This chapter examines the First World War letters and diaries of Australian soldiers for insights into the relationships between language and violence, focusing on accounts of violent actions and the deaths these caused. Analysis from a corpus of writings from 22 soldiers demonstrates that around two-thirds of accounts utilise linguistic resources to minimise or downplay the realities of violence. Two main approaches are generally used: figurative language (euphemism and metaphor) and language that downplays human involvement (passive voice, simplified register, nominalisation/light verb constructions, and the use of inanimate nouns in place of people involved). Our exemplification and analysis of these strategies provide insight into both soldiers’ experiences of violence and death and how they made sense of these experiences. The chapter thus adds to the understanding of First World War vernacular writing, contributes to existing scholarship by using a linguistic method of analysis, and more broadly considers the way violence is discussed.
We thank the Australian National Dictionary Centre and Australian National University for their support of attendance at the ‘Language in Times of War and Conflict’ symposium (JRW). We would also like to thank Tonya Stebbins for her comments on a draft of this chapter, and Amanda Laugesen and Catherine Fisher for the invitation to contribute to this volume, their efforts in compiling it, and specific comments to improve the chapter. We acknowledge Jean Mulder’s contribution to creating the corpus and to earlier stages of this project, and acknowledge her continued support. Finally, we thank those who donated materials to the Australian War Memorial and who assisted in their being archived online, allowing us to learn about and study soldiers’ experiences. We hope we have managed to do this with the respect and care we intended.
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Martyn Lyons (2003), ‘French Soldiers and Their Correspondence: Towards a History of Writing Practices in the First World War’, French History, 17:1, pp. 79–95.
Alexander Watson (2014), ‘Morale’, in Jay Winter (ed), The Cambridge History of the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 174–95, here p. 191.
Anne Powell (1994), ‘Another Welcome Letter: Soldiers’ Letters from the Great War’, Contemporary Review 265, 1546, pp. 254–61; Marguerite Helmers (2016), ‘Out of the Trenches: The Rhetoric of Letters from the Western Front’, in Christophe Declercq and Julian Walker (eds), Languages and the First World War: Representation and Memory (London: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 54–72, here p. 56; Lyons, ‘French Soldiers and Their Correspondence’, pp. 81–82.
Soldiers’ correspondence was monitored, sometimes by their immediate officers, to ensure that sensitive military information was not shared and that they remained suitably committed to the war effort. Martha Hanna, (2014), ‘War Letters: Communication between Front and Home Front’, in Ute Daniel et al. (eds), 1914–1918-Online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War (Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin), doi: https://doi.org/10.15463/ie1418.10362
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Hanna, ‘War Letters: Communication between Front and Home Front’, p. 341; Kate Hunter (2013), ‘More Than an Archive of War: Intimacy and Manliness in the Letters of a Great War Soldier to the Woman He Loved, 1915–1919’, Gender and History 25:2, pp. 339–54.
Jay Winter (2010), ‘Thinking About Silence’, in Efrat Ben-Ze’ev, Ruth Ginio, and Jay Winter (eds), Shadows of War: A Social History of Silence in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 3–31, here p. 4.
Jay Winter (2015), ‘Shell Shock, Gallipoli and the Generation of Silence’, in Alexandre Dessingué and Jay Winter (eds), Beyond Memory: Silence and the Aesthetics of Remembrance (New York; London: Routledge), pp. 195–208.
Elaine Scarry (1985), ‘Injury and the Structure of War’, Representations 10, pp. 1–51.
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Paul Fussell (1975), The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press).
Ibid., p. 169.
See Das and McLoughlin, ‘Introduction’ and also contributions to that volume, particularly in the ‘Unfathomable’ section; see also Joanna Bourke (2016), ‘War and Violence’, Thesis Eleven, 86:1, pp. 23–38, whose discussion includes consideration of experiences that were difficult to share with civilians, such as enjoyment in killing.
Ross J. Wilson (2015), ‘Still Fighting in the Trenches: “War Discourse” and the Memory of the First World War in Britain’, Memory Studies, 8:4, pp. 454–69.
Richard White (1987), ‘The Soldier as Tourist: The Australian Experience of the Great War’, War & Society, 5:1, pp. 63–77.
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See Joanna Bourke (2001), ‘The Emotions in War: Fear and the British and American Military, 1914–45’, Historical Research, 74:185, pp. 314–30; see Michael Roper (2009), The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press) for discussion of related issues beyond the scope of this current analysis.
