Tommifying’ the western front, 1914-1918



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TOMMIFYING’ THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918

The First World War on the Western Front (1914-1918) is still accorded a high degree of solemnity and reverence in Britain. To mention the names of the battlefields of the Somme, Passchendaele or Ieper (Ypres) is to evoke an image of blasted landscapes devoid of humanity and civilisation, industrialised warfare and mass death on an almost unimaginable scale. Similarly, the soldiers of the British Army are routinely cast as ‘victims’ of this maelstrom; as unwilling or unwitting participants of a tragic and unavoidable conflict. Whilst this ‘popular memory’ of the Western Front serves to remember the suffering of those who fought it nevertheless clouds the lives of the thousands of individuals who served on the battlefields. The passive status as a ‘victim’ of the war obscures the actions of those who inhabited the war-torn landscape both at the front and behind the lines. This is particularly limiting as it is through the actions and habits of British soldiers that a distinct ‘sense of place’ on the Western Front was created: an area which was imbued with meaning and associations.1 This is most evident in the process of naming, narrating and renaming the landscape of the Western Front. In a process dictated by official army policy or undertaken by the soldiers themselves, the British trench system was provided with a series of titles and epithets which formed a means to both understand and manoeuvre through the warzone. Behind the lines, in the towns and villages of northern France and Belgium, a corresponding alteration in geography occurred as British soldiers altered French and Flemish names to ‘Tommify’ or ‘Anglicize’ the foreign country. Whilst this process was not unique to the soldiers of the British Army the values and links conveyed in these names were specific to their experience. By examining how soldiers, through the actions of naming and narrating the Western Front, created a comprehensible world in the uncertainty of the industrial conflict a new dimension to the experience of the war can be obtained. This can act to modify the perception of the soldiers as ‘victims’ of the war fighting in a desolate space and substantiate the role of troops as individuals coming to terms with the violence and insecurity of a hostile landscape. Using the extensive archives of soldiers’ letters, diaries and memoirs at the Liddle Collection (University of Leeds), the Alfred J. Peacock Collection (University of York) and the Imperial War Museum (London) the process of narrating, naming and renaming the Western Front will be examined to analyse the process of ‘localisation’ amongst the British soldiers.



Naming and Narrating the landscape
The use of place names and narratives has an established role in the social sciences as scholars have utilised this evidence to detect cultural ties, habitation and increasingly issues of power and modes of governance.2 However, the actions of groups or societies in stating a title, story or a specific moniker to a site, region or space has been classed as a fundamental process in developing a relationship with that locality, as a mode of ‘emplacement’.3 It is often interpreted within human and social geography as a step towards coming to terms with an immediate environment or within phenomenological interpretations as a sense of ‘being-in-the-world’.4 Whether the act of appellation or narration is afforded towards a locality that has positive or negative connotations it necessarily signifies a degree of interpretation and understanding of that particular, delineated space.5 However, that act of interpretation also takes place in the nexus of social, political and cultural relations within societies.6 In these circumstances, the politics of place are played out in geographical space as the imposition of new names, stories and associations upon established and settled areas alter and reinterpret a landscape.7 Attributing names, narratives and values onto places can also be a means of unbalancing the dominant order, establishing alternative world views and creating a ‘counter-geography’.8 In this respect, epithets and stories attached to a landscape form a reciprocal relationship with their inhabitants; as individuals use these devices to shape the world around them, these same devices also act upon individuals to structure their experience of that landscape.9 Naming and narrating a landscape signifies an attempt to shape and comprehend the world thereby revealing the cultural and social frameworks used to understand a ‘place’ and an agent’s relation to their environment.10 These actions are the basis of ‘localising’ space into place.11 Associating names and stories with a locality evidences a process of adaptation to create an awareness of an area.12 As agents build an understanding of a ‘place’, names and narratives are used to anchor and substantiate their experience of the immediate environment and are reference points in their comprehension of the locality.

