One of the greatest cultural differences between now and the period of the First World War is the acceptance, even embracing, of the sentimental; unfashionable and generally unstudied now, sentimental songs, sentimental postcards, sentimental rhymes reminded soldiers of home and loved ones. Several anecdotal references show how the sentimental was so often the mindset of choice, with songs such as Novello’s Keep the Homes Fires Burning(first published as “‘Till the Boys Come Home” in October 1914), R S Mottram’s description of British soldiers doing little domestic services in a Flemish farmhouse, with ‘elaborate Sunday-school politeness, . . . tittering slightly at anything not quite nice, and singing, not so often the vulgar music-hall numbers, as the more sentimental “Christmas successes” from the pantomimes’, and the wide use of Bamforth’s song lyric postcards.
If there is a time of the year when we might allow the indulgence of the sentimental, it is probably Christmas. Here then to round off the year, is a little sentimental story by E G Miles, from Told in the Huts, the YMCA’s gift book published in 1916. It merits examination for a number of things, its portrayal of the YMCA hut environment, the two voices – no names – with their differences of class and outlook, but most of all for its setting out of the role of swearing. The soldier swears habitually; he swears at inanimate objects, the ‘bloomin’ motors’ (which seems at first odd, but is easily recognisable); he recognises swearing as an escape valve, but understands also that swearing directed at an individual crosses the line. Most notably he believes the parson, chaplain or padre, would be sacked if he swore, and also that the parson is not supposed to ‘understand it’, to make the links between expletive and expressed concept; but this begs the question of whether swearing in this kind of situation does actually make a link with bodily functions.
Beyond this the story makes it clear that in the space between home and no man’s land there were different kinds of spaces which were both reflected and defined by the presence, absence or degree of swearing. In highlighting this the story both indicates the emptiness of swearing, the value of swearing, and the impossibility of communicating the frontline experience in its own language to listeners at home. Though the title of the last sketch, ‘Tommy’s Home’, may not have intended this point to be clearly made, home for so many of them might, in terms of language, have been determined exactly as somewhere that swearing did not happen.
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