- Argot & Image:World War I
A PRECIOUS BOOK ON MY SHELVES, surviving many relocations and downsizings of my library, is The Long Trail. What the British Soldier Sang and Said in 1914–1918. First published by Eric Partridge in 1930, augmented further in subsequent editions, and updated by John Brophy in 1965, it is the product of two wartime volunteers. Frederic Winkowski's handsomely bound and produced Trench Talk/ [End Page 407] Trench Life, illustrated graphically and cleverly by him from period images now beyond copyright, does not refer anywhere to Partridge and Brophy.
Although Winkowski's attractive and informative book, the latest of many he has illustrated, is subtitled A Beginner's Guide to World War One, and covers soldier argot from France and the United States as well as "Blighty," Australia and New Zealand, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Turkey and Russia among other nations are omitted. Perhaps another volume, or volumes, will follow. Still we can be grateful for what we have—with at least one cavil. He should know from artistic and publishing experience that white text on a light green background is difficult to read.
A problem with Winkowski's remarkable gift for precision with his pen—his images are black-and-white—is that the wretchedness of war escapes. It is as if the wartime censor hung over his shoulder. The trenches and dugouts described as suffused with mud and muck appear in his illustrations as tidy and dry as a grocer's shelves. No weaponry brilliantly pictured, from machine guns to aircraft, are broken or splintered by war. No one is mangled; no guts are spilled. There are no amputees. (An image of a French railway carriage or bus with seats conspicuously designated for crippled veterans would have been a useful corrective.) Congregating in a huge shell crater are clean, helmeted French poilu. Released British and French prisoners have all their own arms and legs, and only one has a walking stick. German prisoners are shown in one illustration being ordered to carry a British casualty on a litter. The figure in the litter is unseen under a blanket.
Cleanliness prevails. On pages labeled Triage are images of a barely seen soldier being lifted from a trench and a "walking wounded" Frenchman with a bandaged head clutching an improvised cane. But triage—literally "sorting," the separation of the dying wounded beyond medical intervention from those who could be treated and kept alive—is briefly described but never actually defined, nor is an image of the procedure offered. Similarly, "Alleyman" is British slang for a German but its relation to Allemand, French for a German, does not appear. It is almost useful that the "doughboy" term for a Yank, conceded that "nobody was sure what it meant," is replaced ninety-six pages later by an apparent derivation. During the war with Mexico in 1846, soldiers [End Page 408] were so called because they were "white with flour-like Mexican dust." Actually they were tan with adobe-brick dust—thus the "dough" from adobe. Homework helps.
To me, perhaps the most fascinating page of Trench Talk concerns the trench practice, mid-war, of "Morning Hate." To maintain a "martial spirit" in Tommies awakened in darkness to be prepared at dawn is the order to fire "five rounds rapid" at the German lines. My memory leaped forward. Did George Orwell learn of the routine, and the term, from veterans in his Spanish Civil War rifleman days? In his unforgettable 1984 the downtrodden are ordered to perform "Two Minutes' Hate." They are psychologically coerced to watch a brief surreal film evoking an "ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill.…" The Orwellian equivalent is to redirect hatred of one's own controlled existence.
Winkowski mentions the massive Verdun mutiny in 1916 without using the word or indicating its extent. ("Some units refused to return to the front.…") He asserts that the Armistice in November 1918 ended the fighting "abruptly and unexpectedly" when it had been anticipated for days. But in his striking...