Call for Papers: Languages and the First World War (2) Conference, 2018

Soldier reading newspaper a

Following our 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, and the following that has been built up, 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 University College London (10 September) and a University in Belgium (either Antwerp or Leuven, 12 September – to be confirmed very soon).

Papers are invited that discuss causes, progress and aftermath of the war from a linguistic point of view. We would particularly welcome contributions on the Balkan languages, Turkish, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Greek, Portuguese, Chinese, and Japanese; on the linguistic aspects of the Versailles Conference; and the language of pilgrimages, battlefield guides, commemorations and memories. The organisers are equally interested in proposals for panels.

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.

Deadline for submission of panels: 15 December, 2017.

Deadline for abstracts: 1 March, 2018.

Confirmation of acceptance: 21 March, 2018.

A more detailed Call for Papers will be out mid-October and further details will be available here. For early interest or questions, please contact

Julian Walker, Christophe Declercq


Multilinguism in PoW notification

Multilinguism was common practice in the formal correspondence conveying news of prisoners of war. With postcards of notification and personal news going via the Red Cross in Geneva, several languages appear on these postcards.

One imagines the notified individual or family quickly searching for essential information, and only later realising how many languages were involved in its conveyance.

This selection shows not only the range of languages involved in PoW correspondence, but the distances involved; to the families in Innsbruck and Vienna, Vladivostock and British Columbia must have seemed as a far away as the moon. Rudolf Loyda, prisoner of war  in Romania in March 1918 may have felt nearer his home in Vienna (another family member was on the far side of Canada), but Barlad was about as far from Vienna as Vienna was from Ypres.

The card in Italian, Esperanto and German, sent to an Italian PoW in Austria, is a multiple choice print for correspondence from or to a prisoner of war. In this case Alessandro Zilli (rubber-stamped) sends all his family and friends best wishes for Christmas and the New Year, from Birsfelden in Switzerland. We can only guess how Luciano Banzani in camp in Theriesienstadt felt on receiving this news.

Digging Season, Western Front, 2015

As it is the digging season we are posting this gem from The Leadswinger, the journal of the 1/3 West Riding Field Ambulance, dated 27 November 1915 (we should have been quicker off the mark to hit the centenary, but the alternative was putting it off for 98 years). Further to earlier discussions on Wipers and other names for Ypres/Ieper, it’s noticeable that this early soldiers were discussing the range of names in circulation.






And we’ve been given 14 days leave:

Leave Sept17

Why no Goths?

We are so accustomed to the epithets ‘Hun’ and ‘Boche’ that were applied to the Germans during the war that we seldom ask, ‘why these and not others?’ Why, for example, was the term ‘Goths’ not used, especially of the large bombers called Gothas which raided Britain in 1917 and 18? There were a few incidences of the use of ‘Goth’, but so few that they stand out as anomalies, even as linguistic misshits. A cartoon in the New York Tribune was reported in the Pall Mall Gazette of 31 August 1914; it showed ‘a German giant trampling Louvain underfoot’, and was captioned ‘Return of the Goth’. Then the word more or less disappears from the British press: under a subheading ‘Ye Goths!’ (the press loving a pun), the Daily Mirror 17 July 1917 ran a brief comment:


‘Did I dream? Is there a war on? I overheard a lady ask for a habitable basemented house in the Greek or Gothic style as she had a staff of fifteen servants.’

This may have been a comment on the number of servants, staff being hard to come by during the war, but, given the subheading, may equally have been a comment on the use of the word ‘Gothic’. If so, writers on church architecture must have been hard-pressed.


