Body (and) language

Or three aspects of the body and language.

The first is the most obvious gesture of war, a body signal; as the soldier’s body must signal success by remaining whole, or failure by the breaking of the boundary of the soldier’s body. The bodily signal of surrender is so obvious, but what is the signal of victory, if there was one at all? Perhaps just the hands remaining on the pointed weapon. ‘Up went their hands’, are the words in the soldier’s letter home, suggesting that this gesture was the most important bodily action at this point: the hands more important than any other part of the body, more than speech, the gesture allowing no deceit; the defeated soldier’s life is in the place of his hands more than in his words, ‘Kamerad … Pardon’.

Incidentally, a common custom for ensuring prisoners could not use concealed weapons was to cut off their trouser buttons, so they had to hold their trousers up by hand; demeaning, effective, and no doubt causing resentment, but probably often forestalling physical violence.


Bandawe bin Mtawa enlisted in the King’s African Rifles on 7th November 1917, being discharged on 31st March 1919. His army records give a physical record, his height, chest measurement, and the fact that he had scars on his legs; on discharge his record carries space for recording his age, height, complexion, eyes and hair (presumably colour), and descriptive marks, as well as his trade and intended place of residence; in comparison, there is only one line allowed for description of his character (good, though he was lashed five times for ‘urinating in the lines’, was absent once from drill parade, and ‘stat[ed] a falsehood to his Company Officer’, for which he was confined to barracks for 14 days). The presence and mark of his body, his affirmation of self, is seen in the thumbprint on his discharge document. His silver war medal is damaged, notably on the legs of the horse.



bandawe medal

On 19th December 1914 the Girl’s Friend magazine reported on the case of a soldier rendered physically outside communication:


The Shell in the Sand


While serving with the Naval Brigade at Antwerp a remarkable experience befell Police-Constable Smith, of the Metropolitan Force. He relates that a German shell exploded in the sand, with the result that quite a “sand blizzard” was experienced over a limited area. After the commotion had subsided, the constable – otherwise apparently unhurt – was deaf and dumb.

Smith was brought back to this country, and placed in an observation ward at Chatham Hospital, where the doctor finally decided to operate.

It was then found that not only were the drums of the man’s ears coated with fine sand, which was packed in like a piece of marble, but that sand had also got under the muscles of the tongue, and into the throat. After the sand had been removed, Smith discovered to his delight that he could both hear and speak. He is now back at Woodford, almost ready to resume duty.





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