Backchat in British Trench Lingo, 1914 – 1918

To ‘backchat’ in the British Army was to answer back. When directed at a superior it was impertinence or insubordination, which was a military crime. Among comrades it was simply part of the constant banter and raillery that prevailed in the ranks. The phrase comes from the Hindustani, batchit, from bat, language. In India, which is where The King-Emperor’s regular soldiers learned their trade before 1914, to ‘sling the bat’ was to talk the language of the native population.

Nothing marked out a ‘pukka’ Tommy at the start of the First World War so much as the quantity of ‘Hindoo’ in his slang. Proficiency in ‘chewing the rag’ with such an ‘old sweat’ was an essential first step for any volunteer or conscript seeking acceptance in a ‘mob’ of regulars. He quickly learned that bread was ‘rooty’, from roti; water was ‘pawnee’, pani; tea was ‘char’, chai. A private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Frank Richards, evoked the type precisely in his memoir, Old Soldiers Never Die. Booze and fillies were the priorities when Frank and his mate, Billy, disembarked in the French city of Rouen in August 1914.

‘Billy used to boast that no matter what new country he went to he could always make the natives understand what he required. He ordered a bottle of red wine, speaking in English, Hindustani and Chinese, with one French word to help him out. The landlord did not understand him and Billy cursed him in good Hindustani and told him he did not understand his own language, threatening to knock the hell out of him if he did not hurry up with the wine … I remonstrated with Billy and told him we could not treat the French who were our allies the same as we treated the Eastern races. He said: “Look here, Dick, there is only one way to treat foreigners from Hong Kong to France and that is to knock hell out of them …” ’

Some of the Army’s Hindi derivations – such as ‘Blighty’, ‘char’ and ‘pukka’ – became so widespread they have entered the mainstream of English slang. Blighty, meaning England, the homeland, derives from bilaiti, foreign land. A ‘Blighty’ or ‘cushy one’ was a fortunate wound requiring evacuation to England for treatment, similar to the German, heimatschuss, a home-shot, or the French, fine blessure, a fine wound. ‘Cushy’ or ‘cushti’, in the sense of comfortable, safe, well off, derives from khush, pleasure. ‘Pukka’, meaning correct, proper, fit for purpose, comes from pukkha, ripe, ready to eat – the opposite of ‘cutcha’, kachcha, bad, false, raw.

Given the importance of food and drink to the fighting man it is unsurprising that so many Indian words of a domestic nature entered trench lingo. Men were ‘booka’, hungry, bhukha, much of the time. ‘Burgoo’, porridge, and ‘skilly’, thin stew, reached the trenches in a ‘dixie’, an oval, bucket-sized cauldron with a lid and a handle that Hindi speakers called a degchi, cooking pot. Any offering deemed unworthy of the ‘bobbajee’, cook, bawachi, was likely to be disparaged as ‘cooter gosh’, not fit for human consumption, from kutta, dog, and ghosht, food. Like everyone else at the Front the ‘bobbajee’ often had to work under stress and got little thanks for his efforts. Any ingrate who spat out a mouthful of gristle with the exclamation, ‘Who called that bastard a cook?’ was likely to be rewarded with a prolonged spell of ‘dixie-bashing’- cleaning greasy pots with bare hands and a damp rag.

The battle on the Western Front was a siege, a war of materiel in the form of massed firepower and manpower. The scale of organisation required brought huge bureaucracies into being. Everything demanded a ‘chit’ or ‘chitty’, a hand-written authorisation, from chitthi. Anyone approaching the Quartermaster (‘blanket-stacker’ or ‘clutching hand’) for a new piece of kit was unlikely to be successful without a ‘chit’ signed by an officer or NCO. And behind ‘the Front’ was ‘the Base’, crammed with depots and warehouses run by an army of ‘ink slingers’ filling up wads of ‘coggidge’, Army forms, from kaghaz, writing paper.

Tommy’s best friend, according to his sergeant, was his rifle, his ‘bandook’ or ‘bundhook’, musket, banduq, When the ‘foot-slogger’ was ordered to march quicker he was told to put some ‘jildy’ into it, energy, effort, juldee. When he was ordered to slow down or halt it was ‘Arsty! Arsty!’ from ahisti, go slow. If he stood on the fire step to inspect No Man’s Land he took a ‘dekko’ at it, ‘Dekho! Look!’, from dekhna, to see. And every few weeks, if he was lucky, he was marched off to see the ‘dhobi-wallah , laundry bloke, at the local de-lousing station to get clean uniform in exchange his verminous ‘Khaki’ uniform, khakhi, meaning dust-coloured.

‘Dhobi’ meant laundry, and ‘wallah’ meant doer, wala, the man who does it. Everyone was a doer in trenches. The man firing the trench mortar was the ‘trench mortar wallah’. The man who fetched the mail was the ‘post wallah’. The chaplain was the ‘pulpit wallah’.

The most important doer of all, as far as Tommy was concerned, was the one who picked him up and carried him to safety after he had ‘stopped one’ on the battlefield. As long he hadn’t been hit anywhere vital, such as the ‘goolies’, testicles, from ghooli, ball, the ‘dhoolie-wallah’, was the stricken man’s saviour – the stretcher-bearer, from doli, the covered litter used in India for the conveyance of important personages. No one, in his own mind, was more important than the wounded warrior, especially if he was heading for ‘Blighty’ with a ‘cushy one’ after ‘doing his bit’ against the ‘unspeakable Hun’.

(For more derivations and explanations of Trench Lingo see Chris Moore’s miscellany, Roger, Sausage and Whippet, published by Headline To browse for books by any writer whose works have been quoted, click here.)

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