Irene Rathbone has Joan Seddon in We That Were Young describe the Germans as ‘swarm[ing] over Europe, like the old Goths’, but this was published in 1932 and is not echoed in the records of table-talk of the time. There was a brief appearance as the heading to an article in the Western Times 16 November 1918 – ‘The Goths’ Lair’ – but this most usable word seems to have been almost deliberately avoided, though its contemporary, and fairly unchanging, definition was absolutely appropriate for the situation. ‘One of an ancient Germanic nation, supposed to have come originally from Scandinavia: a rude or uncivilised person, a barbarian’, was given by Chambers’s Etymological Dictionary in 1867, not much different from the ‘one of an ancient tribe of Teutons, who first appear in history as pouring down upon S Europe from the North, and subverting the Roman Empire: a rude or uncivilised person; a barbarian’, of Nuttall’s Popular Dictionary of the English Language, printed after 1934. Neither Fraser and Gibbons nor Brophy and Partridge register ‘Goth’, and Ernest Weekley, usually quick to have a dig at the Germans in his Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1921) offers ‘Often used of a savage spoiler’, but makes no reference to the war. Nor does it appear as slang in French, at least as registered by Leroy (Glossary of French Slang, 1922), Dauzat (L’Argot de la Guerre, 1918), Sainéan (L’argot des tranchées d’apres les lettres des poilus et les journaux du front, 1915), or Déchelette (L’Argot des Poilus, 1918). There was, however, an attempt to create something of it by Théodore Botrel.


Botrel’s involvement in the language of the war has a strong legacy, though certain voices have spoken out against his most famous contribution, ‘Rosalie’; he was an extremely popular Breton singer-songwriter, and by 1912 had already published a collection of martial songs, Coups de Clarion. He attempted unsuccessfully to join the French army, and then the Belgian army, on the outbreak of war, but supported the war effort by performing for soldiers at the Front. It was his song about the bayonet, first performed in October 1914, with the use of the name ‘Rosalie’ for the weapon, that brought him fame beyond France. Henri Barbusse in Le Feu (1916) (‘Under Fire’) famously has one of his characters reject the term as used by ‘empaillés’, which Leroy translates as ‘clumsy, noodles’, and it usually falls into the category of ‘terms invented by civilians’, a distinction which in turn opens up a huge question of validity and authenticity as applied to language during the conflict. But the question of the origin of ‘Rosalie’ provokes speculation – did Botrel invent it or hear it? Fraser and Gibbons propose that Botrel took the name from a mix of popular mythology and local devotion:


The French linesman’s pet name in the War for the bayonet. It originated from a war-song by M Theodore Botrel, published in the Bulletin des Armées in the autumn of 1914. The bayonet is popularly (but erroneously) said to have been invented at Bayonne, and Ste. Rosalie being a favourite patron saint in the South of France, that possibly suggested the name to the writer of the song.


But Le Petit Comtois for 9 October 1914 carries the following article:



Botrel a Besançon

Avant de quitter Besançon, notre confrère Théodore Botrel à tenu a se faire entendre dans plusiers hôpitaux et ambulances. Il y a interprêté pour la première fois – avec un immense succès – une chanson nouvelle don’t il nous communique le manuscrit. Il y chant la petite baïonette que nos pioupious, on ne l’a pas oublié, la voyant rouge et rose apres la bataille, ont surnommée Rosalie. Voici cette chanson qui, demain, sera célèbre dans tous les dépôts et bivouacs de France:

This clearly credits the French soldiers with naming their bayonets ‘Rosalie’ because of the post-battle colour of the weapon. Another Botrel weapon song, Ma P’tite Mimi from 1915, celebrated the machine-gun (mitrailleuse), but this nickname also failed to register with Leroy, Dauzat, Sainéan or Déchelette. The song is fairly fierce, verse three running as follows:


“Quand les Boches

Nous approchent

Nous commençons le concert

Après un bon démarrage

Nous précipitons le fauchage

Comm’ des mouches

Je vous couche

Tous les soldats du kaiser

Le nez dans nos fils de fer

Ou les quatre fers en l’air.”

When the Boches

Come near

We start the music;

After a good start

We crank up the mower.

Like flies

I’ll lay you out

All you soldiers of the Kaiser

With your noses on our wire

Or your four irons [horse-shoes?] in the air


While Botrel may not be in tune with modern tastes, he was extremely popular in wartime France, and his work was performed in London among the French community during the war; some of his poems were translated into English by G E Morrison and published as Songs of Brittany in 1915, with a foreword by Edgar Preston (neither Rosalie nor Mimi featured in the selection). Botrel had by this time been appointed by the French Department of War as Chansonnier des Armées. The reviewer in The Observer 2 May 1915 felt that the poems had a ‘fine Virgilian passion’ and pointed to Botrel’s performances at the Front. A later volume, Songs of Theodore Botrel, translated by Winifred Byers and published in 1916, brought a stirring comment from The World: ‘Read “Rosalie”, the song of the Bayonet, and if the blood does not dance in your veins, well, it ought to!’ (The Times 19 December 1916).


