In last Thursday’s broadcast of the BBC radio serial ‘Home Front’, it was noticeable how little reference there was to the war. One character, a former prisoner of war, stands out as someone suffering from the guilt and shame, much of it self-projected, of having somehow failed the grand story. But there were no postcards or letter joyfully received, no news of disasters or successes, no farewells to leaving soldiers. The mood was one of the war as just there, the environment of the time, one of the hardest things to convey, so important, yet so unenlivened by features; the unsaid, as has been noted before, saying a lot.
In January 1915 the war was still providing the Home Front with novel titbits, many of them relating newly-acquired customs and odd occurrences to do with communication.
In January 1915 the magazine The Penny War Weekly carried a couple of stories about contact across no man’s land; in the first narration, the use of the red flag and spade carry a sense of authenticity – it would be easy to do, maybe funny once or twice, and then sticking in the mind, even if not repeated. ‘We are noblemen’, though? It’s too posh, absurdly so; it smacks of the public school educated officer upholding standards of decency and playing the game, an ingrown sense of superiority underlined by the observation of British soldiers laughing at the Germans. We might almost imagine the line being written in Times New Roman. The journalistic introduction – ‘An exchange of courtesies’ suggests the slip into formality, and, by highlighting it, its improbability. Or maybe it was thrown up as an immediate reaction – in a way a mistake, but one that suited the journalistic context, and indeed the moral causus belli. Or most likely, as this was told by a soldier in the 2nd Scottish Rifles, this was a claim for superiority of the Scots over the English; possibly some of the German soldiers opposite would have observed an animosity within British ranks, just as British soldiers noted an antipathy between Saxons and Prussians. Expressed animosity between Scots and English is rare in the documentation, but hints of it are spotted here and there, Graves noting the words of an adjutant that ‘the Jocks … charge like hell – both ways’, and the frequent comments in different kinds of texts on the unintelligibility of the Scottish accent. It tends to go in one direction.
The second story, told in reported speech, proposes that either these words were used, in mocking false social informality, or much stronger terms were used. Presumably this story was conveyed in writing, so was immediately more formal than speech – the construction as a single sentence could argue either way, but the use of ‘for’ and ‘as’ propose a fairly formal awareness of planned speech. But ‘chaps’ sounds like an informal term of the kind that gets picked up in second language use, without the awareness of the level of social familiarity required for it to be acceptable. ‘Chaps’ is too familiar in this situation, where we would expect ‘Tommy’ or, conversely overfamiliar in a knowingly challenging way, ‘mate’. Alternatively it could have been used mockingly, and replied to equally mockingly, using a form of exchange more appropriate to the middle-class drawing room, and thus mocking, and defusing, the conflict situation.
Though it is tempting to assume that these have been tidied up for home consumption, this is of necessity an assumption. We have to read texts like this as multilayered. Throughout his Death of a Hero (1929) Richard Aldington uses the term ‘mucking’. Lt Claude Sisley in an article in the Athenaeum noted that documentation in print of soldiers’ speech was inherently inauthentic as it omitted the obscene expletive that was used every fourth word.
We know that ‘mucking’ stands for ‘fucking’, we know that that that could not be printed at that time and this substitution makes the text legally and socially acceptable, and we know that many – certainly all former soldiers – knew that ‘mucking’ stood for ‘fucking’. But we also know that in that situation it carried no meaning beyond shock, and very quickly lost that power, and that it was just an intensifier – for which any word could stand in. As John Brophy later pointed out, the time to worry was when it was omitted in soldiers’ speech. It is possible that many middle class soldiers, brought up in a culture of tea and Sunday school (and R H Mottram proposes this for a substantial proportion of the serving soldiers) would have preferred not to swear; did they go half way to what was expected of them without lowering their own standards of speech, and say ‘mucking’? After all, we often do not let rip with the worst that we have in our vocabulary, even under extreme stress – we say ‘Jeez’ or ‘Sugar’. Avoiding swearing may have been for some soldiers a way of maintaining personal standards in this most degrading of situations. Maybe the throw-away use of ‘noblemen’ and ‘chaps’ was a way of momentarily climbing out of the mud.
For early birds, booking is now open for the September conference. The programme will be up in the next few weeks.