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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Thursday, 21 May 2015

A war of trouser buttons


The following appears in the ‘Trade Jottings’ columns of The Tailor and Cutter, 12 November 1914:

The British soldier at the front has hit upon an ingenious and effective expedient for keeping his German prisoner from escaping when once he has been captured. He simply, so says a contemporary, cuts the buttons off his trousers, thus the German has perforce to walk with his hands in his pockets.
Evidently, the buttons on the German soldiers’ uniforms are sewn on more securely than Tommy Atkins’s, for if what we hear is true, should any of our troops fall into the hands of the Germans, there would be no necessity to cut off their buttons; to touch them would be quite sufficient.

A bit of typical British self-deprecation, jealousy of German efficiency, and a rather alarming image of the process of taking prisoners, on both sides. From what I can find out, feldgrau trousers did not have belt-loops but were held up by braces (US suspenders) attached to waist-buttons, so theoretically this story is viable - see http://www.ir63.org/index.php?page=16 . But there may be also an element of ritual humiliation involved. I came across a later image in the Illustrated London News of German troops being told to 'hold up the ceiling' as they surrendered - 'reach higher, show despair, up on your toes'. Making a captured enemy's trousers fall down would be an even stronger declaration, physically and symbolically, of power. 

There is also an unexpected answer to a - I think - previously unasked question: why are there so many British military buttons on ebay? Apparently they were sewn on so weakly (too few stitches, cheap thread?) that you just needed to touch them to make them fall off. It seems almost to refer to the other meaning of the word 'button', something you press to set something happening, a perturbing image in this case.

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