No known origin is given by the OED for the word ‘pun’, defined as ‘The use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different associations, or of two or more words of the same or nearly the same sound with different meanings, so as to produce a humorous effect; a play on words’. English verbal culture at the beginning of the twentieth century enjoyed a pun, a trope which was employed enthusiastically during the war, particularly with reference to place-names: Ploegsteert becoming ‘Plugstreet’, Ypres becoming ‘Wipers’ and so on. ‘Passiondale’ is surely a pun, a perfect sound-match so that there was no need to anglicize the sound of it, but devoid of humour – unless the irony of pathos be considered at the edge of humour, which may be so. As a pun it is one of the strongest of the war, embracing the pain of the passion of Christ with the sense of place, sacrifice, martyrdom and lost youth. It exudes a sense of despair – Ralf Sheldon-Williams said of it ‘There was one comfort about Paaschendaele (just one), and that was that the Bosche detested it as much as we did. Dante would have given it an honourable place in his collection of hells. Fewer men were killed there by steel and shell than by mud. It was the original and authentic Slough of Despond’ (The Canadian Front in France and Flanders, 1920, p73).
‘Passiondale’ takes the name that began as Pascandale, and turns it into an echo of the Crucifixion, the hill of sorrow inverted into a valley of the reality of death. The early Latin form of the word ‘passion’ (from the OED) is ‘the condition of being acted upon (from 12th cent. in British sources) < pass- , past participial stem of patī to suffer’, and brings into the mix the sense of the soldiers being used by their superiors; the multi-layering makes the use of the word in the term ‘Passiondale’ entirely appropriate, fitting the demand of the sound of the place name, the inversion of the hill of Calvary, into the valley of Passiondale, expressing the pointlessness, the squalor, the totality of its negativity.
Though the present-day mythology of the war underlines the pathos-loaded suitability of this wordplay to the situation, we search in vain for signs that this was the soldiers’ immediate reaction to their experience. ‘Passiondale’ or ‘Passion Dale’, if it was an invention of the time, was not used widely, picking up wider use in the public domain after the war as an expression of mourning, commemoration, heroism and futility. When the usage became noted after the war its appropriateness became part of the mythology of the war.
The process seems to have begun around two years after the Armistice, though earlier evidence would be welcomed. The Graphic offered a description of ‘the Canadian troops struggling forward, the pangs of hell racking their bodies’ … ‘These things are for ever linked with the name Passchendaele, Passion Dale’ (13 November 1920, p 30). Ralf Sheldon-Williams, in The Canadian Front in France and Flanders, wrote about the disappointment of the troops in October 1917 when they learned that they were not to attack Lens: ‘It is needless to emphasise the immense disappointment, qualified only by the rumour that the corps had been chosen to move at speed to the salient and wring the heights of Paaschendaele from the enemy’ (p73). A bracketed statement following the name Paaschendaele – [afterwards christened not inappropriately Passion Dale] – was added in a review of Sheldon-Williams’ book in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, 8 December 1920, p7, the same paper later stating that ‘For many a soldier the ridge is “Passion Dale”, and it will never be anything else’ (1 February 1921 p3). Ten years on, Graham Seton-Hutchison used the term as a chapter-heading in his book Warrior (1932), the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer noting it with ‘(sic)’ (5 May 1932 p6), perhaps to expel doubts that a non-standard form should be thought inappropriate. By 1937 it was perhaps the new standard: a writer in the Northampton Mercury wrote of a ‘new British memorial to be erected in St Martin’s Cathedral, and to take the form of a stained glass window over the south porch. It will commemorate the 250,000 who perished in the trail to Passion Dale’ (6 August 1937, p6). No mention of Passchendaele. The Brandon Sun 29 January 1964, published in Brandon, Manitoba, gives a Canadian view, another generation on: ‘It [the campaign] has even been compared with the climb up Calvary, that other Passion Dale, so great was the suffering.’
But its absence from the record of soldiers’ language is noticeable: it is not in Fraser and Gibbons in 1925, or Brophy and Partridge in 1930 or 1965, or in Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (copy to hand is 1974). It does not appear in the Notes and Queries correspondences of 1918 and 1921, or the extensive 1919 correspondence in The Athenaeum. A digital search for ‘Passiondale’ on the current Imperial War Museums’ website gives no results.
