The Daily Telegraph Dictionary of Tommies’ Songs and Slang, 1914-18, by John Brophy and Eric Partridge, Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2019, xvii + 238 pp., £14.99, (paperback), ISBN-13: 978 1 52676 066 1.
Brophy and Partridge’s study of soldiers’ usage of the English language during the First World War stands as one of the key texts in this field. The 2019 reissue by Pen and Sword offers an opportunity to assess how it has changed through various editions and how its relevance and place in English sociolinguistics has developed since its first publication in 1930, from its initial purpose of retaining the meanings and associations before they were lost, to its place in the 1960s period of realizing the worth of the memories of the survivors of the conflict who were fast disappearing, to the development by centennial researchers of the idea that language stood at the heart of the experience, and could be a route to a better understanding.
That there is a methodical record of the vast vocabulary, attested by people who were there, owes a lot to Edward Fraser and John Gibbons, authors of Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (1925), and to John Brophy and Eric Partridge, whose 1930 book Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–1918 (1930) went through three editions before being reformatted as The Long Trail in 1965, and again in 2008 as The Daily Telegraph Dictionary of Tommies’ Songs and Slang. In an explanatory preface to The Long Trail John Brophy wrote, ‘In character and in substance The Long Trail is the same as the third edition of Songs and Slang but certain passages have been removed and others replaced, new passages have been written in, and the retrospective point of view has been changed throughout from that of 1931 [sic] to that of 1964’ (1969: 7). A major addition in The Long Trail was Brophy’s essay ‘After Fifty Years’, which incorporated much of the material from the introduction to the 1930 edition. Pages 3-7 from that text are also shown here, from the categorization section beginning ‘Satire on War, and Mock-Heroics, the 1930 Introduction and ‘After Fifty Years’ run closely together, until the section on Sex Ribaldry, at which point they diverge; notably ‘After Fifty Years’ omits the discussion of ‘Sentimental and Pathetic Songs’, such as Rolling Home and Nellie Dean. Hopefully a later edition will include both essays. For now, a detailed comparison will have to wait till a later blog.
A key point is how Brophy’s essay concentrated on analyzing the songs more than the slang; easier to categorise than the slang, the songs more closely reflected recollectable situations to those that had been there. Certainly the songs, with the sense of a communal and exclusive experience, would have appealed to an audience of veterans, more than the glossary of slang. But is there a hint here at the idea of primacy of song before speech in the building of community, studies of which are only now coming into general debate and awareness (New Scientist, 1 May 2019, 21 November 2019)?
The Daily Telegraph Dictionary of Tommies’ Songs and Slang is substantially a reissue of The Long Trail, but without the brief ‘Preface to the First Edition’, and the useful ‘Bibliographical Note’ which lists some the authors’ main sources, both shown here; while Malcolm Brown’s appreciation ofthe two editors,‘After Ninety Years’, adds to the general sense of the value of the book, the omissions of the first edition preface and the bibliographical note are a pity.
In all its incarnations the book goes beyond being a compilation of lyrics and slang terms, and with the inclusion of Brophy’s essays on the circumstances and popular culture contexts of the material, and his appendices on catchphrases and texts for bugle calls, it is more than just a sourcebook for the linguistic experience of the war. As Malcolm Brown points out in his essay of the two editors,‘After Ninety Years’,the editors ‘came at it from the bottom up’ (2019: x), as soldiers who had sung the songs and talked the talk; Brophy lied about his age to enlist, and served in France and Flanders, while Partridge had enlisted in the AIF and served in Egypt, Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Brophy and Partridge noted Fraser and Gibbons’ work as being ‘written in less detail and from a more or less “official” standpoint’ (1930: 189) – it was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in response to realization that there were people wanting to document language usage, as seen in the correspondence published in Athenaeum and Notes and Queries– inevitably this was language as used and noted by officers rather than other ranks. Brophy and Partridge were aware that the material was in danger of being lost – the preface to the 1930 text begins with an explicit declaration of this; but they clearly knew the importance of their work lay beyond recording disappearing slang; it was ‘a record-by-glimpses of the British soldiers’ spirit and life’ (1930: v) during the war. It is also worth pointing out that German and French sociolinguists were collecting and publishing compilations of soldiers’ slang during the war.