Broadly and in the context of the First World War, see for example Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, pp. 177–78.
Geoffrey K. Pullum (2010), ‘The Land of the Free and the Elements of Style’, English Today, 26:2, pp. 34–44.
See John Rice-Whetton (2015), ‘Lucky Enough to Get the Embrace: Do Passive Constructions with Get Represent Irish Influence on Australian English?’ (Honours thesis, University of Melbourne).
Jean Mulder, John Rice-Whetton, and Cara Penry Williams (2016), ‘“Lucky Enough to Get the Embrace”: “Get”-Constructions as an Irish Inheritance in Australian English’, (Conference presentation, the Australian Linguistic Society Conference, Melbourne, Victoria, December 7, 2016).
Stefan Dollinger (2010), ‘Written Sources for Canadian English: Phonetic Reconstruction and the Low-Back Vowel Merger’, in Raymond Hickey (ed), Varieties of English in Writing: The Written Word as Linguistic Evidence (Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins), pp. 197–222, here p. 198.
Transcriptions represent the texts we accessed without alteration other than bolding to highlight features under discussion.
This refers to the experiences of the 18th Battalion on 22/8/1915 at Hill 60. Devlin reports 600 men dying in a few hours, including all of his ‘mates’.
The cataloguing of letters received, seen here, is common in the corpus. In fact, a lot of letters spend considerable time discussing letters sent and received, highlighting again their importance to soldiers.
Keith Allan and Kate Burridge (2006), Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 229.
Ibid., pp. 230–31.
Paul Chilton (1987), ‘Metaphor, Euphemism and the Militarization of Language’, Current Research on Peace and Violence, 10:1, pp. 7–19, here p. 12.
See Scarry, ‘Injury and the Structure of War’, p. 8.
Amanda Laugesen (2005), Diggerspeak: The Language of Australians at War (Melbourne: Oxford University Press), p. 90.
Watson, ‘Morale’, p. 190.
Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory.
Winter, ‘Thinking About Silence’.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), Metaphors We Live by (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
On understandings of war, see also Scarry, ‘Injury and the Structure of War’.
Bourke, ‘The Emotions in War: Fear and the British and American Military, 1914–45’, p. 315.
Chilton, ‘Metaphor, Euphemism and the Militarization of Language’, p. 15.
Jack Johnstone, or more usually Johnson, refers to a particular type of German shell that produced thick black smoke, with the reference to the contemporaneous African-American heavyweight champion boxer nicknamed the big smoke, according to Laugesen, Diggerspeak: The Language of Australians at War, p. 117.
Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002), The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1427–47.
Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, pp. 177–78.
Scarry, ‘Injury and the Structure of War’; Watson, ‘Morale’.
For example David Crystal (1987), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 341.
Heinrich Straumann (1935), Newspaper Headings: A Study in Linguistic Method (London: Allen & Unwin).
Charles A. Ferguson (1983), ‘Sports Announcer Talk: Syntactic Aspects of Register Variation’, Language in Society, 12:2, pp. 153–72.
Ingrid Mårdh (1980), Headlinese: On the Grammar of English Front Page Headlines (Malmö: CWK Gleerup).
Richard D. Janda (1985), ‘Note-Taking English as a Simplified Register’, Discourse Processes, 8:4, pp. 437–54.
Ferguson, ‘Sports Announcer Talk: Syntactic Aspects of Register Variation’, p. 168.
See, inter alia, Liliane Haegeman (1997), ‘Register Variation, Truncation, and Subject Omission in English and in French’, English Language and Linguistics, 1:2, pp. 233–70; (2007), ‘Subject Omission in Present-Day Written English’, Rivista di Grammatica Generativa, 32:2007, pp. 91–124; (2013), ‘The Syntax of Registers: Diary Subject Omission and the Privilege of the Root’, Lingua, 130, pp. 88–110.
Huddleston and Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 290–96.
Ibid., p. 1700–06.
Scarry, ‘Injury and the Structure of War’, p. 4.
Thomson, ‘Anzac Stories: Using Personal Testimony in War History’, p. 19.
Winter, ‘Thinking about Silence’.
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Penry Williams, C., Rice-Whetton, J. (2020). Losing People: A Linguistic Analysis of Minimisation in First World War Soldiers’ Accounts of Violence. In: Laugesen, A., Fisher, C. (eds) Expressions of War in Australia and the Pacific. Palgrave Studies in Languages at War. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-23890-2_2
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