The Language of Love and War

Talks and presentations

Bill Lucas and Christopher Mulvey 

The Guildhall, Winchester, 11 July 2014


Great War grief found expression in every form but most powerfully in the form of words, in the form of language. A phrase like ‘entrenched positions’ might today signify a closed mindset. But it was really born in the awfulness of Northern France.  If you find yourself ‘washed out’, ‘fed up’, or feeling ‘lousy’ then you are, in effect, back in the trenches of the Great War. More on this later.

Tonight we are going to commemorate the grieving language of the war but we are also going to celebrate the glorious language of the love that lies behind the grief. There is the love of parents for their sons at the front, the love of women for their men at the front, the love of the troops for those at home, the love of the troops for one another, the love of the company and the regiment, the love of the crew and of the ship. We take as our opposite of war not peace but love. We will focus on the words and phrases that were forged from the horror of the trenches and by the power of the human spirit.


What Evelyn Waugh said of World War Two holds as much for World War One. ‘It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege.’ Bill and I have accepted that there was a love of war on both sides. The British, French, Russians, Austrians and Germans all wanted war. All thought it would be brief and glorious. They thought it would be over in a few months. We know that it would last five years and then resume twenty years later to last another full five years. The love of war for most of the nations that took part was truly exhausted by the death, the defeat and the destruction that was wreaked on winners and losers alike.  Tonight we do not want to focus on the love of war. We want to focus on the love that human beings showed for one another in what has rightly come to be called the Great War. We have selected from letters, memoirs, diaries, poems, jokes, posters, newspapers, cartoons, signposts, songs and novels some words that best express the Great War and the Great Love of 1914 to 1918. Bill will begin by reading ‘For the Fallen’, by Laurence Binyon.

BL (1):

I wanted to start with this poem because it has a personal connection with my life. Let me read it first and then explain.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

These words were written a few weeks after the outbreak of war and published in The Times on 21 September 2014. Binyon was looking out to sea on the North Cornish coast.

But it is not Polzeath in Cornwall that is the link to me but Trinity College, Oxford. Laurence Binyon went to Trinity and read Classics. I studied English there as did my father before me who also read Classics.

In my mind’s eye the year is not 1914 at the start of one terrible war but 1945 at the end of another. Dad was one of the first soldiers to return to Oxford. The gates of Trinity College were opened in his honour and all the college staff and students clapped him down its imposing front pathway to welcome the soldier home. That studying could resume, was, you see a powerful sign of love and peace.

My father was ‘young’ and survived. Many others did not. Tonight, ‘at the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them’ all.


CM (1):

We have repeated for nearly one hundred years, the words: ‘Lest we forget’. The words come from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Recessional’:


Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!


‘Recessional’ was a battle poem written long before the Great War, and we have mainly forgotten its  ‘God of Hosts’ sentiments and feelings. The Great War knocked the stuffing out of the Victorian celebration of bloodshed. Now we repeat ‘Lest we forget--Lest we forget’ as a reminder of the sacrifice of the men who died and as an admonishment to do our duty by them. Our minimal duty is remembering.

I will not forget, and you will not forget, but I have to say that my children have forgotten and probably yours have too. It is not fair to say that they have forgotten because they never did have a memory of the Great War. My children are in their forties, and when I asked them what war it was that they remembered, they answered:  ‘The Gulf War’  – the First Gulf War, the war of 1990-91. They did not say, as I thought they might say, the Vietnam War. For my children, the Vietnam War, the Second World War, the First World War – they are all wars of the history books. They have joined the Boer War, the Crimean War, the Napoleonic War.

But if that’s the case, why can I say I have strong, personal feelings about the Great War, a war that started nearly thirty years before I was born. Those memories come, I realize, from my mother. The Great War was never mentioned in my home without her shaking her head, and saying, almost muttering: ‘A terrible war, a terrible war’. ‘But, what’, I said one day, ‘about Daddy’s War – wasn’t that a terrible war?’ That was bad she said, ‘but the Second World War was not so bad for the men, not so terribly bad.’

Who knows how terrible any war is by comparison with any other war, but my mother had had two brothers in the trenches; she had expected every day to hear they had been killed and she knew from the way they came back on leave how terrible it was for them to live, to fight and to stay alive. To me and my brothers, my mother transmitted some of the grief suffered by her and her brothers.