As regards ‘Rosalie’, Botrel may just have had a very quick ear; he could not write or read music, and used transcribers when publishing his work, which caused problems at times, since at first he got no credit as composer, and later gave no credit to transcribers. It may have been that his presence at the Front, in the early days of the war, gave him access to enthused soldiers celebrating their success and survival by wordplay – a familiar and continual trope of the war. If Botrel took a word that he heard and built a successful song around it he deserves credit for it; language is, after all, opportunistic. Partridge felt that the soldiers eventually came round to wholeheartedly embracing Rosalie, and the evidence for its use is fairly widespread. The May 1915 issue of the French soldiers’ journal L’Echo des Gourbis (‘organe des troglodytes de la Front’) was dedicated to ‘La Journée de Rosalie’ (the day of celebration for Rosalie): there was a journée for the 75 (field gun), there could be one for the aviators, the colonial troops, the machine-gunners, the Red Cross, etc., why not one for Rosalie? There was even another song – ‘Rosalie! Rosalie, ton nouveau nom va bien.’ Le Rigolboche soldiers’ journal for 20 July 1915 carried a song by Jules Pech, ‘Le Frère de “Rosalie”’. The 1 July 1918 typed and mimeographed issue of La Première Ligne contained a song by E Chapuis, ‘Ceinturon & Baionette’, with the lines:


Y’ f’ront fine taille com’les dames

Le ceinturon leur donnera du…cran

Rosalie fera partie du programme

On croira qu’les gros ont un enfant




The front line are as fine as ladies

The belt will give them a bit of dash

Rosalie will be part of the programme

You’ll believe the fat ones have got a kid


But Rosalie had not entirely pushed out other names: in the 16 May 1918 issue of Trench and Camp the American army writer noted that ‘The poilu calls his bayonet by various pet names: ‘Rosalie’ (especially for the new style bayonet, which makes a wound like a cross), ‘a knitting needle’, ‘a roasting spit’, ‘a Josephine’, ‘a fork’; and the old-style bayonet ‘a cabbage cutter’, ‘a corkscrew’.’


Images from La Baïonette 29 June 1916. The second compares Rosalie with Durandel, the sword of Roland.

Botrel in the end seems to have done well with ‘Rosalie’ (it’s in Leroy), hugely overshadowing the comparative failure of not just ‘Mimi’, but also another invention. The Globe on 26 March 1915 reported that ‘the French are rather more adept in inventing stinging epithets for the Germans than we are. M. Theodore Botrel, the Provençal poet [sic], who has been appointed “Chansonnier des Armées,” a revival of the old troubadour, has invented a phrase which should stick. He calls the Germans “Saligoths” (on the analogy of Visigoth), which may be rendered as “Dirty Goths.” And “Bosche” is certainly more effective than “Hun,” an opinion which seems to be shared by the British soldier as soon as he gets to the front.’


Brophy and Partridge favoured the theory that ‘Boches’ stemmed from ‘les Allboches’, a development from ‘Allemands’, which French propaganda eventually developed into ‘les sales Boches’ (‘the dirty Boches’). While ‘Saligoth’ might be a felicitous term in French – it is very close to ‘saligaud’, ‘dirty fellow’ in Leroy – it was not, in English, likely to take off.


Shop talk

In Language and Class in Victorian Britain (1985) K C Philips discusses the need for successful tradesmen who aspired to genteel society to leave behind the language of commerce. Easier to recognise than define, the social use of phrases such as ‘as per yours of …’ mark the shifting of business formality to social formality, with results that locate the speaker in the world of trade. Philips quotes Trollope’s Ralph the Heir (1869), in which an invitation to dinner is about to be sent with the timing specified as ‘five sharp’ – the objection is that this phrase ‘savoured of commerce’ as Philips puts it, and thus it marks the speaker as clearly a tradesman. The fact that the invitation begins ‘Mr and Mrs Neefits compliments to Mr Newton, and hope he will do them the honour to dine with them on Sunday …’ shows a language that can be placed clearly in time as well as in a context which mixes commerce and society.


