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World War 1 History: Front Line Slang

Updated on October 09, 2016
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. Why? Because we have to look to the past to prepare for the future.

"Landowners" in a "rest camp". Flesquières Hill British Cemetery near Cambrai - the site of the battle of Cambrai (1917) in World War I.
"Landowners" in a "rest camp". Flesquières Hill British Cemetery near Cambrai - the site of the battle of Cambrai (1917) in World War I. | Source

Slang: Us and Them

Like other conflicts of the modern era, front line troops in World War One developed their own slang. This is a psychological phenomenon that simultaneously identified and bound together those who shared the horrors and conditions of trench warfare and excluded those who didn't. Excluded were civilians and politicians back home and, perhaps especially, the generals and staff officers, planning and running the war in the comfort and safety of the rear echelons.

Slang also allowed the men to avoid using terms like “death”, “killed” and “died” and even renamed and trivialized the weapons of war into something less threatening. Slang also allowed commentary on non-lethal subjects such as the quality of the food and, of course, officers. Front line troops oftentimes felt more kinship with the enemy occupying the opposing trenches than those in the rear.

This is by no means an exhaustive dictionary of World War One slang, but contains some of the more prevalent terms used. Much of the slang described in this article relates to the British, but there are a few other nationalities represented. The horror and deprivations of the War to End All Wars were visited upon all who participated in the fighting, regardless of the color of their uniforms. At the end, all uniforms were gray and brown from dried mud and blood.

Slang Terms

Alleyman – A German soldier. The British corrupted the French word Allemagne meaning “German”.

Accessory - British term for gas which would be released from hundreds of cylinders-- hopefully when the wind was right. The intent of the term was to maintain secrecy. In much the same manner, they referred to “tanks” of water when communicating about their armed and armored tracked vehicles.

Archie – anti-aircraft fire or anti-aircraft artillery.

Baby's Head - A meat pudding; part of the British army field ration, made with meat, flour, suet, onion, baking powder, pepper and salt.

Base Rat – A soldier who stayed near headquarters in comfort and safety.

Batterie de cuisine – French for "cookware": medals and decorations.

Battle Police - Military police patrols deployed in the trenches following an attack to deal with stragglers and men who had refused to go over the top. There are stories of summary executions occurring, but these were not officially sanctioned.

Bint – A young woman; from the Arabic bint meaning “daughter”.

"Blighty". Britain in WW1.
"Blighty". Britain in WW1. | Source

Blighty - Britain. Derived from the Hindu word Bilayati, meaning “foreign country”, the British in India came to refer to Britain as Blighty and the those in the trenches picked it up.

Blighty One or Blighty Wound – A wound severe enough to warrant being sent back home. Self-inflicted blighty wounds were a capital offense. Though none were executed, nearly 4,000 men were convicted of self-inflicted wounds and sent to prison.

Blind Pig – Mortar bomb.

Boche– A German, from the French tete de boche meaning an “obstinate person”or perhaps caboche meaning “blockhead”.

Brass Hat – A high-ranking staff officer, based on the brass decoration on their hats.

Bully Beef – British canned corned beef. “Bully” is believed to be a corruption of the French bouillie meaning “boiled”. As the war went on and German rations suffered, German troops rarely returned from trench raids without tins of bully beef.

Chinese Attack – Fake attack. A preliminary bombardment would stop and the defending enemy would return to their trenches to face the presumed attack. Then the bombardment would start up again, catching the defenders out of their shelters.

Reverse of British identity discs like the type used in the First World War. They were made of pressed red and green fiber. The red round disc would be removed from the corpse. Soldiers called it a cold meat ticket.
Reverse of British identity discs like the type used in the First World War. They were made of pressed red and green fiber. The red round disc would be removed from the corpse. Soldiers called it a cold meat ticket. | Source


Cold Meat Ticket - Identity disc. Soldiers were issued two identity discs. In the event of death, one disc was taken from the body (the cold meat) and one remained.

Daisy Cutter - A shell with an impact fuse so it would explode at ground level.