The Great War, like all wars, brought men together not just to kill but also to love. The troops talked about themselves as pals, chums, mates, lads. I want to read to you from the trench newspaper, started in the Belgian town of Ypres, and called ‘The Wipers Times’. ‘Wipers’ was what my uncle Bert called that place whenever he talked to me, as he did so often, about his time in the trenches. Let me read a poem called simply: ‘To my Chum’. It was written by a Sherwood Forester; neither his name nor the name of his dead comrade is known.

To My Chum

No more we'll share the same old barn

The same old dug-out, same old yarn,

No more a tin of bully share

Nor split our rum by a star-shell's glare

So long old lad.


What times we've had, both good and bad,

We've shared what shelter could be had,

The same crump-hole when the whizz-bangs shrieked,

The same old billet that always leaked,

And now - you've "stopped one".


We'd weathered the storms two winters long

We'd managed to grin when all went wrong,

Because together we fought and fed,

Our hearts were light; but now - you're dead

And I am mateless.


Well, old lad, here's peace to you,

And for me, well, there's my job to do,

For you and the others who are at rest

Assured may be that we'll do our best

In vengeance. 


BL (2): Life in the trenches was hellish. But it bound men together. One remarkable feature of the war was that it brought soldiers from different countries and social classes into the same place. And just as any close community does, they developed their own lingo or slang.

Soldiers borrowed words from other cultures in a kind of lateral translation. An example of this is ‘Blighty’, originally a Hindi word. But words also moved vertically between different social classes. Take ‘cushy’ for example.

Given the number of soldiers stationed in France it is not surprising that many French terms were picked up and adapted. So ‘souvenir’ became popular instead of  ‘keepsake’. A word widely used by British soldiers was ‘narpoo’, used to mean ‘finished’, ‘lost’, ‘worthless’, ‘broken’, from the French il n’y a plus or ‘all gone’.

Words not only moved laterally from one country to another, they also crossed  regions. The trenches contained men from many different regions in the UK and words previously only used locally became more widely enjoyed. The Lancashire term ‘binge’ is a good example as is ‘scrounge’ which was previously a North country word. ‘Clink’, a London word for prison which had spread westwards, became commonly used for prison.

Australian slang was particularly un sentimental with ‘Anzac soup’ (a shell crater with a corpse in it) and ‘flybog’ (jam) just two obvious examples.

Towards the end of the war there was a strong merging of slang across class barriers. In her semi-autobiographical novel Not So Quiet notes how her well-heeled mother had picked up soldiers’ terms even in genteel Wimbledon: “What will Mrs Evans-Mawnington say … to my daughter taking a cushy job in England?”

In August 1918 The Manchester Guardian, reported on the presentation of a debate in Parliament which had included the slang expressions ‘a tidy bit of money’, ‘wads of it’, ‘be a sport about it’ and ‘all that twaddle’.

Human beings are innate creative. They will always coin new words, especially when they are in close proximity with others – as The English Project found to much pleasure in its book Kitchen Table Lingo. But in the Great War there were two other powerful driving forces.

The first was that slang is a way of hiding from reality. With the awfulness of war all around them, men were in constant fear of being seriously wounded or killed. By the use of phrases such as ‘going west’, ‘getting it’ and ‘copping it’, death could somehow be kept at arms’ length, at least linguistically. ‘Getting the wind up’ was a less critical way of saying ‘being afraid’ as was another alternative being in a ‘funk’.

Slang was also a powerful way of demonstrating ‘belonging’. At the outbreak of war the army itself appointed Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton to be its official reporter, and it was apparently Swinton who introduced the term ‘Jack Johnson’ to the public in September 1914.

A ‘Jack Johnson’ was a German shell bursting with black smoke. It was named after the boxer Jack Johnson, the first black American world heavyweight champion from 1908 to1915.

But for the most part the press was always several steps behind the reality of trench slang. On 19 November 1914 The Daily Mirror wrote: ‘Our troops, always cheerfully ready to treat the grimmest terrors light-heartedly, have coined another name for the German shells. This particular nickname is for the particular type of shell which makes a noise like a prolonged sigh. And so ‘Sighing Sarah’ is the new title’. As it turned out ‘Sighing Sarah’ was one of many examples of slang that did not last long.

Not surprisingly weaponry attracted many slang variants. Big Bertha, Billy Wells, and Grandmother were all names for howitzer guns. A Long Tom was any large gun.

A ‘whiz-bang’ was the word created to describe the noise made by a small shell fired from a high-velocity gun. Although in use in 1830, it took on a new lease of life. It was a noun but also came to be used a verb ‘Fritz began to whizzbang us…’.

A ‘crump’ was a German 5.9 inch shell or the burst of sound it made.

