the second edition states that the expressions given ‘follow the order in which they will be needed by the Interpreter, from the landing of the troops to which he is attached to the end of the campaign’. Interesting then that the book, targeted at the French interpreter, should have an English title. The preface to the third edition, building on the success of the first two editions, proposes that the text ‘will be useful, not only to the Interpreters, but even to the Officers of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces’.


VdMc pref

VdMc 07, 08


VdMc 10.11

On the assumption that the French Interpreter will have a very good command of English, the first pages of information, concerning badges and marks of rank in the BEF, are given in English, until the third page, when there is a heading in French, and the fourth page, concerning Indian soldiers, again with headings in French. This is followed by several pages of abbreviations, with a heading in English.

VdMc 16,17.jpg

‘Field Service Expressions’ on page 16 has a preceding heading in French, but works from English to French (the model here being to aid the French-speaker); after pages describing the structure of the British Army, entirely in English, there are pages with corresponding terms for map-reading, working from French to English – this presumably for English-speaking officers. This is followed by 70 pages of corresponding terms thematically arranged, translated from French into English: here the model is for the French-speaker to speak English, or for the English-speaker to understand French. The terms in this section are very specific, and cover such terms as ‘honneurs funèbres / funeral honours’, ‘un combat animé / a brisk fight’, ‘capoter / turn turtle’, and ‘effacer les indications à la craie / to obliterate chalk marks’. Notable here is the appearance of slang terms in English, ‘fleabag’ and ‘in mufti’, for the standard French ‘sac de couchage’ and ‘en civil’.

VdMc 58,59

This section is followed by five pages of corresponding terms in English and German, covering ‘Summons to surrender / Aufforderungen zur übergabe’ and ‘Questions to be put to prisoners or wounded’ (no German given); these are not given in French at all. Then a page of information regarding the structure of medical personnel and the logistics of treating the wounded is given in English only, followed by three pages of corresponding terms to do with medical and surgical treatment. The guide then moves on to matters of religion, wonderfully headed with the single word ‘cult’.

VdMc 116,7

VdMc 106,7


The final conversational section deals with ‘Expressions et termes divers pour l’examen d’un suspect / Various terms & expressions for the examination of a suspect’ (2.5 pages), ‘Mots utiles a connâitre pour un signalement / Words to describe a man’ (5.5 pages, so covering all eventualities, such as tattooing, dimples, a ‘full of hatred’ look, and a ‘gone through a university’ standard of education), a single page of ‘Interrogatoire d’un individu suspect / Examination of a suspect’, and a single page of a specimen report, in English only.

VdMc 126,7

VdMc 128,9

Who is being suspected here, and who is doing the suspecting and interrogating? This would function for a French-speaker suspecting and interrogating an English-speaker, but this would be unlikely, in France, to include the question ‘Where is your family, are they in this neighbourhood?’, and the structure would imply an English-speaking non-combatant, possibly working for the enemy. But the specimen report proposes that the results of such an examination might reveal the suspect to be an Alsatian with a German name.  Was the third edition rushed out without an editor standing back to ensure that the guide offered a clear methodology? Was there a sense that it had to be got out quickly and that the interpreters and officers who got their hands on a copy would work out their own best way of dipping into the material? And did it ever occur to writers of phrasebooks that the questioning part of a conversation is rather useless without some idea of what the answers might be? It is a fairly common experience while traveling in areas where we struggle with the language to learn how to word a question, but to be immediately baffled by the answer; and pre-war phrasebooks did equip travelers with answers as well as questions, this being a major benefit offered by example conversations. Pulmon’s Vade-Mecum might show you how ask a suspect (‘sanguin / full-blooded’, with a ‘strabisme divergent / right or left sqrint (sic)’, with ‘danse de St-Guy / St-Vitus dance’ – and ‘vicieux / vicious’) ‘Pourquoi cherchiez-vous à vous dissimuler à notre approche / why did you endeavor to hide on our approach?’, but offers no help in interpreting his full-blooded and vicious reply.


And, in passing, we see on the first page enabling the examination of a suspect a variation on the term ‘si vous mentez vous serez fusillé’, which supposedly typifies the belligerence of the German army of invasion: ‘Si vous essayez de fuir, je ferai usage de mes armes! / In the event of your trying to escape, I shall make use of my arms!’