Chief Editor’s notes June 2014

Chief Editor’s notes June 2014

The Oxford English Dictionary’s detailed documentation of the English language also serves as a record of social history. On the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War (1914-18), OED’s editors have revisited and revised the dictionary’s coverage of some of the language and history associated with the war to end all wars.

As might be expected of such a prolonged global conflict, the scale and breadth of words associated with the First World War is vast. We have selected words that characterize the conflict: its international scope, its impact on military and civilian life, and its enduring historical legacy. More than 250 entries have been updated and are available free. A full list can be found here.

We have also chosen to highlight 100 Words that Define the First World War. You can view these on an illustrated timeline of the period.

Below is commentary on the language of the War from the OED’s Chief Editor, Michael Proffitt, and here from Senior Editor, Kate Wild, and Associate Editor, Andrew Ball.

The First World War

If wars are indelible marks on history, it might be expected that their names would be as permanent: descriptions determined by location (Crimean War), participant nations (Franco-Prussian War), main protagonists (Napoleonic War), or – after the fact – duration (Hundred Years War). However, as with other categories of language, the names of wars can change to match new historical perspectives. That the outcome of a war – or the advent of subsequent wars – can alter the terminology is one manifestation of Churchill’s maxim that history is written by the victors.  American Civil War was first used to describe the 1775–83 conflict between the American colonies and the British government: we now call that the War of Independence. American Civil War was repurposed in the 19th century to describe the war between the Union and Confederate States. The second meaning has effaced the first (though OED diligently records the full history).

After July 1914, when war was declared between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the conflict in Europe became the focus of international news coverage. Various names were used which identified an aggressor (Kaiser’s War), its putative rationale (war to end all wars), or its grand scale (Great War). The last of these proved the most widespread and enduring:

1914 Maclean’s Mag. Oct. 53/1 Some wars name themselves… This is the Great War.

However, there had been great wars before, and even one Great War: the successive French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. This, though, was different: a pan-European dispute played out on a global theatre of war. The intercontinental scope demanded a descriptor to match.

Even before the armistice brought hostilities to an exhausted close, discussion had turned to naming the war for posterity. The US government commissioned military historian Major Johnstone to write an official history of the conflict. Johnstone asked to meet with the famous British war correspondent, Charles à Court Repington, who recorded their discussion in his diary:

I said that we called it now The War, but that this could not last. The Napoleonic War was The Great War. To call it The German War was too much flattery for the Boche. I suggested The World War as a shade better title, and finally we mutually agreed to call it The First World War in order to prevent the millennium folk from forgetting that the history of the world was the history of war. (1918 C. à C. Repington Diary 10 Sept. in First World War (1920) II. xxxvii. 391)

This is the earliest known occurrence of First World War. When we hear or use the phrase now, we think of the First World War, in contradistinction to the Second, and intuitively we expect the phrase was coined in or after 1939. In fact, first was used in anticipation, not retrospect: Repington was very consciously distinguishing the 1914-18 war from former wars, and aligning it with possible future ones. The phrase acknowledged not only the unprecedented scale of the conflict (the First World War), but also predicted its enduring historical significance. It suggested that – far from being the war to end all wars – this might be the first of a new kind of global conflict. The name was conceived as a warning from history.

The First Modern War: Technology

Charles Repington’s perspective was based on experience rather than surmise. Eton and Sandhurst-educated, he had served as an officer in the Second Boer War, and later as a military attaché. As a journalist, his knowledge of war, affinity with military life, and connections to the top brass secured him unique access to the front line. That made him a rather modern type of war correspondent in what is often described as the first modern war.

Not all the military equipment was new, but many of the features of mechanized warfare had their first significant deployment in the First World War – aerial warfare, U-boats, tanks, automated heavy artillery, mine warfare, chemical weapons. It is a truism that wars tend to effect (and consolidate) technological change. Governments in search of new means to gain military advantage invest more readily in speculative research, revive previously neglected ideas, or expediently find new applications for existing devices.