The formulas of the language of commerce, law and banking occasionally turn up in soldiers’ correspondence, but are less noted than terms from sport, hunting, or occasional use of Biblical phrases for coded information about the soldier’s location. This postcard, dated 1917, starts with a nice formula which would have been written in offices up and down the country thousands of times a day. The writer, Pte G Downie, is clearly miffed about a less official bit of business. References by soldiers to machine guns as typewriters, as well as the use of military metaphors in commercial advertising, indicate a robust middle class language transference of language between the world of the office and the trenches. Woman At Home magazine (January 1915) carried an advertisement for the Smith Premier Adding and Subtracting Typewriter: ‘The Allied Forces of the victorious Smith Premier quickly clear the ground of all arrears of work’.


Commerce was not a sideshow in the war. The Birmingham Gazette, 2 October 1915, reported on an article in the Hamburger Fremdenblatt  in which the ‘German Clerks’ Association’ observed that the pursuance of foreign trade in English had ‘helped the English to extend their position in the world’. By demanding that German foreign trade be carried on in German ‘we can damage the English enormously, because the greater part of their usurped importance in the world would collapse’. While this may have been an attempt to highlight a futile attempt to manage language, it did also indicate the importance of commercial language. While commercial metaphors may have been less exciting than the inventiveness of ’Ole Bill and his comrades in arms, they remind us that for the first two years of the war the Pals Battalions included thousands of middle class young men from offices, with speech patterns that were polite, formal and, where necessary, deferential.

Words become things become effects, far away

Listening to the BBC Radio programme on 9 April 2016, World War One: the Cultural Front, I was very taken with the poem by Apollinaire, Peu de Chose* (A couple of things):


Combien qu’on a pu tuer?

Ma foi!

C’est un drôle que ça ne vous fasse rien

Ma foi!

Une tablette de chocolat aux Boches?

Ma foi! Feu!

Un camembert pour le logis aux Boches

Ma foi! Feu!

Chaque fois que tu dis feu le mot se change an acier qui éclate là-bas?

Ma foi!


Ma foi


Ils répondent les salauds

Drôle de langage ma foi



How many were killed?

My faith!

It’s funny that it does nothing to you

My faith!

A bar of chocolate for the Boches?

My faith! Fire!

A camembert for the Boches at home

My faith! Fire!

Every time you say Fire! the word becomes steel that explodes far off?

My faith!

Take cover!

My faith


They’re answering, the bastards

Funny thing to say, my faith


 The line

Chaque fois que tu dis feu le mot se change an acier qui éclate là-bas?

Every time you say Fire! the word becomes steel that explodes far off?

carries two strong ideas: initially the point that in wartime words as instructions or orders become massively manifested as material of destruction, a making followed by and integrally linked to an unmaking; but also the concept of ‘far off’. Apollinaire says in the poem ‘It’s weird it doesn’t affect us’, but then eight lines later ‘Take cover’, as it most certainly does. What doesn’t affect ‘us’ is what happens as a result of the French shell, for the gunners are not affected by this; but then they are affected as their own gun is spotted and becomes a target, a target for German gunners whom they know as little as they could know the German victims of their own shelling.

To what extent did this unknowing, the anonymity of enemy gunner/enemy target contribute to the notion of ‘the war’ as an entity itself? There is a perception now, and was then, that there were at least three entities involved – us, them, and the war. ‘I wish the war would stop’ is stated repeatedly, not ‘I wish we would stop the war’; it implies the rolling identity of an event that has its own volition. ‘We’ are not the war – ‘the war’ is itself.