A ‘dud’ was a shell that failed to explode. Previously it had meant ‘something of dubious value’. The ranks also took pleasure in applying it to their less effective officers!

A ‘Silent Susan’ was a high-velocity artillery shell.

In horrible times euphemisms thrived.


CM (2):

The Great War was a solemn matter. Even a focus on love does not do a great deal to relieve that since so much love gave expression to grief. But love was not always solemn, especially the soldier’s love of food. Next to his chum, his grub mattered most, and grub in the trenches was usually grim. In the winter of 1916, there was a shortage of flour, and the staple food was pea soup with horsemeat chunks and black potato lumps. The troops called this stew ‘Maconochie’. But that was not the real thing. The real Maconochie was made by the Maconochie Company of Aberdeen, and its tin boasted 143 gold medals. It received many accolades in verse and jokes. Here is a Maconochie celebration from a trench paper called The New Church Times:

Maconochie!  Maconochie

Maconochie!  Maconochie!

 Bully beef and biscuits!

 Hullo, damn it! that's a crump!

 How those bangs give me the hump;

Here's another!  Where's she dropping?

Duck! or pieces you'll be stopping!

 Plum and apple!  Beef and biscuit,

 Well, here goes, I'd better risk it;

Just round here, there is no telling

 When the Hun begins his shelling

How good my dugout seems to me

Maconochie! Maconochie!


But even the real Maconochie was not universally loved. Asked his opinion of it, one trooper said ‘warmed in the tin, Maconochie was edible; cold it was a man killer’.


BL (3): In 1914 there was no radio and virtually no cinema. The main amusements for soldiers were sex, singing and drinking. Reading was very popular as a means of whiling away long periods of boredom. In novels soldiers could lose themselves in imagined other worlds. The language of literature provided the men with an escape. The Tommies were an astonishingly literate bunch with soldiers of all ranks and classes happily spending time reading books of which the Secretary of State for Education, Mr Gove, would approve today.

In the early days of the war, literary language and jingoism were common. Our country needed us and who were we to deny her. A simple example of how grandiose we could be can be found in the difference of emphasis between two English-speaking allies. So the Americans have their ‘Unknown Soldier’ while we have our ‘Unknown Warrior’, a far more literary concept.

The cable sent from Sarajevo from His Britannic Majesty’s Consul on 28 June 1914 is a wonderful example of verbal delicacy:

‘Heir apparent and his consort assassinated this morning by means of an explosive nature’. 

Half way through the war there is a wonderful example of the way language was a casualty of war. In communicating the Military Service Act of 1916, a memorable poster reads:






(1) He can ENLIST AT ONCE and join under the Colours without delay

(2) He can ATTEST AT ONCE UNDER THE GROUP SYSTEM and be called up in due course with his Group


If he does neither, a third course awaits him:


In the terror of battle many soldiers deserted. In the first part of the war they were executed for ‘acts prejudicial to military discipline’ and their parents were told just this. Only after intervention by Sylvia Pankhurst in 1916 were the words on the telegram changed to ‘died of wounds’.

Sometimes too much linguistic truth is just too painful. We need euphemisms.

In the real world of any brutal war language is always a difficult commodity. Locations need to be fictionalised, along with military movements in case they fall into the hands of the enemy. Careless talk, as the saying goes, costs lives.

Unsurprisingly censorship was rife.

Letters home from the ranks were formulaic and designed to shield loved ones from the reality of blood, guts and death. They were full of platitudes and said nothing. Robert Graves as an officer had to censor these. He made up this model, a pastiche of all that is meaningless:

This comes from me in the pink which I hope it finds you. We are having a bit of rain at present. I expect you’ll have read in the papers of this attest do. I lost a few good pals but happened to be lucky myself. Fags are always welcome as are socks.

Letter-writing was for most Tommies an exercise in the production of clichés.

It’s not that we do not have the words in English to describe what was going on. As Paul Fussell puts it in his wonderful book The Great War and Modern Memory:

Logically there is no reason why the English language could not perfectly well render the actuality of trench warfare: it is rich in terms like blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out, pain and hoax, as well as phrases like legs blown off, intestines gushing out over his hands, screaming all night, bleeding to death from the rectum, and the like.

Logically one supposes there’s no reason why a language devised by man should be inadequate to describe any of man’s works. The difficulty was in admitting that the war had been made by en and was being continued ad infinitum by them. The problem was less of ‘language’ than of gentility and optimism; it was less a problem of ‘linguistics’ than of rhetoric…..That is why some men, when they think about war, fall silent…..’


