A few thoughts today about luck and language. Good luck could be attached to objects, words, ideas, and many of them seem to carry references to childhood or immaturity, such as the misspellings of ‘fums up’ or ‘touch wud’ – the ‘fums up’ continues this in the image of the androgynous baby, with what seem to be blue ankle-wings.
The naming of guns or tanks carried some sense of good luck, but this image from La Vie Parisienne in November 1917 shows a rarely portrayed fixing of a doll mascot to the wing-strut of a French aeroplane.
The porte-bonheur card shows the poilu well equipped as regards luck tokens, and yes, that is a louse on the right.
However, the most intriguing act of fate-management was a non-act, a refusal to manifest by speaking the enemy; witholding the name, as has been seen recently in the widespread and much-lauded refusal to speak the name of a mass-murderer in New Zealand, is a potent weapon. During the First World War, on the Anglophone side, it was a common occurrence.
As early as January 1915 it was noted:
When talking to French people the British soldier does not usually say ‘Boches’; he prefers to be more correct, and so makes a sound which must be spelt Ollermon. And, to be perfectly accurate, most British soldiers do not find it necessary to use anything more descriptive than ‘they’ or ‘them’. (Manchester Guardian 13 January 1915)
This quite powerful acknowledgement of the enemy as the counterpart of the self was picked up by writers: in In Parenthesis David Jones writes ‘they were at breakfast and were as cold as he, they too made their dole’ and ‘Mr Rhys and the new sergeant were left on his wire; you could see them plainly . . .; but on the second night after, Mr Jenkins’s patrol watched his bearers lift them beyond their parapets’,‘they’, ‘his’ and ‘their’ referring to the Germans. Sassoon also used ‘They’ as the title of a poem about ‘the other’, but here it is the wounded and altered British soldiers who are a challenge. A variation appears in Sydney de Loghe’s The Straits Impregnable where the Turkish soldiers at Gallipoli are described as ‘the other blokes’. The form ‘they’ is seen in other languages, for example in Jean Rogissart’s autobiographical novel Les Retranchés (1955), in which Gavin Bowd notes that ‘ILS’, used to describe the German occupying forces in the Ardennes, is the only fully capitalised word in the book.
There was a curious paradox in this, in that refusing a name, and replacing it by ‘him’ or ‘them’ made the enemy both less frightening, and more ‘like us’; in the process, the removal of fear meant its replacement with familiarity.