Designs for the flamethrower (in German flammenwerfer) had been submitted to the German army in 1901, but prototypes were not developed until 1911, and the devices weren’t used in battle until 1915. Medical gas masks had been developed in the 1890s as a means to deliver anaesthetic, but deployment of chemical weapons led to a new use: not a means to ingest gas, but protection from it. Telescopic-sighted rifles had been in use from the 1880s (in the Boer wars), but in trench battles became the means of targeting sniper fire. Trench warfare also afforded some much older weapons a new lease of death. Hand grenades – in military use for centuries – were developed into the much more devastating fragmentation bombs, dispersing fragments with lethal force over a wide surrounding area.

The First Modern War: The Home Front

Arguably, aerial warfare would not become a decisive military force until the Second World War. Nonetheless in the First World War, aviation exerted a powerful influence, not least on the public imagination. In his 1908 novel The War in the Air, H.G. Wells had envisaged airships attacking New York, but it wasn’t until the Kaiser authorized German attacks of mainland Britain in 1915 that a threat to domestic targets and civilian life became clear. Zeppelins, flown commercially since 1910, quickly became a way to extend reconnaissance and bombing range. Locations remote from the field of battle could come unexpectedly under attack.

This was another sense in which the 1914-18 conflict was the first modern war: the home front. For the first time, non-combatants were viewed as legitimate strategic military targets. The continental war was brought home to mainland Britain by a mixture of aerial threats and naval blockades, a rapidly changing workforce and labour market, and a powerfully directed campaign of public information. Civilians were urged to contribute to the war effort in whatever form was needed. After the United States joined the war, President Woodrow Wilson led a mass mobilization campaign during which he is reported to have stated: “gardening is just as real and patriotic an effort as the building of ships or the firing of cannon.”

It was the first mass-media war. Following the example of the German government, Britain established an official Propaganda Bureau. Although its existence remained secret until long after the war, its public manifestations were many. In propaganda films and posters, the enemy was no longer confined to a corner of a foreign field, but potentially overhead, offshore, and – in one memorable British recruiting poster – at the undefended door. Pressure to enlist was immense.


When voluntary enrolment programmes like the Derby scheme failed to generate sufficient numbers of military recruits, conscription was introduced. For the first time women became a significant part of the working population, sustaining industry, agriculture, and commerce, as well as serving in new armed forces such as the WAAC. Naval blockades resulted in food shortages and limited rationing was introduced. All this made women the main target for some emphatic (sometimes rather specific) domestic propaganda.


The War Memorialized

London’s Imperial War Museum maintains a record of public memorials of all kinds for all wars throughout history. That more than twice as many are dedicated to the First World War than to the Second is scarcely surprising: it reflects the extraordinary scale of human losses sustained between 1914 and 1918. However, it also matches the sense that from the outset this was a war to be recorded, commemorated, and memorialized.

The will to record this conflict did not arise as an afterthought. It began as part of the military strategy. This was the first war in which pro-forma war diaries were issued to servicemen; the first in which war artists were officially commissioned; the first in which war graves were formally marked (by newly created organizations in France, Germany, America, and throughout the British Commonwealth). And after the armistice, as society could weigh the costs of war in peace, there appeared other public manifestations of this commemorative spirit. Some were government initiatives: the Menin Gate at Ypres, the London Cenotaph, the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, and the tombs of the Unknown Soldier. But many were not.

The Hall of Memory in Birmingham city centre was constructed between 1922 and 1925, as a permanent memorial to honour the 12,320 local men and women who died in the war. The £60,000 costs (equivalent to around £3.2M/$5.4M today) were – remarkably – met entirely from public contributions. In the centre of the hall stands a marble shrine, on top of which rest two books. These are the rolls of honour, painstakingly handwritten in calligraphic script, containing the names of every Birmingham citizen who died in the First World War and the Second World War. The inscription on the first page reads: The glory shall not be blotted out Their name liveth for evermore – a reminder that words and names are themselves a form of memorial. Lest we forget.

Michael Proffitt
Chief Editor, OED

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