In Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, Pegler reveals how common words and phrases such as ‘bumf’ and ‘having a chat’ originated in the trenches. Drawing on his interviews with a number of First World War veterans conducted in the 1980s, he recalls how the men were overwhelmingly positive about their experiences – they made friends for life, and the camaraderie they shared was something that many never experienced again.
Here, writing for History Extra, Pegler details 10 words and phrases circulated during the war that still remain in use today:
The subject of the First World War evokes many images, many of which are used repeatedly nowadays in film and TV, but they tend to concentrate on the drama and the misery of war. The reality was that it didn’t rain every day, the trenches were not knee deep in mud all year round, and soldiers were not subjected to shelling and death every day of their lives.
In fact, day-to-day life was, as one veteran told me, “90 per cent sheer boredom and 10 per cent fear, but when we were frightened, we were very frightened, though you tried not to show it”. Of course there was death and destruction – there always is in war – but these men were young, energetic and above all, optimistic. Few believed anything terrible would happen to them (it was always ‘the other bloke’), and they masked their nervousness by sharing their hardships and fears with close chums.
Indeed, having interviewed many veterans over the years, the overwhelming impression was that they looked back on their service in the First World War with a mixture of nostalgia and affection, tinged with sadness at the loss of friends. Above all else, the one emotion that helped them keep their sense of perspective and enabled them to endure the bad times was their uniquely British sense of humour, which appeared in even the grimmest situations, and it was the funny stories that they most often regaled us with.
Much of the humour was found in their widespread use of songs and slang. Within any profession there is a language that is largely incomprehensible to outsiders, and soldiers were little different.
In 1914–18, however, for the first time in Britain’s history, huge numbers of men from every conceivable walk of life had been put together in a huge citizen army, and as a result they developed their own language. But whereas in the past this slang had mostly remained within the ranks of the armed forces, during the First World War much of it was transferred by the soldiers from the western front to the home front.
The songs and slang used by these men became not only popular, but almost fashionable in wartime England, and much of this has remained with us to this day. Here are 10 examples that might surprise you.
‘Having a chat’
A commonplace expression today that owes its origin to that most pernicious of insects, the louse. Body lice were endemic in the trenches, and they inhabited the seams and pleats of clothing where they bred in huge numbers, causing skin rashes and itching.
The expression is often ascribed to the Hindi word for a parasite, ‘chatt’, but is more possibly from an earlier medieval English word for idle gossip, ‘chateren’. Soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars certainly referred to lice as ‘chats’. During the Great War it was common to see small groups sitting around and talking as they used their fingernails, or a candle, to kill the lice. Such groups were described as men who were ‘chatting’.
The now almost universal word for a bottle of wine. The British soldier has traditionally failed since time immemorial to master the pronunciation of even the simplest foreign words, and it is merely a corruption of the French ‘vin blanc’.
Prior to the war some small defensive military fortifications had been constructed, generally referred to as blockhouses. Mostly these were made of heavy timber – many were constructed during the Boer War.
However, the term was only widely adopted into English during the latter part of the Great War because of the huge numbers of concrete bunkers constructed by the Germans across the flooded Flanders battlefields. They were called pillboxes due to their similarity to the small receptacles used by civilians for carrying medication.
The origin of this now very British word is shrouded in mystery. It may have come from the Arabic ‘beladi’, meaning ‘my own country’, or the Hindi word ‘bilaik’, referring to a foreign place or country. For the Tommies, it meant only one thing: home.
The best possible way to get there was to sustain a wound serious enough to require hospitalisation in England, which was enviously termed ‘a Blighty one’.
Soldiers on the western front in France in a happy mood as they eat a meal to celebrate Christmas Day in a shell hole partly occupied by the grave of a comrade (Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
A superstition that it was bad luck to light a third cigarette from the same match. This was actually based on sound experience: it took a German sniper about five seconds at night to see, aim and fire at a light source, and a flaring match was clearly visible on a dark night from well over 500 yards. Five seconds was also about the time it took for the third man to light up.
The first modern armoured fighting vehicles were produced in great secrecy by Fosters of Lincoln. To prevent any hint of their purpose being discovered by German spies, workers were told they were mobile water tanks. Some were even clearly marked in Cyrillic ‘Water tanks for Russia’. The ruse certainly worked, because their first use on the Somme on 15 September 1916 was a complete surprise to the Germans.
Prior to the First World War, armies had employed specialist marksmen known as ‘sharpshooters’, but when war broke out the Germans fielded thousands of highly trained riflemen, usually equipped with telescopic-sighted rifles. British officers referred to them as ‘snipers’, which harked back to the army in India in the late 18th century when officers would go bird hunting in the hills – the tiny Snipe being one of the hardest of targets to hit.
From 1914 the word was widely adopted by the British press, and it has since become universal. Sniping can now also refer to sharp or snide remarks made about another person.
‘Over the top’
An example of an expression that has seen a resurgence, although now with a very different meaning. Originally it referred to the physical act of launching an attack by climbing over the sandbag parapet in front of a trench – literally by going over the top. It thus became synonymous with setting off on any highly dangerous venture, usually with a slim chance of survival.
It mostly died out after the war but in recent years has been revived, albeit now meaning to embark on a course of action or to make a remark that is either excessive or unnecessary.
Often used today as a reference to the annoying, and all-but-worthless small change that accumulates in one’s pockets or purse. It is possibly the most incorrectly used word from the war, as it is invariably misapplied to describe the lethal flying splinters from high-explosive shells.
In fact, it refers to the lead balls launched from airburst shells (a little like airborne shotgun cartridges) invented by Lt Henry Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery in 1784.
Printed paper that is produced in huge quantities for no discernable reason, and apparently has no information value. The junk mail we all receive on a daily basis is a prime example.
It is derived from the army term ‘bum-fodder’ – paper that has only one possible practical use. It is originally from prewar schoolboy slang then appropriated by the soldiers to refer to excessive paperwork. It generally referred to the endless streams of army orders that were issued from headquarters.
In the middle of one particularly savage attack on the Somme, a British orderly officer received a series of communiqués from HQ demanding to know how much tinned jam was held in stores and how many pairs of socks were required. Some things never change.
Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War by Martin Pegler (Osprey Publishing) is now on sale. To find out more, click here.
This article was first published by History Extra in August 2014.