Lyn Macdonald in They Called it Passchendaele (1978, 1993 p4) writes: ‘In the popular mind all the agony and suffering of the salient became associated with one word. Passchendaele. For “Passchendaele” stood for all that was dismal, all that was futile, and by a strange quirk, all that was glorious in the history of warfare. … Passchendaele stands on the summit of the slopes that surround the city of Ypres. The troops called them hills.’ This raises two points: firstly the comment that words used to describe things may not match accurately the things themselves; and secondly, the power ascribed to one word, as a word. Macdonald’s book, ‘compiled from more than 600 true stories and eye-witness accounts of men and women who were there’, consistently uses the spelling ‘Passchendaele’ when quoting, and uses as a chapter heading the familiar quotation from Sassoon as ‘We Died In Hell – They Called It Passchendaele’. What the relevant section of Sassoon’s poem Memorial Tablet (Great War) looks like in its manuscript form is:
I died in hell;
(They called it Passchendaele)
http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/items/show/10342 It was written in October 1918, before the earliest documented use of ‘Passiondale’ that we have been able to find. There is both a soldier’s and a writer’s experience of words to be seen in the difference between the place-names, ‘hell’ used by ‘I’, and ‘Passchendaele’ used by ‘they’. Who were Sassoon’s ‘they’? Impersonal or unknown, but ‘they’ rather than ‘we’.
Note how the spelling differs from Sheldon-Williams’ 1920 ‘Paaschendaele’ to Macdonald’s ‘Passchendaele’ (the Aberdeen Press and Journal spelled it with a double ‘a’ in 1920 and a double ‘s’ in 1921); many would not notice it, and we are perhaps more thrown by the fact that the modern local spelling is Passendale, with no ‘sh’ sound at all. And this itself shows what is happening: Paaschendaele and Passchendaele are pronounced the same way in the Anglophone accent. The easiest way to transcribe this is ‘Passiondale’, fitting a model of folk etymology that has given the English language such gems as ‘sparrow-grass’, ‘alligator pears’, ‘bonfire’, ‘step-daughter’, ‘bridegroom’, or one offered by Archibald Sparke in the Athenaeum correspondence: the slang for the Royal Army Medical Corps, ‘poultice wallahs’, becoming ‘poultice swallowers’. ‘Passiondale’ is better than most, as its associations match up almost as well as its sounds, the mismatch of the hill and the dale accidentally, but fittingly, adding to and reinforcing the rhetoric of irony that was so indicative of the war. But evidence that it was used in 1917 is, so far, in short supply.
A very good example of different Englishes in use among the English-speaking nations. While writers in the British Isles were latecomers to the use of the spelling ‘Passiondale’, Australians were using it well before the end of the war. The Camberwell and Hawthorn Advertiser 10 May 1918 (p3) published a letter from Pte Stanley Gee, who wrote, ‘At present I am at the Australian Infantry Base depot, after being in hospital for a few weeks with a wound in the head, which I received at Ypres, at the foot of Passiondale Ridge. … At Passiondale Ridge we all thought that Fritz had evacuated part of the ridge, so we sent out a daylight patrol, …’ The language here is a mixture of formal and informal, not untypical of soldiers’ letters when a large amount of information is being given, a combination of thought out syntax and slang (though it may have been edited): ‘We came up within 20 yards of a ‘pill box’ at Pollygon Wood, when a German came to the door, drew his revolver, and shot a 29th battalion man dead. Of course, we done the rest.’
The World (Tasmania) 18 September 1918 (p3) carried a very short story about two wounded soldiers in London, both identified as cockneys, and both wearing ‘butcher-blue’ (butcher’s blue, the colour of butchers’ aprons, also used for the uniforms of convalescing soldiers). Their reminiscences include “We’d moved up norf before that, though I heard tell of the gas from a R.A.M.C. bloke. Our lot was one of the first on the Passiondale Ridge.”
After this the use of ‘Passiondale’ moves quickly and securely into domestic usage – there is the ‘Passiondale Poultry Farm’ (Maitland Weekly Mercury – New South Wales, 1 November 1919, p16), as a house name – “Passiondale”, Tomingley (The DubboLiberal and Macquarie Advocate – New South Wales, 22 February 1924, p4), and as the name of a another property, possibly a farm, at Fosters Valley (The Bathurst Times – New South Wales, 14 August 1925, p3). At the National Spring Fair in Palmerston, New Zealand, September 1932, two bulls were shown, bearing the names ‘Passiondale Prince’ and ‘Passiondale Count’ (Horowhenua Chronicle, 23 September 1932, p3). The same establishment exhibited bulls named ‘Passiondale Phar Lap’ and ‘Passiondale Beau Ideal’ three years later.
Did these developments, especially the use of ‘Passiondale’ as a house name, indicate an attitude in New Zealand and Australia towards place-names of battles that was different from attitudes in Britain? There has been considerable research into the use of place-names from the First World War as personal names, but little on the use of such names as names for domestic residences; they would surely be indicative of changing attitudes.