A hypothesis then: the distancing power of some of the weapons in use facilitated a perception that the guns did the damage, not the people firing them. While rifles and were specific person-to-person weapons, artillery could fire projectiles several miles, sometimes dozens of miles, distances at which it was impossible to personalise the people working the guns. Artillery was directed at positions and activity rather than individuals, and big guns had an identity that seemed to swallow that of the men who operated them: for John Masefield, writing home on 25 September 1916 ‘The soixante-quinze took up the challenge’ of the ‘enemy shells’, while for Corporal Shaw (Voices and Images of the Great War, Macdonald L, 1991: 155) ‘two big twelve-inch Naval guns came out on a track … manned by Royal Marines. … these two guns blasted off.’ It is the guns, not the gunners, that send the shells towards their target. Except that Apollinaire points out the human agency that originates the process.

Generally one gets the impression that outside of raids and incidences of hand-to-hand fighting in no-man’s-land, the perception was that there were weapons which were seen as specifically directed, such as trench-mortars and sniper-rifles, whose users were seen as bearing individual responsibility, and thus subject to deliberate retribution; ‘they’d send over Minniewerfers just for about five or ten minutes, then we’d reply’ wrote Corporal C R Russell in 1916 (ibid. 130), or the description by Llewellyn Wyn Griffith of a British trench mortar attack in Richard Holmes’ Tommy (2005: 370) which brings the response, in English, ‘You Bloody Welsh Murderers’. Situations of retribution seem to motivate the inclusion of the soldier operating a machine-gun: Corporal W H Shaw (Macdonald L, 1991: 155-6) writing about a German counter-attack in July 1916 states ‘You just felt “You’ve given it to us, now we’re going to give it to you,” and you were taking delight in mowing them down. Our machine-gunners had a whale of a time with those Lewis machine-guns.’ Richard Holmes (2005: 371) quotes an incident in Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That, where a soldier looking to take revenge on a surrendering German who identifies himself as ‘Minenwerfer man’, addresses him as ‘just the man I’ve been looking for’. Retribution was deliberate and specific, where the operator was perceived as aiming at individuals.

But the sweep of the night-time machine-gun was effectively arbitrary, aimed at place (crossing points in supply trenches were frequently described as ‘taped’); and German machine-guns used in the early days of the Battle of the Somme were just that, not machine-gunners: ‘The machine-guns were levelled and they were mowing the top of the trenches’ (Corporal Shaw, in Macdonald L, 1991: 156).

For anyone anywhere in the target zone, metal seemed to come out of the air, almost of its own accord. The report of the guns being fired is less noted than the sound of the shell in transit, unless someone was situated close to a gun going off. Description of the sound of guns being fired – thunderclap, blasting off, ‘pop’ for trench-mortars, bang, and from a distance, rumbling – tends on the whole to be less specific than the description of the shell in flight and its impact on landing. There are of course exceptions – ‘Wagger’, the writer of Battery Flashes (1916) attempts to describe the sound of a six-inch howitzer: ‘put your head into a large empty tin jug and shout “TOOMBB” as loudly and sepulchrally as possible’. But even this is less successful than his description of the shell ‘tearing overhead with the sound of a trolly running down a jetty’ (p137). This is from an artillery man; for infantry soldiers describing shells in movement and landing there was a wide range of terms in use, clearly based on the desire to find a metaphor for the action and the sound – shrieking, screaming, howling, twittering, whinnying, whizzing, swish, followed by crump, thud, plonk, plop or crash.

The impersonality of distant fighting was major factor in the difference of the First World War from previous conflicts. The act of pulling a chain could cause multiple deaths far away that the gunner would never know about, any more than he would have little knowledge that a shell was heading his way until it arrived, and would have no knowledge of the person who directed it. Beside the personalising names for the enemy, ‘Tommy’ and ‘Fritz’, there were equally impersonalising names, ‘the Bosche’, ‘Englander’ or ‘Toulemong’. Shooting people who could be seen at a distance was perhaps easier if the relevant part of the mind could be numbed linguistically by calling it ‘Hun-hunting’ or ‘bagging a couple of Huns’. Hunting or sporting terminology appears frequently: for example ‘Down an embankment to the left were two dismounted German troopers in a field, dodging about like rabbits, while a few aged French Territorials took pot-shots at them from every direction;’ (The War the Infantry Knew, J C Dunn, 1938/2004: 42), or ‘One morning just at daybreak Wilshin saw a party of fifty men advancing to a previously registered spot and scored 21’ (With Lancashire Lads and Field Guns in France, Neil Tytler, 1922: 177).

