Yesterday’s anecdote from the early days of the 60th Battery shows both sides of Army courtesy. The storyteller remarks that it took some time for recruits to remember the obligatory “Sir” in speaking to a superior. The other side of courtesy, so to speak, is also present in the story, when Ringwood acknowledges that the men used an unprintable epithet to describe him.
For swearing was a noted feature of Army life in the Great War: “The truth is,” wrote an officer who survived to become a notable career soldier, “that the army swore excessively, and and that the majority — or the loudest-mouthed, at any rate — acquired the habit of using obscene and blasphemous expletives and intensfiying adjectives wholesale.”(1) Soldiers were “coarsened in thought and speech,” wrote another authority, identifying obscene words as the “agents of this corruption of the mind.”(2)
One might argue, instead, that it was the experience of the war that corrupted or injured the mind, and that the foul language was both the symptom of that injury and one way to keep the horrors at bay.
Even before France, the trials of soldiering provoked some linguistic branching out. “New and strange profanity came naturally to the drivers [who were dealing with balky horses], and they knew that this was what they had wanted to say all along.”(3) The 43rd Battery, those Presbyterians from Knox College, learned to tolerate their sergeant’s language, though they did not repeat it in print, substituting “blankety-blank” or the discreet dash:
And finally one Sunday morning with a burst of irreverence, “J— , C—, don’t you men know this is a Church Parade?”(4)
(1) E.L.M. Burns, quoted in Tim Cook, “Fighting Words: Canadian Soldiers’ Slang and Swearing in the Great War,” War in History 20.3 (2013): 335.
(2) John Brophy and Eric Partridge. Songs and Slang of the British Soldier, 1914-1918. 3rd edition. London, 1931. Quoted in Cook, “Fighting Words,” 335.
(3) Hugh Kay, George Magee and F.A. MacLennan. Battery Action! The Story of the 43rd Battery CFA. Toronto: . 24
(4) Hugh Kay. The History of the Forty-third Battery, C.F.A. 1916. Quoted in Cook, “Fighting Words,” 341. This source, which Cook calls self-published, became the first part of the Kay, Magee and MacLennan volume which was published after the war; in that edition, the capital letters are missing.
The image is one of Bruce Bairnfather’s Fragments from France. n.d. 31. “Blinkin'” is his usual substitute for what he called “the real hundred horsepower swearing of the trenches.” Quoted in Cook “Fighting Words,” 343.
Copyright 2016. See “About this Project.”