The so-called war books boom of the late 1920s which included All Quiet on the Western Front, Death of a Hero, and Journey’s End, was characterized by a refusal to gloss over the horror of war, but Brophy and Partridge’s work seems not to have been included in the general view of this movement. It is important that it should be seen an exemplar of the realist tone of this literary rereading of the war, in that it explores the way that language both supported and revealed the mind of the soldier shunted between boredom and terror. The sense that an investigative collecting of terms could reveal something of the experience of the war was current in newspapers from early in the conflict, but Brophy and Partridge’s interpretations of what the slang actually did, in allowing ‘outward derision’ (2019: 209) to help the soldier conquer fear, give a sense of how language functions to help in a crisis, a pattern which may be recognized now in the inventions provoked by the Coronavirus pandemic. The songs and slang show soldiers as cheerful, tired, complaining, comradely, brutalized and creative; for the editors ‘they have not portrayed their former comrades either as supermen or as whiners, as sots or as saints’ (1930: v). The use of words such as ‘windy’ (2019: 205) and ‘hot’ (2019: 103), and the fund of terms used to sidestep the direct verbalization of death show how fear was both recognized and diverted. Comments on the songs remark that they were ‘brutal and cynical’ (2019: 33), but less expectedly ‘sentimental’ (2019: 58) or ‘often sung quietly and with much sentiment’ (2019: 43). The linguistic mix is complex though. Brophy’s remark that a euphemism for death might ‘enrich the English consciousness by an illuminating flash of sardonic humour’ (2019: 209) illustrates the harshness of much language use at the Front – and conjures up a silhouetted night-scene at the front line, as in Nash’s illustrations for Aldington’s Images of War (1919). Mottram’s view of soldiers in a Flemish farmhouse, behaving 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’ (1929: 95),and the huge popularity of My Little Grey Home in the West (usually sung straight, and notably not parodied) indicate a sentimental mentality that operated as a refuge from terror.
Brophy and Partridge’s methodology ensured the survival of the broadest range of terms, clearly referencing even those that could not be printed, which were discussed by John Brophy in his essay ‘Fifty Years After’ (this edition is able to present a more authentic version of songs such as Tiddlywinks, Old Man, which the editors noted in 1930 was ‘slightly euphemized … to avoid the rigours of the law’ (1930: 32)). Despite the deliberate move away from Fraser and Gibbons’ dependence on written evidence, there was an inevitable hiatus between the spoken words and the documentation. Bert Thomas’s ‘Arf a Mo, Kaiser’ image being referred to in the text under the heading ‘Half a Mo’ (2019: 130) serves as a reminder that the reader that what is under examination here is primarily spoken language, the frequent inclusions of rhyming slang highlighting the delight in wordplay. John Brophy clearly enjoyed the whole subject, writing in a note to the glossary that ‘an English word is never content to do as it is told’ (2019: 209).
For those who know this text, the current reprint contains a helpful bibliographical note tracing the various forms of the book over the past 90 years. In particular these show the change to the title in 1965 when it became The Long Trail, and its reversion in 2008; the role of The Daily Telegraph as sponsor, reflected in the title; and the application of ‘Tommies’ in the title, despite Brophy and Partridge’s affirmation of the soldiers’ wide dislike of the nickname. Photos, some of them familiar, others less so, add to the sense of authenticity for the general reader. As the sociolinguistic study of the conflict becomes more important to understanding the experience, this book should be essential reading for the First World War scholar.
Brophy, J, and Partridge, E, Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–1918 (1930), London, The Scholartis Press.
Brophy, J, and Partridge, E, The Long Trail, (1965/1969), London, Sphere Books.
Brophy, J, and Partridge, E, The Daily Telegraph Dictionary of Tommies’ Songs and Slang, (2008), London, Frontline Books.
Fraser, E, and Gibbons, J, Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (1925), London, George Routledge and Sons.
Mottram, R H, in Three Personal Records of the War(1929), London, Scholartis Press.