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918
This process of adjustment and reorientation was a key feature of the naming and renaming of the areas, towns and villages by British troops on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Indeed, the scale of the British Army’s operations on the Western Front would perhaps ensure that such an activity would be inevitable. The war was fuelled by an unprecedented mobilisation of British society to meet the demands of an industrialised conflict. As the size of the British Army increased from the initial expeditionary force of 125,000 in August 1914 to approximately 1,764,000 by 1918, large areas of France and Belgium became effectively occupied by British troops and transformed into a highly militarised zone (Figure 1).13 To support such a large number of soldiers, the British Army developed an extensive supply network across the region using a series of main bases at Boulogne, Rouen, Dieppe, Le Havre and Calais and supported by a series of regional depots, supplies were distributed by rail, automobiles and horse-drawn carts.14 Similarly, complicated networks of trenches were constructed at the front line as the Allies and Central armies dug in creating fortifications running from the border of Switzerland to the coast of the North Sea. Whilst the British troops were initially entrenched in these positions around a small area near Ieper, by April 1915 this had expanded to thirty-six miles of the front line. After twelve months this total had increased again, so that by June 1916 the army had spread along the front line, holding eighty-five miles of the battlefield, from Boesinghe, near Ieper, to Mericourt near the River Somme. This would rise again, so that eventually, by early 1918 the British army held the entirety of the front line from Ieper to the Oise, in Picardy. French forces held the majority of the front line from the Swiss border to the Oise; Belgian forces occupied a small sector from Nieuwport to Ieper and American troops were drafted into the French held sectors after 1917.15

The front lines varied in structure and design depending on the geography and climate of the region, but in general they were divided into a series of three lines of trenches; front; support and reserve. These trenches, dug deep enough to provide cover from sniper fire and shrapnel blasts and traversed at regular intervals to prevent enfilade fire, would contain dug-outs, mortar-pits, gun emplacements, ammunition dumps and stores.16 Interlinking these trenches was a series of ‘communication trenches’ which would also be used to bring soldiers up from behind the lines to the front. Troops were rotated through these trenches, with detachments spending time in the front, reserve and support trenches before being relocated away from the front during periods of ‘rest’. Whilst out of the trenches, soldiers would be in direct contact with civilian life through occupying billets in farmhouses, visiting cafés and brothels and marching through the countryside and towns of northern France and Belgium. These troops represented Britain’s ‘Citizen’s Army’ with waves of volunteers arriving at the front from 1915 and conscripts from 1916 supplementing the initial Regular and Territorial soldiers of 1914. For many of Britain’s ‘Citizen’s Army’, this would have been their first experience of life and language abroad. With the operation of a large-scale war effort, the material imposition onto the region, the relationships between the General Staff of the British Army, the citizen soldiers and the local civilian population, a particular means of mapping the area emerged amongst the troops which redefined their experience of the landscape. It is the combination of these factors which produced the distinctive geographical understanding of the British soldier on the Western Front. This was the process of ‘Tommifying’ the Western Front – a term which derives from the sobriquet for all British soldiers since the nineteenth century – ‘Tommy Atkins’ or just ‘Tommy’.17 As troops moved through the war landscape, encountering a ‘foreign’ culture, witnessing the war-ravaged scenes and experiencing the precarious nature of life at the front a distinct sense of place was formed – evidenced in the nicknames and tales that were attributed to the area.

However, such processes were not unique to the British Army. Soldiers from all combatant nations acted to attribute meanings and values to the war landscape and the conditions they encountered. Through soldiers’ letters, diaries and memoirs a number of studies have highlighted this process of acclimatising to the warzone. For instance, these analyses have demonstrated how American troops sought to identify and reconcile perceptions of France and French culture with the shattered buildings and devastated regions they witnessed.18 Similarly, Australian soldiers reflected on the ‘empty’ landscape of the front lines with the perception of imprinting their identity on the Outback of their homeland.19 French and German troops also sought to come to terms with the war landscape and readjust to the environment through references to mythical idylls, religious similes and cultural allusions.20 The associations and values of these frameworks for understanding the war landscape were, therefore, reflective of shared experience and cultural identity amongst the soldiers. Troops from each of the combatant nations developed references, links and ‘mental maps’ in response to their experiences of the conflict. Each of these specific responses served to attribute meaning to the war landscape and formed a means of enduring the effects of the conflict.

