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“Banging the door on the war”: Re-visiting Robert Graves But It Still Goes On and the post-war plays of the 1920s

But It Still Goes On, 2018. With thanks to Arsalan Sattari
But It Still Goes On, 2018. With thanks to Arsalan Sattari

As Robert Graves’ forgotten 1929 play But It Still Goes ON receives its world-premiere in London,  Andrew Maunder wonders if it is time to revisit the post-war plays of the 1920s.  This latest Blog post explores this fascinating world.

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‘The scene of desolation was of a most harrowing nature’: Visiting and revisiting the Western Front, 1919-39

In this post, Professor Mark Connelly examines how Western Front battlefields became places to visit – both for tourists and pilgrims – after the Great War.

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Why did Germany launch its Spring Offensive in 1918?

In this latest Blog Post, Dr. Spencer Jones, Senior Lecturer in Armed Forces & War Studies, at the University of Wolverhampton and Co-Investigator for the Arts & Humanities Research Council funded Voices of War & Peace Engagement Centre, talks about Germany’s Spring Offensive, and why they undertook it in 1918.

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‘Send a good letter to cheer me’ – soldiers’ correspondence in the Great War

Two brothers from the village of Sweffling in Suffolk – George and Albert Stopher – were killed on the Western Front within a few weeks of each other, in the spring of 1917. But the men’s voices can still be heard, through an extensive collection of letters that they left behind. Some of those letters were found, together with locks of hair and dried flowers, amongst their possessions after their deaths.

George Stopher (1896-1917)
George Stopher (1896-1917)

Rachel Duffett teaches History at the University of Essex. Through the Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre, based at the University of Hertfordshire, she is working with the Suffolk Record Office in Ipswich to bring the Stopher letters to a much wider audience. ‘In some ways,’ she says, ‘the experience of George and Albert Stopher was typical of many young men in the First World War. They appear to have enlisted early (it’s impossible to know for sure, as their war records were destroyed during the Second World War). They suffered the privations of the Western Front, and George was hospitalised for a while with shell shock.’

But the Stopher correspondence is also very unusual, says Rachel Duffett. ‘First, there is its sheer size, with the many bundles of letters that the brothers left behind. Its volume contrasts sadly with the few lines in the official history of the Suffolk regiment, describing the engagements in which George and Albert died.’

Then there is the variety of the correspondence: ‘through it, we can chart the relationships between the brothers, their parents and their sweethearts.’

Unusually also, the letters tell the story of the rural citizen soldier, unlike most collections of soldier’s letters, which tend to be from men from towns and cities. Prior to February 1916, only about eight percent of the army’s recruits were from agricultural occupations.

Albert Stopher (1897-1917)
Albert Stopher (1897-1917)

The Stopher letters are also different in the way in which George and Albert express themselves. While the letters suffer from an almost complete absence of punctuation, and idiosyncratic spelling, they also have a directness and vivacity which are often absent from soldiers’ correspondence. Writing to his mother while he was in a French hospital recovering from shell-shock, for example, George Stopher says that sending him back to the front in his current condition would be like ‘sending a rat to kill a dog.’ As Rachel Duffett says, ‘people in small rural communities were not exposed to the mass media in the same way as city-dwellers, and so were perhaps less likely to express themselves in cliché.’

Food is a recurring theme in the letters, often as a proxy for love and care, with the brothers frequently asking their mother for home-cooked cakes and puddings. George and Albert also aren’t shy in getting their parents to importune things on their behalf: ‘do not be afraid to ask anybody for a little gift’.

But when it comes to the darker aspects of the war, there is very little that makes it into the letters. Certainly there was censorship in the trenches, with officers reading what the enlisted men had written before it could be sent, but we see very little black ink in the Stopher correspondence. What censorship there was seems to have been self-censorship, for a variety of reasons: as George says in his letters, of the treatment for shell shock he was receiving, ‘some things are not to be spoken of.’ And yet, as Rachel Duffett says, ‘writing of his shell shock to his mother, you can sense something of his desire nevertheless, to let her know what he’s experiencing. I’m surprised it got past the censor.’

George ends his unsettling letter, detailing his fragile state of mind, with a request to his mother to ‘send a good letter to cheer me’. He was probably thinking of something more uplifting than the letter that Albert received from his sweetheart Bessie, in which she told him that she’d dreamt that he had died.

letter1The surviving relatives of the Stopher brothers have been active supporters of the project, and have donated framed photos of George and Albert, as well as their medals. Displays of the letters and other material are being developed, and the letters have been used in local schools, as a way of introducing the subject of the First World War. The project also included public readings from the letters on 4 August 2014, the hundredth anniversary of Britain entering the war: according to Rachel Duffett, ‘it’s surprising how different the letters seem when you read them out loud – how vividly the men’s voices come across.’ And giving a talk at Sweffling, she was ‘struck by the resemblance of the many great-nephews and great-nieces who were there to the Stopher brothers, as I’d seen them in photographs.’

But then, it is this quality of immediacy and familiarity in the Stopher correspondence which makes it so unusual. ‘I’ve read so many collections of soldiers’ letters,’ says Rachel Duffett, ‘but these really are special. You come to feel that you know the Stopher brothers personally.’

Listening in

letter2Bridget Hanley is Collections Manager at Suffolk Record Office in Ipswich, where the Stopher correspondence is held. For her, the involvement of Rachel Duffett, through the Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre, has made the difference in bringing the letters to life: ‘we’re providing a resource for others to use in imaginative ways. Rachel has been able to take one of our collections and really run with it.’