But it would too simple to say that this implies that seeing the enemy as individuals led to the development of ‘quiet sectors’ or unwillingness to engage the enemy. Personalising had contrasting manifestations, from the revenge motivation seen above to the notion of remorse seen in the words of Private Harry Fellowes (Macdonald 1991: 106). He wrote in 1915 of ‘a report that the German General in charge of the area had said that his machine-gunners had refused to fire another shot. They were so filled with bitter remorse and guilt at the corpses at Loos that they refused to fire another shot. I do believe this.’ Compared to long-range guns, gas and shrapnel, the combat in the air seemed antiquated in its personalness, gladiatorial and almost sporting, what ex-pilot Norman Macmillan described in 1963 as ‘a difficult game’ (BBC The Great War Interviews, No 13). But the perception seems to be an ambivalent one, combining both personal and impersonal: ‘During the fighting there was undoubtedly a sense of chivalry in the air. We did not feel we were shooting at men, we did not want to kill men, we were really trying to shoot down the machines. … it was a case of ‘our machine is better than yours and let’s down yours’ almost like a game of nine-pins, a game of skill, a game in which we pitted ourselves against them and they pitted themselves against us, each to prove the other the better man.’ Bearing in mind of course that this interview was given at a distance of nearly 50 fifty years after the event, the description of the enemy embraces both man and machine: ‘I dived down and shot that fellow and went on past him down below’ and ‘we were only able to bring down two of the German aircraft’. But there could be no avoiding the knowledge that a plane going down in flames meant a person going down in flames.

Before the horrified awareness of the effect of mechanised warfare became widespread an equally terrible naivety was possible. This is from the anonymously published A War Nurse’s Diary (Macmillan, 1918); the nurse in question has just escaped from the fall of Antwerp:

The Major looked down at me and said, “Would you like to have a shot at the Boches?” and I said “Rather!” “All right. Put some wool in your ears, take hold of that string when I give the word and pull smartly!” I have often wondered where that shell landed and with what result.

* Sent in a letter to his lover Madeleine Pagès, dated 13 October 1915



Unfortunate translations and deliberate confusions

Inevitably in the environment of speedy communication and social propaganda involving more than one language, unfortunate translations made their way into print. Phrasebooks offered such delights as “Give me for sixpence of this” (Soldaten-Sprachführer 1915) or, of a pair of shoes, “They pinnts me. No confortable” (Manuel de la Conversation. c. 1916), while postcards offered “A Zeppelin thrown down in the Vardar marshes”, or “Havoc home’s by the Germans brutal’s”.



Virgin of the limp

A recent arrival on the LFWW desk is this double postcard, with views of the statue at the top of the basilica in Albert, before and after shelling. This was the subject of the famous Australian designation of the statue of the Virgin and Child as ‘Fanny Durack’, after the world-champion swimmer. The mistranslation is presumably via ‘lantern’ (the pillared canopy construction at the top of the tower) being linked with ‘lamp’, and making an unfortunate transition to ‘limp’. And ending up with something about as ironic, and nearly as funny, as ‘Fanny Durack’.


Deliberate wordplay was a continuing theme of soldiering during the war, satirising army life through the familiar, in the same way that men in the trenches belittled shells and guns through associating them with the familiars of city life: trams, trains and office machines. In these cases the references are hymns, food and the general need to pun. Freud proposed that the pun was ‘a victorious assertion of the ego’s invulnerability’, but also that puns admitted weakness, humour alleviating the stress of repressing unpleasant truths – these phrases pop up on the internet on any search for puns, but both ideas seem remarkably appropriate to the soldier’s lot. In an egregiously unfamiliar environment – the training camps threw together people who would otherwise have striven to keep themselves apart from each other – it is no wonder that people sought the familiar by which to both gauge the unfamiliar and to normalise it. Doing so asserted at least a semblance of control over their situation.