CM (3):

Patriotic love saw fathers doing all they could to get their sons ready for soldering, ready for the great sacrifice. Love of country rushed upon Rudyard Kipling, and he used his influence to get his son Jack commissioned as a Guards officer. It was not easy, places were contested, and Jack had eyesight problems. He had already been rejected by the Royal Navy, and he would, but for his father, have been rejected by the British Army. Influenced counted, Jack turned 18 and was commissioned as Lieutenant John Kipling in the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards in July 1915. In September 1915, John Kipling was dead. The battalion had been destroyed at the Battle of Loos. Then there rushed on Kipling the love of father for son. That love proved overwhelming. It drove the poet, after the war, to go searching the battlefields of France to find the body of his boy. He never did find it.

Already in 1915, he had written a poem about the endless search, a poem that he tied to the naval Battle of Jutland rather than the land Battle of Loos. Jack becomes the sailor that he never was, a sailor lost at sea not a soldier lost in the mud. Here is the poem:  ‘My Boy Jack’ by Rudyard Kipling


“Have you news of my boy Jack?”

Not this tide.

“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”

Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.


“Has any one else had word of him?”

Not this tide.

For what is sunk will hardly swim,

Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.


“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”

None this tide,

Nor any tide,

Except he did not shame his kind —

Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.


Then hold your head up all the more,

This tide,

And every tide;

Because he was the son you bore,

And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!



BL (4): It is through the medium of song that love was memorably expressed. Here’s just one example which I am going to sing for you:

If you were the only girl in the world


Sometimes when I feel bad
and things look blue
I wish a pal I had... say one like you.
Someone within my heart to build a throne
Someone who'd never part, to call my own


If you were the only girl in the world
and I were the only boy
Nothing else would matter in the world today
We could go on loving in the same old way

A garden of Eden just made for two

With nothing to mar our joy
I would say such wonderful things to you
There would be such wonderful things to do
If you were the only girl in the world
and I were the only boy. 


CM (4):

Rudyard Kipling was able to write his own poem to commemorate the death of his son. Others used borrowed verses to express their love. Frederick George Blackwell was one of 44,000 sailors who lost their lives in the Great War. He was drowned on 31 May 1916. His parents found a poem that mixed their grief with Christian resignation:


Had He asked us, well we know

We should cry, ‘O spare this blow!’

Yes, with streaming tears should pray,

‘Lord, we love him, let him stay.’


But the Lord doth naught amiss,

And, since He hath ordered this,

We have naught to do but still

Rest in silence on His will.


Was that grieving English mother aware that she had chosen a German poem? In the eighteenth century, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf had written ‘Deiner Kinder Sammelplatz’ – ‘Your Children’s Gathering Place’ as an entry for Kleine Brüder Gesangbuch – ‘The Little Brother’s Hymn Book’. In the nineteenth century, it was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth. By the twentieth century, the German poem had become an English prayer. On both sides of the battles, there were grieving mothers. The words might have been shared, but their misery was their own.

The sailor’s family added two more lines to von Zinzendorf’s poem:


Father in thy gracious keeping

Leave we now our loved one sleeping.


Those lines, too, were familiar, used by many to say on memorial cards and gravestones what they felt and thought. This is not poetry that shows off. If the mother of the young sailor expresses herself in lines used by ten thousand other mothers, that does not make her love for her son any less poignant.


BL (5): Back at home mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, lovers and friends dreaded the arrival of postcards and telegrams. The former was so formulaic it said nothing, while the latter almost inevitably meant the worst possible news.

It’s a little known fact that, even if the supply of weaponry and clothing was not always a logistical success, the postal service was one of the wonders of the war. The service was exemplary, with letters and parcels taking about four days. In 1917 19,000 mailbags corssed the Channel every day.

Food was the prized possession (there are examples of oysters, kippers, cakes, butter, fowl, fresh fruit and wine being sent.)

Tobacco was essential. One officer, fed up at having his cigars stolen from the mail, ensured that his wife sent them in a box with a gummed label saying:


Clothes were vital to help soldiers through the wet and cold Winter months. When we think of today’s Mulberry high fashion brand, we need to remember it started out as a particular kind of officer’s trench coat.

When Wilfred Owen left two towels at home on leave, he had the posted back to him.

Home was both practically close to the trenches but also strangely distant. The huge amounts of time on soldiers’ hands led many to think about their relationships in more detail and write more reflective letters home.

