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



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