More Swearing, ‘frantically disgusting and terrible’

Continuing our presentation of different views of swearing at the Front, our last blog of 2018 offers an excerpt from A Private in the Guards, Stephen Graham’s 1919 memoir of his time in the Scots Guards from 1917 to 1918. Apparently the views of the pursuance of the war given in the book were critical enough to draw criticism from Winston Churchill in the Commons (Michael Hughes, Beyond Holy Russia, p5). An investigative writer and reporter, Graham was well known for his promulgation of the Tolstoyan view of pre-Revolutionary Russia as a land of devout peasantry and open spaces, a view of an agrarian paradise that he maintained despite the Revolution; his investigation of the legacy of slavery in the US, and his travel-writing about Mexico, post-war Europe, novels and fantasies, including an invasion fantasy on the bombing of London.


Perhaps his fascination with the idea of an innate spirituality of working people in Russia, an ideal that he believed British society could learn from, informs his views here on swearing. He is critical of ‘quiet youths’ being ‘corrupted and spoiled’ by their treatment in the army, and this view of young men being shocked and distressed by the hard swearing of their comrades is borne out elsewhere. But in blaming ‘the survivors of the pre-1914 army’, who have ‘made the tone’, Graham ignores the culture of swearing from the urban and rural environments that came with the enlisting and conscripted men who made up the bulk of those serving from late 1914. The separation of the ‘old peace-time professional army’, which ‘no one would naturally find fault with’, from the ‘whole nation’ is curious at best; it is tempting to see it as a shadow of the idealism of the inhabitants of ‘holy Russia’. There were many private soldiers who saw the value of the obscenity, even though they may have ‘detested’ it. The ‘purer atmosphere of  home or school or factory or office’ is too wide and cast to be taken seriously: which home, which school, which factory and which office?


Were Graham’s hopes that potential military service might ‘purify the system and make the army a decent continuation school’ realised? Probably not. How distressed he would have been to read T E Lawrence’s relating of the swearing that he saw during his post-war military service, which can be found in The Mint, and which was the subject of one of the most enjoyed papers at the LFWW conference  in September.






Best wishes for 2019 to all our readers.

One thought on “More Swearing, ‘frantically disgusting and terrible’”

  1. Capt A. Lloyd of the Church Army noted that the pre-war army swore less than the men of the new armies, bringing their language habits with them; he had heard ‘far worse language in the Lancashire mills than I ever heard in the barrack-room’. For him, the language of swearing was changing: ‘if you want to hear some really hard selected swearing, full of new oaths, you should go to the University cadet battalions’ (Sheffield Evening Telegraph 11 March 1919). He also noted that swearing in the Navy was ‘quite as terrible’ but ‘not so interesting’ as swearing in the army. One of the profoundest changes in language during the war was in the prevalence of swearing among those who had previously avoided it, as learning to swear, for those who did not, was seen as necessary both for social acceptance, and pragmatically as a means of coping: The majority . . . acquired the habit of using obscene and blasphemous expletives . . .’ (E L M Burns). One battalion padre recognised his charges by their language – ‘I couldn’t see you but I knew where you were from the language that was coming up. I knew it was the Church Lads Brigade and I’ve never heard anything like it in all my life’ (L MacDonald, Somme).

    From ‘Words and the First World War’


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