Describing the extraordinary

There is something recognisable perhaps in the commonplace language of war, the way that the most horrific events are described in ways that sound as if they are domestic incidents. This from The Border Counties Advertiser 31 May 1916:


“The destruction of a Zeppelin at Salonika recently was witnessed by Sapper Richard Ewart Hamer, son of Mr and Mrs Rd Hamer, Wesley Place, Newtown, and he describes it as follows:-“I saw a rare sight two nights ago. We went to bed as usual about 9 o’clock, but about 2 a.m. we were awakened by the dropping of bombs and the firing of heavy guns. We got up and had a lovely view of a Zep. About a dozen searchlights were playing upon it and the guns all around were popping away at it. I saw it drop about eight bombs. It looked a lovely [thing?] in the glare of the searchlights. Soon, however one of our warships in the harbour fetched it down. It was really one of the finest sights I have seen; and after it was struck and fell to the ground its own bombs exploded and the sight exceeded even the splendour of the firework display at Shrewsbury show. It looked like a ship on fire, and really was great. The Zep carried a crew of 32; these escaped and were at large for a few hours but were subsequently captured.”

‘Fetched it down’ sounds more appropriate for a kitten stuck up a tree, but it is the phrases ‘It looked a lovely thing’, ‘one of the finest sights I have seen’ and ‘really was great’, which could have been lifted from a description of a firework display, that show how the most extraordinary was so often described in terms that belonged, for the serviceman or woman, to the known and the everyday. How else to describe a Zeppelin on fire? ‘Better than Shrewsbury Fireworks’ – how different from the well-known description of the Hindenburg burning 21 years later. War, the extraordinary, confounds description; sometimes the only way to manage it linguistically was in terms of the known, the everyday, the banal.




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