When the letters have been used in schools, ‘we’ve had fifteen-year-olds, which is a notoriously difficult age groups with which to engage, almost in tears. They’re not a lot younger than the Stophers were when they went to the front: this collection of letters personalises the war for them. And it enables us to see both sides – we have some of the family’s letters to the Stopher brothers, but also their letters back. We can see how everyone – both on the front line and at home – was affected by the conflict.’

‘This is a story of ordinary, everyday people, with the same emotions that we all have, being caught up in the First World War. It’s a story that was played out across the country: it always touches people. You feel almost like you’re eavesdropping.’


Hush here comes a Wiz-bang: The etymology of slang names for weapons

In this guest blog, Dan Ellin explores the many different names, puns and visual metaphors soldiers on the Western Front used to describe weapons.

The distinct language of the Western Front united men from different classes and different geographical areas. French expressions and place names were anglicised, and a medical orderly noticed that, after contact with Cockneys, Scottish soldiers began dropping their ‘h’s in the phrase ‘Not ‘arf.’ Soldiers used euphemisms for death and injuries, and troops on the Western Font also created a wide variety of names for the different shells and mortar bombs they encountered. The neologisms soldiers invented for different weapons were combinations of visual metaphors, onomatopoeia, puns on military jargon or acronyms, or cultural references. For example, named after the fireworks manufacturer, a night time bombardment was a ‘Brock’s Benefit’, while a Lewis machine gun could either be called a ‘Belgian Rattle Snake’ after the sound it made, or a ‘Huntley and Palmer’ because of the appearance of its ammunition tins.

Several names were based on military terms and jargon. The terms ‘Ack Ack’ (anti aircraft fire), and ‘Toc Emma’ (trench mortar), were taken directly from the British military phonetic alphabet. A ‘Four-two’ was a 4.2 inch German shell, while a ‘Quarter to Ten’ was a British 9.45 trench mortar. In the same way as tanks were named after their cover story as ‘water carriers for Mesopotamia’, two of the names for gas cylinders stemmed from their code names ‘Accessory’ and ‘Roger.’ British troops were familiar with the German ‘Minenwerfer’, a German trench mortar (literally a mine thrower), and German anti-aircraft fire was known as ‘Flak’ from the German Flieger Abwehr Kanone, which translates as aviator defence cannon.

It is accepted that ‘Archie’, another term for anti-aircraft fire, came from George Robey’s  hen pecked music-hall character, who was repeatedly told ‘Archibald, certainly not’ in the song’s choruses. However, the name ‘Archie’ was first given to pockets of air noticed by early aviators at Brooklands. Archie Knight was a famous pre-war flying instructor at the Vickers’ school at Brooklands, and it is unclear whether the pockets of air which caused aircraft to lurch were named after him, or the popular song. However, buffeted by bursts of ‘Flak’ over the Western Front, airmen began to refer to the shells as something more familiar and less dangerous.

First World War period German 15cm shrapnel shell.

On the ground, exploding German shells were named after their appearance. ‘Black Marias’ and ‘Coal boxes’ gave off black smoke, as did a ‘Jack Johnson’ which was named after the black heavy weight boxing champion, while a ‘Woolly Bear’ was a German shrapnel shell which left a cloud like form. Actually made from used jam tins, home-made grenades (and the early no.8 and no.9 grenades) were ‘Jam-tins’. Later models were ‘Cricket balls’ and ‘Eggs’, while the German stick grenades were ‘Potato mashers’ and ‘Pineapples’ because of their appearance. German gas shells were simply named after their coloured markings; a ‘Green Cross’ contained phosgene gas, and ‘White Stars’, chlorine and phosgene. Trench mortar shells included ‘Footballs’, ‘Oil Cans’ and ‘Plum Puddings’, while a ‘Toffee Apple’ was a trench mortar bomb with an attached shaft; a ‘Rum Jar’ was a bomb of a similar shape to the jars the rum ration was delivered in, and as it was catapulted with a high trajectory rather than fired, it could be seen coming.

However, vision in the trenches was largely restricted to a short stretch of trench and the sky above. For soldiers, hearing was important in making sense of their world and warning them of danger; sound also played a role in the naming of many of the weapons they faced. Before it became a term for cheap wine, ‘Plonk’ was the onomatopoeic sound of impact from a bullet or shell, and a ‘Crump’ was the distinctive sound of a German 5.9 shell. A ‘Wipers Express’ was a shell that sounded like a train as it passed overhead and a ‘Silent Percy’ or ‘Silent Susan’ was long range, high velocity shell. Perhaps the most well known shells were the alliterative and onomatopoeic ‘Moaning Minnie’ and the ‘Whiz-Bang’.  The ‘Moaning Minnie’ was a shell fired from a Minenwerfer, and a ‘Whiz-Bang’ was a high velocity 77mm shell; its distinctive noise in flight was followed immediately by the explosion and the sound of shrapnel cutting through the air. Their innocuous names reduced the deadly weapons to the status of an annoying girl, and a humorous euphemism.

The Battle of Arras, April-May 1917
The Battle of Arras, April-May 1917

Imaginatively named after their appearance, the sound they made, or reference to more familiar objects, the soldiers’ disparaging euphemisms made deadly weapons seem inoffensive and less frightening. Identifying a shell and being able to speak its name usually meant the soldier had survived, at least until the next incoming ‘Whiz-Bang’ or ‘Rum Jar’. The irreverent names given to weapons and incoming ordnance were part of the shared language and experience of the British Army, and played a role in the comradeship which enabled troops to endure the hardships of the trenches. Dark humour also played a role in creating new signifiers, and, in a rare direct reference to weaponry, there is an appreciable irony in the fact that most soldiers welcomed ‘Gunfire’, as tea laced with rum was known.