Here is an edited example of just such an exchange.


Dora Willatt to 2nd Lieutenant Cecil Slack
7 June 1916
My dear Cecil,

I have come into that little wood and am sitting under a tree only about 10 yards away from where we sat together and you asked me to marry you. It was a very great surprise and even a shock when you told me you loved me and I had not the slightest idea you were going to tell me so then.

Betty Sowerbutts did tell me that you were keen on me but I’m afraid at that time I didn’t think anything about you – when I left school I liked you just as I liked my other friends and it was not until after you were wounded last year and you came to our house a good deal for tennis that I liked you more than the others who came.

You will notice I am saying “liking” – I have never thought whether I loved you or not – I knew you liked me, somehow, but I had not thought you loved me – it is why I had not thought of it so much, that it has been so hard to see if my “liking” for you had turned into love for you.

I remember dreaming, one night since we came here, that you were married to another girl and I remember waking up with a miserable, hopeless feeling.

Before I say any more I want you to think whether you yourself are quite sure you love me….

When I went to bed I overheard Father tell Mother that your affaire you are going to do out there was jolly risky – I began to think and then realised if you never came back and I never saw you again – what I should do and what I should feel like.

It is horrible of me to talk like this but I am telling you all – it made me realise that I do love you Cecil – oh, that I could see you again now – but I cannot tell if I love you as much as you love me. How much do you love me Cecil?

I should like to get to know you yourself better and then at the end of six months if I am quite sure of my own mind and I have that sacred love for you that only man and woman can have I would promise definitely to become your wife. If you think differently from what you told me on Monday do be sure and tell me and we will carry on as before and be chums and I will be just the same to you.

Goodbye, Cecil, and remember I have some love for you,

2nd Lieutenant Cecil Slack to Dora Willatt
My dear Dora,

For a long time before asking you to marry me I had been thinking things over and I was and am quite certain of my own feelings. But I feel a rotter for asking you when I did. I ought to have waited, for one thing, until the war was over, and for another until I had more idea of your feelings. As it is I have given you a shock and have kindled feelings which should not have been aroused. I am sorry and yet I am glad.

You asked me to be quite sure I was not influenced by any excitement of the moment. I was not. I have loved you ever since I was at Rydal. A schoolboy love then – it often happens to schoolboys and then dies out. Mine did not die.

You ask me how much I love you. All I can say is that I just love you with my whole heart. I love you together with my Mother and my Father and my honour, but on a different scale altogether.

There is just one thing I want to mention before I forget it, and it is this – if I should by any chance be crippled I shall cry off everything. I would not dream of marrying if I had not a sound body. That is one reason why I’m such a rotter for having asked you in the middle of the war. Perhaps it would be better if we put aside what has happened until after the war?

Love from Cecil


As Dora suggested, they waited six months to be sure, and then went ahead with their engagement. Cecil survived the war and they married in 1919.

CM (5):

Troops on the march loved singing and troops on leave loved women. When they took their leave behind the lines, the troops loved to love the French girls that they found in the bars and cafes of the villages and towns behind the battle lines – Amiens, Arras, Beaumont, Bezonvaux, Cumières, Douaumont, Fleury, Haumont, Lille, Louvemont, Ornes, Soissons, Vaux.

When the troops marched back to the front line, they loved to sing songs that celebrated the love of British man for French woman, and the most famous of the these songs celebrated a woman from the town of Armentières. Armentières was the site of fighting that lasted from 13 October to 2 November in 1914. It was one of the series of battles that became known as the Race to the Sea. British and French armies fought with German divisions, each trying to outflank the other by pushing north towards the Channel. The trench warfare began as they held each other off and dug in until the lines spread north to the coast and south to the Alps.

Armies regularly name battles after the last villages they march through before they meet the enemy. In October 1914, the British were marching through Armentières towards the German lines and withdrawing to Armentières after each encounter. In Armentières, they met a woman whose affections became the joyous focus of the Great War’s greatest marching song. It was sung with full British voice and full British accent and represents a victory over the French language as much as anything. The ‘mademoiselle d’Armentières’ became ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’. The objects of the song’s ribald verses are not the Germans, but the men’s own officers, sergeants and military police.

There is superb rhythm in its lines; there is wonderful wit in its word play; there is marvellous brevity in its insults. ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’ is folk poetry at its best. I won’t sing it tonight, Bill has the voice, but I’ll read a few of the verses and you must not start marching about the room even though the lines will make your legs move:


Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?

Mademoiselle from Armentieres,

She hasn't been kissed in forty years,

Inky, pinky, parley-voo.


Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?

She could guzzle a barrel of sour wine,

And eat a hog without peeling the rind,

Inky, pinky, parley-voo.


The MPs think they won the war, Parley-voo.

The MPs think they won the war, Parley-voo.

The MPs think they won the war,

Standing guard at the café door,

Inky, pinky, parley-voo.


The officers get the pie and cake, Parley-voo.

The officers get the pie and cake, Parley-voo.

The officers get the pie and cake,

And all we get is the bellyache,

Inky, pinky, parley-voo.


The sergeant ought to take a bath, Parley-voo.

The sergeant ought to take a bath, Parley-voo.

If he changes his underwear

The frogs will give him the Croix-de-Guerre,

Inky-dinky, parley-voo.


Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?

Just blow your nose, and dry your tears,

We'll all be back in a few short years,

Inky, pinky, parley-voo.


There are many, many more verses. Marching songs would go on forever, and the men as they marched would add new lines and hit new targets and make more jokes. If the new verses hit the spot, they would get repeated and polished and passed from regiment to regiment until their author was forgotten but the lines lived on forever - part of the folk repertoire.


BL (6): When we were thinking about this talk, Chris and I read voraciously. We wanted to find a novel that somehow epitomised the Great War. But we failed. We found some stupendous memoirs and diaries as well as some wonderful journalism.

But it seems to us that, while men and women were reading fiction, they were writing less of it.

The signature genres of the war were song and poetry.

Of course selecting any poem is a hostage to fortune as many are so well known. If you are of a certain generation you may still have some of them off by heart. I have chosen one that always speaks to me – Break of Day in the Trenches.

Isaac Rosenberg is rightly remembered as one of the finest war poets and Break of Day in the Trenches is a particularly poignant and wry account of dawn breaking.


The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

In a cruel quirk of fate Rosenberg was killed at dawn on 1 April 1918 having just finished a night patrol.

CM (6):

In August 1914, Vera Brittain was twenty-one years old. Her brother Edward was nineteen so were their close friends Roland Leighton and Victor Richardson. Vera loved all of them, and they all loved her. The three young men became officers fighting in the trenches. Roland and Vera became engaged in August 1915, and Vera gave up her studies to become a nurse. She began her training but before the end of the year, before she was sent to France, and before they had been able to get married, she learned that Roland was dead. He was killed by a sniper in December 1915. During his officer training, Vera’s brother Edward had formed a close friendship with Geoffrey Thurlow. Vera came to love him too; he died of wounds in April 1917. As she heard that news, she also learned that Victor had been blinded. She decided to marry him so that she could love and comfort him. He died in May 1917. Of the young men in her life, only her brother Edward was still alive. He was reported dead in June 1918. Vera Brittain ended the war filled with love for men who were no longer there.

As she worked as nurse tending the wounded, she also wrote. In August 1918, she published a book called Verses of a V.A.D. V.A.D stood for ‘Voluntary Aid Detachment’, the name of her nursing unit. The whole book should be read, but her love for Roland and her love for the men fighting the war are caught in these two poems.

A Parting Word


If you should be too happy in your days

And never know an hour of vain regret,

Do not forget

That still the shadows darken all my ways.


If sunshine sweeter still should light your years,

And you lose nought of all you dearly prize,

Turn not your eyes

From my steep track of anguish and of tears.


And if perhaps your love of me is less

Than I with all my need of you would choose,

Do not refuse

To love enough to lighten my distress.


And if the future days should parting see

Of our so different paths that lately met,

Remember yet

Those days of storm you weathered through with me.




The Troop-Train

(France, 1917)


As we came down from Amiens,

And they went up the line,

They waved their careless hands to us,

And cheered the Red Cross sign,


And often I have wondered since,

Repicturing that train,

How many of those laughing souls

Came down the line again.



 BL (8): The British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent has a set of cartoons which illustrate graphically how words and images and humour combined to tell the story of the war.

They are by William Kerridge Haselden. W K Haselden was the cartoonist for the largest circulation newspaper of the Great War, The Daily Mirror. He found fame during this period and is today considered to be the father of the British newspaper strip cartoon.

These five cartoons give a window onto the changing mood of the period.

1. 3 August 1914. This cartoon appeared the day before Britain declared war on Germany, and shows once again how dreams of a European war were heavily overlaid by nightmares of disorder at home - financial collapse, high bread prices, and violent demonstrations by the unemployed (represented as ragged anarchists with knives).