To assess the construction of a ‘sense of place’ which was forged by British soldiers as they named, renamed and narrated the areas of the Western Front they experienced, the archives of soldiers’ letters, diaries and memoirs contained at the Liddle Collection (University of Leeds), the Alfred J. Peacock Collection (University of York) and the Imperial War Museum (London) can be examined. These collections contain primary source material of letters and diaries as well as the memoirs and oral testimonies of veterans. To complete this analysis, a sample of over 150 individual accounts was taken from these collections. These accounts were transcribed, searched and cross-referenced for the epithets and narratives attached to particular places and sites by British soldiers on the Western Front during the four years of war. The analysis demonstrated how troops used a variety of names and stories in relation to the war landscape and how these were communicable; describing a locality and its values and associations was carried out in association with fellow soldiers. This social construct of place though language is, therefore, the basis of this assessment.21 However, this perception of the landscape was not fixed and altered during the course of the conflict as the scale of the war intensified and the numbers of troops increased. This process was also subject to control as the General Staff of the British Army also imposed a military geography on the region designed to facilitate the effective pursuit of the war and mobilization of the troops. It is in this manner that the names and narratives used by soldiers to give meaning to their environment can be considered as a practice of adjustment. This process of ‘emplacement’ as fluid and it responded to the events, actions and routines of the soldiers as they moved through the war landscape over the course of the conflict.22



This investigation builds upon the ‘new wave’ of First World War Studies which has created a interdisciplinary agenda that addresses the experiences and perceptions of all of those involved in the conflict as they sought ways to adjust and to endure the war. This mode of analysis has encompassed various studies of religion, art, violence, discipline and masculinity.23 This itself draws upon the seminal works in the field of First World War studies which have sought to explain how the war was incorporated into everyday life at a variety of levels and shaped cultures, ideas, art and literature.24 Central to any discussion of the British troops during the war is Fussell’s thesis that an ‘ironic culture’ developed in response to the conditions of the conflict.25 In this assessment, British soldiers responded to the privations and dangers of the war through the development of a sardonic stoicism which structured the perception and interpretation of the conflict. Criticism of Fussell has focused on the over-emphasis of the officer-class perspective and the tendency to grant observations by the soldier poets such as Owen, Graves and Sassoon the status of common fact.26 These criticisms raise the difficulty of defining cultural responses, as socio-economic background, education and rank would all shape an individual soldier’s response to the conflict. However, the repetition and commonalities of place names and narratives within the archival evidence indicates that the creation of ‘place’ and ‘emplacement’ in the war landscape were social entities; they were shared amongst soldiers as a means of expressing identity and common purpose.27 These aspects of trench life have not received any sustained analysis within the recent development of ‘military geography’ within First World War studies.28 However, the ‘new wave’ of studies encompasses a multidisciplinary agenda and seeks to overturn the notion of soldiers as passive victims who merely endured the conditions of the front. Following this objective, this investigation reveals that those stationed on the battlefields and behind the lines participated in a variety of meaning-making activities that served to attribute the environment around them with associations and values.