Devil Dodger - Army chaplain.

Dick Shot Off - D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) -- an 'officers only' award.

Doughboy – U.S. soldier. Origin unclear.

Draw Crabs - Attract enemy artillery fire.

Frontschwein – German for "front pig". A German infantryman in the front line.

Gone west – Killed. Dead. “He's gone west.”

Gunfire - Strong tea laced with rum.

Hate - A bombardment. Troops in the trenches often had to endure a morning “hour of hate”, meaning an hour of artillery bombardment.

Heimatschuss – German for a "home shot". A wound severe enough to be sent home (similar to blighty wound).

"Jam Tins". Grenades made from jam tins, milk tins, etc during WWI.
"Jam Tins". Grenades made from jam tins, milk tins, etc during WWI. | Source


Jam Tins - Improvised bombs made from jam tins packed with explosive and shrapnel before the British introduced the Mills Bomb (grenade).

Jock – Soldier in a Scottish regiment.

Kiwi – A New Zealand soldier.

La croix de bois - French for “the wooden cross”, meaning killed or dead. “He earned the wooden cross.”

Landowner - Dead and buried.

Macaroni - An Italian Soldier.

Attempting a Mad Minute

Mad Minute – Firing 15 aimed rounds with a .303 Lee Enfield (bolt action British rifle) and hitting a one-foot wide target at 200 meters. This would include at least one 5-round clip being loaded during that minute. A Scottish drill sergeant hit a one-foot target at 300 meters 38 times in one minute.

Pillbox – Small concrete defensive positions, mostly dug into the ground and featuring loopholes to fire through. Their cylindrical or hexagonal shape resembled medical boxes containing pills. First used to describe German fortifications along the Hindenburg Line in 1917.

Pipped - Struck by a bullet.

Plug Street – British Tommys' nickname for the town of Ploegsteert, Belgium. Both Hitler and Churchill served in the general vicinity of Plug Street.

Pork and Beans – Portuguese soldiers. The British army ration of pork and beans contained very little pork, and the Portuguese had very few troops on the Western Front.

Potato Masher – A German stick grenade, which looked like a potato masher. The stick handle enabled the grenade to be thrown further.

Poilu – French for "hairy beast". A French infantryman in the front line.

Red Tabs – British staff officers. Rear echelon officers wore bright red shoulder tabs and hat bands. This was a visible symbol that the wearer did not belong at the front where such markings would have drawn attention from enemy snipers and, therefore, this was a term of disdain.

Rest Camp - A cemetery.

Rob All My Comrades – A nickname for the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) alluding to instances where wounded and unconscious soldiers transported back to field hospitals later found their personal possessions missing.

Strafe – German propaganda frequently used the phrase Gott strafe England! ("God punish England"). The British appropriated the term “strafe” to refer to the punishment inflicted when low-flying planes machine-gunned ground troops.

Tommy- British soldier. Derived from Tommy Atkins, which, much like John Doe in the U.S., was a name on sample forms to represent a a typical British army private soldier. It is said that the original Tommy Atkins was a hero at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but that is likely a myth.

Urlaubschuss – German for a "leave shot". A wound severe enough to warrant leave.

Wastage or Normal Wastage – British euphemism referring to men killed, wounded or captured outside of set-piece battles, usually caused by shelling, sniping, flare-ups, etc in “quiet” sectors. The average normal wastage for the British during the war was 35,000 soldiers per month during “quiet” periods.

Whizz-Bang - A high-velocity shell. Derived from the noise of the rapid flight and the explosion of a German 77mm shell.

Windy - Afraid, nervous. Derived from a person who was said to have the wind-up (the production of intestinal wind or gas due to nerves).

Wipers – British Tommys' nickname for the city of Ypers, Belgium (“EE-pruh”). British soldiers published the “Wipers Times”, a satirical trench magazine.

Zinnwaren – German for "tinware". Medals and decorations.


© 2012 David Hunt

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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Terrific!!!!!!!

