Slang and swear words ‘helped soldiers survive the First World War’

July 1915, Canada --- Original caption: Canadians Entraining For The Front, July 1915. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Canadian soldiers coped with life on the front line during the First World War by developing their own ‘trench language’, new research suggests.

Advertisement

In a study published in War in History, Dr Tim Cook from the Canadian War Museum reveals soldiers swore habitually and renamed objects and events to reduce the terror of war.

Cook explored letters and other documents written by soldiers during the conflict, and compared the records with those used in earlier studies into the use of language.

He discovered a killed soldier was said to have ‘gone west’ or ‘copped a packet’, while a comrade on the verge of a breakdown was said to have had the ‘wind up’.

Impersonal killing devices were drawn back to the knowable and understandable – shells overhead were likened to trains running, while German hand grenades were known as ‘potato mashers’. 

Such slang was a shield, allowing combatants to trivialise death, says Cook. The military jargon was inherently exclusive, and intended to distinguish soldiers from civilians.

Soldiers also cursed to relieve themselves from the discipline and stress of warfare. Swearing became habitual without the customary need to tone down vulgarities in the presence of women and children, and lewd songs acted as an expression of masculinity that forged bonds of camaraderie.

The research also reveals that, while many of the terms used were also used by men from several different countries, Canadian troops saw them as unique and, as a result, reflecting and reinforcing their national identity.

Cook told historyextra: “The issue of language has been largely ignored by historians and I found, as I read soldiers’ letters and writings, that it was crucial for revealing a hidden component of the soldiers’ culture.

“The seemingly mundane issue of swearing and slang reveals how soldiers coped and endured, and made sense of the war. It helped to sustain soldiers from the strain of combat, while insulating them from civilians on the home front.”

Mark Connelly, professor of modern British history at the University of Kent, said: “It is fascinating to see how swearing reinforced regional and national identities, and was used as a coping mechanism.

“It’s also interesting to consider where swearing sits next to gallows humour. Is it a way of looking death in the eye and laughing at it?

“I also found it fascinating that soldiers could swing within five minutes from sentences peppered with swear words to songs about sweethearts on the home front. They were extremely sentimental.”

Advertisement

To read Cook’s article in full, free of charge until the end of the year, click here.