The Great War and Trench Lingo (Part One)


This article offers a survey of trench lingo and indicates some of its main sources. It is based on research for a dictionary of jargon and slang published under the title, Roger, Sausage and Whippet, available from the Great War Bookshop. Jargon refers to the specialised vocabularies of sports, trades and professions, in this case soldiering on the Western Front. Jargon was the language by which the Army regulated its internal affairs and exerted authority over its volunteers and conscripts. Slang was the retort from the ranks, derisive and vulgar. Slang rejected authority and defiantly asserted the personal values of groups and individuals. In this article, examples of trench lingo appear in bold type. Much of it has long withered into obscurity: wet and a wad; four-by-four; dump; dug-out. Other words remain accessible because Tommy’s lingo went with him on his return to Civvy Street and some of it is still in use in daily conversation, such as: over the top; dig in; Blighty.

Trench lingo persists in English vernacular speech because of the sheer quantity of British men forced to serve in the Army during the Twentieth Century. Twenty years after the Armistice of 1918, the rudiments of trench lingo were put back into circulation during the Second World War, 1939 – 45, after which came Korea, 1950 – 53, Cyprus, 1955, the Suez Crisis, 1956, the Malayan insurgency, 1948 – 60, and the Aden emergency, 1963 – 67. Military conscription, known as National Service, continued in Britain until 1964. A majority of the adult male population by that time would have certainly known the difference between a sergeant major and a corporal, a gunner or a trooper. Imposing the jargon was a necessary part of homogenising Cockneys, Taffs, Micks and Jocks into British fighting men. Jargon penetrated deep because it regulated every aspect of a soldier’s life. The Army’s training method was to command and drill. Individuality was subjugated to the chain of command linking the C-in-C at G.H.Q to the lowliest lance jack in the Line.

When the Great War began for Britain, August 4th, 1914, the British Army was recognisably the one portrayed in the works of Rudyard Kipling. It was ridiculously small – scarcely 450,000 men, including reservists — by comparison with the millions-strong levies being mobilised by France, Germany, Austria and Russia. But it was well-trained and led by an officer caste that was proud of its achievements during two centuries of imperial expansion. Wars of conquest and pacification had brought the British infantryman, Tommy, into contact with every variety of culture and language. Frank Richards, a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, described in his memoir, Old Soldiers Never Die, what it was like to land in France with the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914. Booze and fillies were the priorities when Frank and his mate, Billy, reached the city of Ruin (Rouen).

‘The landlord [of the café] was very busy, the place being full of our chaps. 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.” ’

Within months of Frank and Billy’s arrival in France, English jargon and slang had flooded the Western Front; firstly from regulars and reservists, many having served in India; then from their Canuck, Springbok and Aussie cousins; then from the Yanks. There had never been a war like it. New weapons inflicted new horrors. Mechanised warfare brought slaughter on an industrial scale. For the English language, it was the most violent clash of cultures since the Norman invasion of 1066.


(to be continued)




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