Lexicographers at war

Lexicographers at war

A few weeks ago a photograph came to light showing an Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer on active service during the First World War: the only such photo known to us. In honour of this discovery, and to mark the centenary of the Armistice, we’re featuring this photograph along with a tribute to the war records of various members of the OED’s staff.

OED lexicographer First World WarClockwise from left: C. J. Stevens, J. B. Teasdale, W. Cook, Sergeant Major W. H. Vicary, G. E. Lee, G. G. R. Green, and G. C. G.

The subject of our new photograph, Godfrey George Roundell Greene (1888–1956), came to the OED in 1913, a few months after graduating from Magdalen College, Oxford. He had been recommended to James Murray by Herbert Warren, the President of Magdalen, as a replacement for another Magdalen man, T. Z. D. Babington, who had left the Dictionary after less than a year to take up a teaching post in Rangoon. Babington’s story also includes a period of military service, but it is sadly a rather shorter story than Greene’s: having resigned his post in 1915 to join the Indian Army, and fought in Mesopotamia, he died of pneumonia – thought to be a consequence of his time in action – in October 1918, less than a month before the war ended. He was not yet 29 years old.

Godfrey Greene’s stint as a lexicographer was also short. Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, he left in order to enlist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He later transferred to the Royal Field Artillery, and saw service in Syria and Egypt; Easter 1917 found him in Luxor, where this splendid photograph was taken. After the War he obtained an academic position at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, where he remained until 1927. After a short period teaching English at the University of Krakow, he returned to Scandinavia, this time to the University of Helsinki, where he worked in the English faculty; during the Second World War he returned to England, and taught for some years at Worksop College. He died in 1956.

Both of these men will have known two more senior OED lexicographers with notable war records. John Wixon Birt had joined the staff in 1905; the son of an Oxford grocer, he was initially taken on as a clerical assistant at the age of only 15. He joined up in 1914, at much the same time as Godfrey Greene; however, his was a local regiment, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He rose to the rank of sergeant and, according to the official history of his battalion, was ‘a pillar of reliability; few officers or men of the Battalion but owed something to him.’ In 1918, however, he was badly gassed, which left him with a permanent susceptibility to chest problems. After the war he returned to OED work, rejoining the staff of Charles Onions, who evidently regarded him as something of a protégé, and in fact retained him as an assistant on various later lexicographical projects, including the 1933 Supplement to the OED, the Shorter OED, and the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology; he may also have done some work on the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. By the 1950s he had retired, but there is some indication that he continued to do dictionary work from time to time thereafter. He died in 1982.

George Marr Watson’s lexicographical – and military – career followed a rather different path. Although he joined the staff of the OED a year or so after John Birt, he was the older man by over a decade. Born in 1876 in Jedburgh, in the Lowlands of Scotland, he became an active member of various local history societies, including the Hawick Archaeological Society, where he may well have known James Murray (who had been a founder member) and heard from him about the Dictionary. He became curator of Jedburgh Museum, and in 1906 was recommended to William Craigie as a potentially useful member of his staff. His Dictionary work continued after the outbreak of war; by 1916 he was Craigie’s senior assistant. A few months later, however, after conscription was extended to married men – he had married an Oxford girl, Alice Plummer – he enlisted in the Devonshire Regiment, and was soon on active service in France. It was while in France that he demonstrated his continuing commitment to the OED in the most remarkable way: he corrected proofs of Dictionary entries while at the front, and on one occasion did so in a captured German dugout, with a pencil in one hand and a candle in the other which frequently had to be blown out for fear of attracting enemy aeroplanes.

He returned to Dictionary work after the war, and remained a devoted and valued member of Craigie’s team: so much so that when Craigie moved to Chicago to head a new lexicographical project at the university there – a historical dictionary of American English – he arranged for Watson to follow him, securing an assistant professorship for him, which Watson took up in 1927. It was also at Craigie’s recommendation that Watson received an honorary degree from Oxford for his contributions to lexicography. He returned to England in 1937, though he remained on the staff of the University of Chicago until 1946, as the teacher of a correspondence course in proofreading. He died in 1950. (See here for a fuller account of his work as a lexicographer.)

Two other OED lexicographers are known to have left the staff to join up. Both were even younger than Thomas Babington (the youngest of those mentioned so far): Percy Dadley, who worked for Craigie and then for Onions, and Edgar Martin, who joined Craigie’s staff in 1911. Both came from Oxford families; both would have been eligible to join up in 1914, but only Martin did so, joining the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars. By the end of the war, however, he was no longer a soldier, but had transferred to the Admiralty. Joining up and fighting was of course not the only way of serving one’s country: several other members of the OED’s staff – including one of the Dictionary’s Editors, Charles Onions – went to London to work for the Admiralty. In some cases – it’s not clear how many – this ‘Admiralty work’ involved secret work for naval intelligence, almost certainly including code-breaking. But that’s another story (which you can read about here). Percy Dadley seems to have joined up rather later in the War than Martin, but apparently did see some active service. He subsequently became a civil servant, doing work for the Ministry of Health which ultimately earned him an MBE in 1947. A more uncertain figure is a young man called Harry Simpson, who was taken on as an assistant by Onions in 1915 – when he seems to have been only 15 years old – and is later (1918) mentioned in an internal survey of OED staff as ‘left, believed serving’. Did he sign up? From the one known photograph of him he certainly looks as though he was of an age to have thought about it. And did he survive the war? Or was Thomas Babington the only member of the OED’s staff to have given his life for his country? The question remains open.

Finally, mention should be made of two other OED veterans with interesting war records whose stories have been extensively told elsewhere. J. R. R. Tolkien appears to be unique in having started his lexicographical career after his stint of military service. His war experiences, and the impact they had on him, are brilliantly explored in John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War; and a full account of his lexicography is given in another book, The Ring of Words, which I wrote with two of my fellow OED lexicographers. A shorter account of the latter (written some years ago) appears elsewhere on the OED blog. And then, likewise in a class of his own, is Hereward Thimbleby Price, who thanks to an accident of history ended up fighting for Germany: the only OED lexicographer to do so. But the service given by all of these men – none of them exactly fitted for the military life by their scholarly backgrounds – deserves to be acknowledged, and it is fitting to do so here.

Photograph credit: DCLA/RDFA/18 The Gunning Brothers Collection
Courtesy Dublin City Library and Archive/Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association Archive

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