2. 30 August 1914. Before the war the British army had a poor reputation by comparison with the Royal Navy, and was attractive only to the young urban unemployed. But the outbreak of war brought a sudden transformation, and within days, as Haselden's cartoon shows, joining the army was being presented as the patriotic duty of the middle classes.

3. 2 October 1914. The first of Haselden's "Big and Little Willie" cartoons, which presented the German Kaiser and Crown Prince as childish and unthreatening characters. This series became very popular, and in 1915 it was reprinted in book form as "The Sad Experiences of Big and Little Willie", leading Haselden to be seen as the father of the British newspaper strip cartoon.

4. 8 November 1915. Haselden deals with the wartime rise in food prices, and the need to economise.

5. 14 November 1918. News of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 brought huge numbers of people onto London's streets, stopping traffic throughout the city. They were followed next day by vast crowds for the service of thanksgiving at St. Paul's cathedral, and Haselden's cartoon depicts the mood of continuous celebration that the war was finally over


CM (8):

Old English, that is the English that arrived on this island at about 450 had a word for children that was derived from the word ‘beran’  - to bear, carry, give birth. The offspring of an Angle family, those born to the family were its ‘barns’. In The Winter’s Tale, a shepherd stumbles upon an abandoned baby and cries out, ‘Mercy on's, a Barne? A very pretty barne; A boy, or a Childe I wonder?’ For Shakespeare’s rustic ‘barn’ meant a boy and ‘child’ meant a girl, but ‘barn’ generally meant boy or girl – a man’s barns were his offspring, descendants, children. About three hundred years ago, the word disappeared from common usage in Southern English and, from the 1700s, it became a word heard mainly in northern dialects.

Today, we know it by its Scots form ‘bairn’. We speakers of Southern English know its meaning at once even though we are unlikely to use it ourselves and so we have no difficulty in understanding Company Sergeant-Major James Milne, when in July 1918, he wrote, on the night before a battle, a letter to his wife that was to be delivered in the event of his death.

My own beloved wife [he began]:


I do not know how to start this letter. The circumstances are different from any under which I ever wrote before. I am not to post it but will leave it in my pocket, if anything happens to me someone will perhaps post it. We are going over the top this afternoon and only God in Heaven knows who will come out of it alive.

I am in his hands and whatever happens I will look to him in this world and the world to come. If I am called my regret is that I leave you and my bairns. I go to him with your dear face the last vision on earth I shall see and your name upon my lips, you the best of women. You will look after by Darling Bairns for me and tell them how their daddy died.

Oh! How I love you all and as I sit here waiting I wonder what you are doing at home. I must not do that. It is hard enough sitting waiting. We may move at any minute. When this reaches you for me there will be no more war, only eternal peace and waiting for you.

It is a legacy of struggle for you but God will look after you and we shall meet again when there will be no more parting. I am to write no more sweetheart… Kiss the Bairns for me once more. I dare not think of them my Darlings.

Sometimes think of the troops more as sons than as fathers, but many men in the army, the navy and the air corps had left families in England, and the love of father for child gave many the strength to carry on. Sergeant-Major Milne’s last letter to his wife was never sent. He survived the battle and the war and lived to kiss his darling bairns.


 BL (9):

What was the legacy of the 1914-18 war on the English Language? We are not sure.

The Oxford English Dictionary has been running a project exploring the words of the war. They have assembled a 100 of them which they say were important at the time. We have already had some samples in our talk. But many of these words are only loosely linguistically connected to the 1914-1918 period.

Here are a few more. Some were first used. Some were used in a different way. Others simply found favour at the time. Some are still in use. Others less so:


Trench warfare

Trench foot




Shell shock



Tactical bombing



Dozens of words did indeed enter the English language.


It was a period of prolific journalism.


One might say ‘O what a literary war’ it was……

But perhaps of greater significance was the extraordinary outpouring of poetry and song along with the inventive trench lingo of the time.

The English language was the glue that bound men from many parts of the United Kingdom, from many different countries and from different classes together. It was the medium through which the experiences of four awful years in Europe’s history were transacted. It marked the passing of one era and the ushering in of an altogether different more equal world in 1919.


