Fireworks

It is just a coincidence of date (and in all honesty of rather doubtful validity after the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in September 1752), but today’s blog has to be about fireworks; for many of us the sound of night-time muffled explosions at this time of year is as close as we will come to the sound experience of so many of our grandfathers, great-uncles and great-grandfathers.

In thinking about how soldiers communicated the experience of the Front, we continually find referents from civilian life: machine-guns are like typewriters, shells screaming overhead are like express trains, smaller projectiles are named after familiar foods and animals. Small wonder then that the Very lights and other illuminations, including exploding aircraft, were compared to, or referred to as ‘fireworks’. In a rather jingoistic account of Indian troops’ first encounter with shell-fire, published in the Banbury Advertiser on 5 November 1914, (‘Thought German Shells Were Fireworks’, runs the headline), ‘a cavalry officer’ writing initially to the Morning Post, says that the soldiers ‘behaved splendidly … and I think they thought the shells were fireworks let off for their benefit’. A soldier quoted in the Evening Despatch, 7 August 1915, described the sight as ‘one of our guns threw out a shell which burst like a firework into a glorious shower of stars, as though to ask “What on earth is the matter with you?”’ Other descriptions – ‘a most glorious firework display from ships’ guns’ (Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 16 June 1915), ‘Last Tuesday night was the big firework display’ (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 12 November 1914) – apply the metaphor, but noticeably from the shelling side’s point of view. Descriptions at a distance that referred to fireworks continued as the war progressed; the Birmingham Daily Post on 17 July 1917 reported (‘Like a Firework Display’) ‘The French general commanding afterwards described the battle from the observers’ point of view as a 14th July firework display, not unjustly, because during the whole time the evening sky was continually lit up by rockets and flares of all descriptions’. Did soldiers ever describe the shelling they were receiving as ‘fireworks’? This looks at first glance to be the case in the 5 November 1914 officer’s account above, but the actual soldiers’ views are not reported.

 

On the Home Front fireworks were soon perceived as a security risk, certainly in coastal areas, even before the shelling of Hartlepool and Scarborough in December 1914. Regulations forbade the letting off of fireworks ‘or other explosives of a similar nature … on the sea shore, or at any place within ten miles of the sea shore in the limits of the defended harbour of the Tyne, …’ (Newcastle Journal, 2 October 1914). Applications to ‘competent military authorities under the Defence of the Realm Regulations No.26’ permitted ‘properly organised firework displays’ in 1915, but the ‘general use of fireworks on November 5, such as was permitted last year’ was prohibited (Manchester Evening News, 30 October 1915). Presumably this caused a few problems for Sagar’s Airedale Lighting Co, of Shipley, who had placed an advert in the Shipley Times and Express for the previous day, announcing:

Fireworks! Fireworks!

Who wouldn’t shoot “Kaiser Bill”?

Buy a 1s. or 6d. box

Of beautiful fireworks

At least the fireworks listed did not carry the names used by Edwards and Bryning of Rochdale the previous year – ‘“Black Maria” or “Jack Johnson” shells’.

 

The permission for public firework displays seems to have continued to 1917. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 30 October 1917, carried the Police Commissioner’s warning that the ‘use of fireworks or other similar devices’ without permission was ‘absolutely prohibited’. But in 1918, as the Huddersfield Daily Examiner reported on 5 November, it was ‘No Fireworks Today’.

Shrewsbury fireworks Zepp 1916

Did soldiers provide themselves with a moral uplift by reducing the nightly lights in the sky to a harmless firework display? On 31 May 1916 the Border Counties Advertiser carried an article in which Sapper Richard Hamer describes the destruction of a Zeppelin as ‘one of the finest sights I have seen … the sight exceeded even the splendour of the firework display at Shrewsbury show’. Fortunately the crew escaped. Eric Partridge, writing in Ernest Swinton’s Twenty Years After, notes the metaphor being taken one step further, applying a frequent trope of leaving behind the immediate referent – in this case, the lights are not ‘fireworks’ but a ‘Brock’s benefit’, from the name of a familiar firework producer

.EP fireworks

 

 

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