      I know so little about the first great war. I've seen some of those terms in books from the era, and though I picked up "the gist" of them from context, I certainly would have benefited from having this fine guide!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      great hub. My diploma was devoted to slang in american english. I was intrigued by the fact that origin of Doughboy is unclear and had a look into wikipedia:

      " It was in use as early as the 1840s.

      An often cited explanation is that the term first about during the Mexican–American War, after observers noticed U.S. infantry forces were constantly covered with chalky dust from marching through the dry terrain of northern Mexico, giving the men the appearance of unbaked dough. Another suggestion also arises from the Mexican–American War, and the dust-covered infantry men resembled the commonly used mud bricks of the area known as adobes. Another suggestion is that doughboys were so named because of their method of cooking field rations of the 1840s and 1850s, usually doughy flour and rice concoctions baked in the ashes of a campfire, although this does not explain why only infantryman received the appellation. "

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 4 years ago from England

      Interesting- I knew some and also some such as Brass Hat still remain- Just wondered about doughboy- it might be a reference to the fact the Americans had more money (dough)? than the average British Tommy?

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      This is great! I have read about "Boche" (which as I recall Patton misspelled various ways like "Bosch") and it was obviously a synonym for "Hun" but I never could figure out why.

      Another one to add, if you want to extend the list to American pilots' terms: according to Eddie Rickenbacker, antiaircraft fire was called "archie" because of a popular song of the day with a chorus of "Archibald! Certainly not!"

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

      Great hub - really interesting. My favourite WW1 slang term is "chatting" - soldiers sat around picking "chats" ie lice, from the seams of their clothes whilst talking in their spare moments so idle talk became chatting.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting, Wesman. Glad you enjoyed it. I particularly like "going west" and "landowner"-- they suit the frivolous and macabre tone of the whole situation.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi, Pavlo. Interesting to hear you specialized in American slang! I almost didn't include Doughboy because there are so many theories and nothing definitive-- but how could I not include it? Perhaps I'll put together some brief theories, including your contribution. I also read where their buttons looked like little buns. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • jenubouka 4 years ago

      Very cool Hub UnnamedHarald! I just might pick a few of these up...Do they still use some of these terms now?

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting, Just History. As Pavlo mentioned, there are several theories regarding the term "Doughboy", though I haven't heard it regarding money-- but that's interesting. I'll have to research its history and see if I can shed some light on it.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi, aethelthryth. Thanks for commenting and suggesting "archie". I will do a little more research and add it to the list. Before I wrote this article, I thought "boche" was spelled "bosche" and I thought it was a German word. I swear I learn more from writing than reading.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting, Judi Bee. I will add "chatting" to the list-- adds a nice flavor, don't you think? I'll do some research, but, as I reread your comment, are you saying we got the word "chatting" from them picking "chats". That is so cool.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi, jenubouka. Thanks for the comment. I think most of them are outdated, I don't know. "Brass hats" has been shortened to "Brass" and that's in use today. Judi Bee mentioned that "chatting" derived from men picking lice ("chats") while they talked-- that's definitely in use! Why, we even have "chat rooms" nowadays.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

      Yes, that's where I understand chatting to come from - getting together to pick lice! Also, I use the word "bint" - usually "silly bint" to mean a stupid girl. My Dad certainly occasionally says "gone west" not just to mean a person has died, but something has outlived its usefulness. Getting the wind-up to mean afraid is another one I have heard used, and of course Jocks and Kiwis as terms for Scots and NZders are still used.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for the info, Judi Bee. Yes, now that you mention it, I have heard those terms used recently-- though mainly in movies, since Americans don't use them much, if at all.

    • specificwritings 4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing such info within us.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      And thank you, specific, for taking the time to read and comment.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Very, very interesting. Most of these terms were unfamiliar to me. The two or three that I knew I think I learned from watching the film Galipoli. :) Sharing.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting and sharing, phdast7. I really need to add a few more, based on suggestions I've received, though I don't intend for it to be all-inclusive.

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