CM (9):

An ancient word in the English language is the word ‘home’. At its very oldest, 5000 years ago before the English language had come to be the English language, when it was yet embryonic in the language that we call Proto-Indo-European, there was a word for ‘settle, dwell’. When that embryonic English language had evolved to become Proto-Germanic, there emerged the word *haimaz from which have come the Old Frisian ‘hem’ the Old Norse  heima, the Danish hjem, the Middle Dutch heem, the German heim, the Old English ‘ham’: the meanings in those words cluster about the idea of village or dwelling place. A singular meaning then developed so that the word that we know as ‘home’ becomes when used ‘without an article’, as the Dictionary puts it, ‘the place where one lives or was brought up’. It evokes feelings of belonging, comfort, childhood, love. ‘Home’ is a powerful word and we use it in all manner of sayings when we want to strike home: ‘Home is where the heart is.’ ‘A home away from home.’ ‘A home truth.’ ‘An Englishman's home is his castle.’ ‘At home.’ ‘Close to home.’ ‘Home and dry.’ ‘Home free.’ ‘Bring home the bacon.’

As the novelist put it, Home is ‘Father, Mother, safety, hugs, and hot milk’. That sentiment was captured in one the most sung and the most moving songs of the Great War. It was written in 1914 by Ivor Novello and Lena Ford. They called it ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and I am going to speak it. If you find you have voice to sing in a few moments, then you can join in.


They were summoned from the hillside,

They were called in from the glen,

And the country found them ready

At the stirring call for men.

Let no tears add to their hardships

As the soldiers pass along,

And although your heart is breaking,

Make it sing this cheery song:


Keep the Home Fires Burning,

While your hearts are yearning.

Though your lads are far away

They dream of home.

There's a silver lining

Through the dark clouds shining,

Turn the dark cloud inside out

Till the boys come home.


Overseas there came a pleading,

‘Help a nation in distress.’

And we gave our glorious laddies -

Honour bade us do no less,

For no gallant son of Freedom

To a tyrant's yoke should bend,

And a noble heart must answer

To the sacred call of "Friend."


Keep the Home Fires Burning,

While your hearts are yearning.

Though your lads are far away

They dream of home.

There's a silver lining

Through the dark clouds shining,

Turn the dark cloud inside out

'Til the boys come home.



 BL (10):

But before Chris brings this to a close, let me attempt one more song:


Roses of Picardy


She is watching by the poplars,

Colinette with the sea-blue eyes,

She is watching and longing and waiting

Where the long white roadway lies.


And a song stirs in the silence,

As the wind in the boughs above,

She listens and starts and trembles,

'Tis the first little song of love:


Roses are shining in Picardy, in the hush of the silver dew,

Roses are flowering in Picardy, but there's never a rose like you!

And the roses will die with the summertime, and our roads may be far apart,

But there's one rose that dies not in Picardy!

'tis the rose that I keep in my heart!


And the years fly on for ever, Till the shadows veil their skies,

But he loves to hold her little hands, And look in her sea-blue eyes.

And she sees the road by the poplars, Where they met in the bygone years,

For the first little song of the roses Is the last little song she hears:


Roses are shining in Picardy, in the hush of the silver dew,

Roses are flowering in Picardy, but there's never a rose like you!

And the roses will die with the summertime, and our roads may be far apart,

But there's one rose that dies not in Picardy!

'tis the rose that I keep in my heart!



CM (10):

To End: Millions spoke millions of words, but there were millions of words that were not spoken. Those of us involved in the English Project naturally think first of the language and what it tells us about the war and about those who fought that war. We need also listen to the language of silence.  So many men were silent about what they had seen and what they had been through. Coming back home from the front, they could not or they would not talk. Protecting their families from the full horror. Making light so that they and them could bear it. Unable to find the words. Too broken inside to put things right by talking it through. So many men have said that there was no way to communicate with people who had not been there. They suffered a locked in syndrome. We have a phrase for it: Post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s better that we can label it but not a lot better. Words, words, words. Silence, silence, silence.

We are helped in our remembrance of the men who fought in the First World War by the sheer fact of those great war cemeteries stretching from Picardy to Normandy, the thousands upon thousands of war graves, silently eloquent white stones, so many that they bewilder the sight as they receded to every horizon. We are helped by the memorials in every town and village and church. Lists upon list of names, neatly engraved, black lettering on white stone. Gilbert Scot’s Crusader Sword-Cross pointing to the sky. The Tommy in bronze with gun and knapsack staring towards France. We have not forgotten them yet.

This has been a performance as well as a lecture, but it has also been a lecture and the English Project is as much about explaining as entertaining. So we will invite you to ask questions and most of all to make comments.


Q & A


After a while one of us says.

And now we thought you mike like to relieve your hearts by a hearty rendition of one the great songs or the Great War. [And the audience sang 'Keep the Home Fires Burning']