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World War I in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

Coverage of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has made us freshly familiar with many memorable sayings, from Edward Grey’s ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe’, to Wilfred Owen’s ‘My subject is War, and the pity of war/ The Poetry is in the pity’, and Lena Guilbert Horne’s exhortation to ‘Keep the Home-fires burning’.

But as I prepared the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, I was aware that numerous other ‘quotable quotes’ also shed light on aspects of the conflict. Here are just five.

One vivid evocations of the conflict striking passage comes not from a War Poet but from an American novelist writing in the 1930s. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934), Dick Diver describes the process of trench warfare:

See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.

This was, of course, on the Western Front, but there were other theatres of war. One such was the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915–16, where many ‘Anzacs’ lost their lives. In 1934, a group of Australians visited Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, and heard an address by Kemal Atatürk—Commander of the Turkish forces during the war, and by then President of Turkey. Speaking of the dead on both sides, he said:

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.

Atatürk’s words were subsequently inscribed on the memorial at Gallipoli, and on memorials in Canberra and Wellington.

World War I is often is often seen as a watershed, after which nothing could be the same again. (The young Robert Graves’s autobiography published in 1929 was entitled Goodbye to All That.) Two quotations from ODQ look ahead from the end of the war to what might be the consequences. For Jan Christiaan Smuts, President of South Africa, the moment was one of promise. He saw the setting up of the League of Nations in the aftermath of the war as a hope for better things:

Mankind is once more on the move. The very foundations have been shaken and loosened, and things are again fluid. The tents have been struck, and the great caravan of humanity is once more on the march.

However a much less optimistic, and regrettably more prescient comment, had been recorded in 1919 by Marshal Foch on the Treaty of Versailles,

This is not a peace treaty, it is an armistice for twenty years.

Not all ‘war poems’ are immediately recognizable as such. In 1916, the poet and army officer Frederick William Harvey was made a prisoner of war (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us that he went on to experience seven different prison camps). Returning from a period of solitary confinement, he apparently noticed the drawing of a duck on water made by a fellow-prisoner. This inspired what has become a very well-loved poem.

From troubles of the world
I turn to ducks
Beautiful comical things.

How many people, encountering the poem today, consider that the ‘troubles’ might include a world war?

Headline image credit: A message-carrying pigeon being released from a port-hole in the side of a British tank, near Albert, France. Photo by David McLellan, August 1918. Imperial War Museums. IWM Non-Commercial License via Wikimedia Commons.

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