War words from before the war

Arguments as to which terms would survive the end of the war were matched by arguments about the pre-war origins of supposed war words. This letter from ‘Student’ appeared in the  Sheffield Daily Telegraph 10 January 1917


January 8, 1917

Sir – It would seem that several phrases believed to be the off-spring of the present conflict are really of older date. The other day I mentioned “man-power” as being used at least so long ago as 1905; and I have just noticed that the expression “fog of war” is more than twelve years old. It was employed by a reviewer in “The Times” Literary Supplement for June 24 1904, dealing with the Franco-German war of 1870. “The Intelligence Department of the German army was baffled by the fog of war,” he wrote. And again: “They could form a fog of war and upset Moltke’s calculations.”

This is, perhaps a belated discovery, but it should be of some value to compilers of phrasebooks. Of course, it is possible that the expression is older still. At all events, it is older than the Great War.

Yours truly


There is some consensus that the earliest use of the expression can be found in Carl von Clausewitz’s  Vom Kriege of 1832. But he does not use the exact expression.

Endlich ist die große Ungewißheit aller Datis im Kriege eine eigentümliche Schwierigkeit, weil alles Handeln gewissermaßen in einem bloßen Dämmerlicht verrichtet wird, was noch dazu nicht selten wie eine Nebel- oder Mondschein- beleuchtung den Dingen einen übertriebenen Umfang, ein groteskes Ansehen gibt.

Finally the major uncertainty of all givens in war creates a peculiar difficulty, because all actions are undertaken in a mere dim light, often exaggerating things grotesquely, as in a fog or by moonlight.

We would be grateful to know the actual German version of the expression, if used during the Great War. Also any suggestion of how the term might appear in a phrasebook: e.g. ‘Despite the fog of war our staff officers have provided us with clear instructions’?

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