Behind the Lines: Acclimatising and Anglicizing
For British soldiers, the locations behind the front lines, the sites and sights of the towns and countryside of northern France and Belgium, offered a perplexing combination of the recognisable and the distinctly ‘foreign’. Within the larger urban areas and the low-lying countryside there would have been many opportunities for soldiers to reflect on the similarities between their current location and their pre-war lives in Britain. Indeed, the urban architecture, small industry and rural settlements could be strongly reminiscent of many areas in Britain. However, the unfamiliar language, the strange pronunciations, the peculiar habits and customs of the local citizens were wholly alien to many within the ranks. What accentuated this disturbing sense of dislocation from the familiar was the visible effect of the war on the landscape, buildings and people. As soldiers moved across the war landscape the sight of refugees, the ruins of houses and businesses as well as the abandoned or depopulated farms and rural villages were scenes that could be particularly distressing. The dislocation of local civilians served to ‘frame’ the war landscape for the soldiers emphasising the cruelty and barbarity in the region. Sergeant A.G. Chambers recorded in a diary entry in August 1914 that he had witnessed a ‘pitiful sight’ of refugees from ‘France and Ypres’.29 Nearly four years after this observation the sight of civilians fleeing the conflict could still remind soldiers of the brutality of the conflict. Lieutenant H.S. Hopthrow wrote in his diary during March 1918, regarding the sight of French refugees, ‘I think that is the cruellest part of the whole show’.30 In this manner, the experience of the war behind the lines could on occasion be as traumatic and as difficult for the soldiers as the front line trenches. Fleeing civilians would also create ‘ghost towns’ as farms, buildings and entire villages were left almost deserted (Figure 2). The lack of visible traces of human occupation in these areas could create a haunting and unsettling perception of the area.31 For example, Private D.J.B. Wilson wrote in his memoirs:
...again we had to look more closely to take in the ruination of the farms, the shattered remains of the cottages. The desolate roads, the neglected fields, the absence of animals, to realise that this was a country given over to stagnation...32
Although the deserted farmsteads and barns often provided billets for troops, the occupation of the sites was noted in soldiers’ letters and diaries as contributing to a sense of displacement from the familiar notions of home and ‘civilization’. Private W.D. Jones wrote in his diary in January 1916 that he had been billeted in the small town of Courcelles, Belgium; a place where there was, ‘desolation everywhere; broken-down houses, struggling soldiers...’33 In this war-ravaged landscape, troops were frequently met with a physical reminder of the damage wrought by the war on both materials and peoples’ lives. In an environment which had seemingly been swept clear by the force of the conflict soldiers could assume they had entered an empty space; a foreign landscape, thrown apart by the conflict. This space could appear to hold no evident meaning or attachment for the soldiers; a perception which was increasingly familiar as the war progressed and subsumed larger areas of the region. Private I.W Browning described this awareness upon entering Authuille, north of Albert, on the Somme, near the front lines:
We were now at Authuille, which would seem to be the name of a village, through to us it was just a name, unattached to any particular place.34
The absence of human habitation, the scenes of destruction and the seemingly alien places of the villages, towns and countryside of France and Belgium served to dislocate soldiers from their surroundings. As a means of responding to this alienation, a subtle process, enacted by British soldiers, acted to familiarise and to an extent ‘stabilise’ the hostile and foreign landscape. This process was conducted through the renaming of the region, adding new titles and stories to places to ‘anglicize’ the unfamiliar words and environment which the soldiers encountered. Through this redefinition places became ‘known’ to the troops through their new names and connotations.

This process is most immediately apparent in the names given to the billets which were frequently located in the local farmsteads. Private H. Oxley described in his memoirs how the farms which were used as billets were ‘inevitably’ given English names by the troops.35 Private I.W. Browning described how the places near Armentières, north-west of Lille, had been labelled ‘Isolated farm’ and ‘Burntout farm’ by the soldiers.36 Names for these particular billets largely reflected the sparse, empty associations perceived by the troops. Colonel J.G.H. Budd noted this tendency amongst the soldiers in his own battalion:


Smells were quite in the ordinary run in the neighbourhood as may be appreciated from some of the local names given to various places about the front. Smell Farm, Dead Cow Farm, and so on...37
The titles that solders provided these locations could be humorous or humdrum. However, all of these acts of renaming served to describe a distinct place for the soldiers and ensured a means of connection with the world. These names were the basis of the ‘emplacement’ experienced by soldiers as they responded to their location and locality within the war landscape.38 They acted to neutralise the anxiety and alienation that the scenes of war could evoke whilst they also served to communicate to other soldiers the habits or perceptions of a particular area. Colonel J.G.H. Budd also reflected on this action as he described how his unit used the French names to create new titles and associations for places behind the lines:
I started off to the battalion, whom I found were in the sector...They were at the moment billeted in a village called Estrees Couchez (sic: Estrée-Cauchy, north-west of Arras), which was always referred to by the men as ‘extra cushy.39
As the war progressed this utilisation of French and Flemish place names was developed by the successive waves of troops to create a new landscape in the region. The place-names of northern France and Belgium were recast to create ‘Armenteers’ for Armentières, ‘Wipers’ or ‘Ee-pre’ for Ypres (Ieper), ‘Eat apples’ for Étaples, ‘Ballyall’ for Balleul, ‘Frizzles’ for Flesselles, ‘Hazy-Brook’ for Hazebrouck, ‘About Turn’ for Hébuterne, ‘Ocean Villas’ for Auchonvillers, ‘Funky Villas’ for Foncquevillers and ‘Plug-Street’ for Ploegsteert, whilst almost any site of a Calvary behind the lines instantly became known as ‘Crucifix Corner’. The names were descriptive, evocative but also indicative of the values which individuals held towards the particular areas they knew. These names could identify the danger, revulsion and boredom of the soldiers in the areas behind the lines. Names could also reveal the havens away from the front where soldiers could resume ‘normal’ or ‘civilian’ activities during ‘rest’ periods out of the line; none so more than the town which was labelled ‘Pop’ (Poperinghe), outside Ieper.

The process of renaming emerged not only from the troops themselves and their pre-war cultural references but from the relations that developed between soldiers and civilians, as troops attempted to comprehend an unfamiliar language and its ‘unusual’ vowels, constants and accents. Captain A.P. Gillespie described this process of communication taking place:


There’s a new language growing up in NE France which would surprise you – the language in which the British soldier addressed his hostess in billets.40
Whilst the anglicizing of the names of French and Belgian towns and villages aided the British soldier, by creating a ‘known’ landscape and attributing places with meanings and values, it ensured that British troops created their own ‘sense of place’ within this foreign landscape. By imposing this system of naming upon the world around them soldiers would become part of the local environment where they lived and fought. Such a process inevitably drew criticism from Belgian and French civilians who were anxious that this re-naming constituted a military occupation of their homeland. However, as soldiers moved through the areas of the Western Front they engaged in this process of naming and renaming the places and objects they encountered.

Enemies, Stories and Soldiers: Imagining the Landscape
The renaming of the landscape was also a response to the sense of disgust that the ruination of war had brought to the region a perception that increased with the pursuit of the conflict. Lieutenant A.D. Looker wrote in August 1918 that he hoped to be able to secure leave as quickly as possible, ‘because this rotten country is getting me fed up more and more each day’.41 Looker confessed in the same letter that he had become, ‘very depressed by the ruins and detritus of war’. Private J. Jacobs in a letter written in December 1915 stated unequivocally that, ‘this country is not worth winning back’.42 Similarly, Corporal R. Chambers, writing whilst stationed in Flanders in August 1917, was moved to express his surprise at the continuation of the war; ‘fancy fighting Germans for land like this. If it was mine I’d give up the whole damn rotten country’.43 Such revulsion at the surrounding area was a common response to the war landscape. Private K.R.B. Kershaw described the Western Front as the, ‘filthiest place I ever was in my whole life’.44

Whilst this perception could serve to disengage the British soldiers from the region it also formed a means of understanding and interpreting the war landscape and was incorporated into the soldiers’ notion of the area as a distinct ‘place’. As soldiers witnessed the filth and destruction wrought upon the region they attributed these dire circumstances to a brutal and savage enemy. The devastated and abandoned area chronicled a ‘space of death’; a map where soldiers could read the attitude of the enemy and understand the appropriate force by which to respond.45 For these soldiers the enemy was the ‘Hun’, ‘Allemands’, ‘Bosche’, ‘Jerry’, ‘Krauts’ or simply, the ‘Enemy’; a variety of names which all became bywords for a violence, destruction and hatred. Such attitudes were seemingly written into the war landscape. Captain R.H.D. Tompson wrote in October 1917 that within each Belgian refugee, ‘there seems to be a terrible sorrow, all due to that accursed Hun’.46 Whilst Private L.E. Eggleton writing in a diary entry, dated August 1917, referenced the village in northern France, Hendecourt-lès-Ransart:

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