One of the least discussed and understood impacts of the Great War of 1914-18 was its effects on written and spoken English. Whereas in all previous wars, a great social and geographical distance separated the civilian population at home and the small professional army abroad, for the first time in British history millions of civilians became soldiers and sailors. For centuries of imperial history the language of servicemen remained distasteful and alien to the mass of the people, but again, for the first time, a citizen army was literate enough to write letters, postcards and diaries and to read newspapers from home. The postal service was superbly efficient: at home there might be as many as a dozen deliveries a day and by 1917 nearly 20,000 mailbags were crossing the Channel every 24 hours.
By 1914, the regular British army already possessed a rich variety of slang words and expressions which it had acquired over the years from Urdu, Hindi and Arabic. For instance, “khaki” was in use as early as 1870 from the Persian Urdu word “khak” meaning “dust”; “cushy” from the Hindi “khush” came to mean anything easy, pleasant or soft; “puttee”, another import from India derived from the Hindi for bandage, became part of army dress in the 1880s; and “wallah”, was adopted as an all-purpose word to mean attached or belonging to.
The British army’s occupation of Egypt from 1882 added several common words to the military vocabulary, such as “bint” for girl or woman, and “backshish” or “buckshee” which was used to mean free, fake or even money.
Other less familiar words still occasionally used today by civilians but originally military include “clobber” for clothes or equipment, “shemazzle” for disturbance, and “kibosh”, meaning to put an end to or destroy. All three are of Yiddish origin.
Flemish was far too difficult for English tongues to pronounce so place-names were usually Anglicised. In Flanders, Ploegsteert became Plugstreet, Wytshaete, White Street, Dikkebus, Dickybus, and Ypres, best known of all, Wipers. Nevertheless, early contact with the Dutch had by 1914 introduced and established many words in common currency. “Furlough” had become leave from duty; “gas” was a word invented by a Dutch chemist; “knapsack” dated from the 1640s; and a military transport vehicle was called a wagon a century before that.
Finally, throughout the war, the British servicemen wrestled with pronunciation of French, usually with little success. “Napoo” derived from “il n’y a plus”, meaning there is none left or no more, has disappeared, whereas “plonk” from “vin blanc” has come to mean in English cheap wine. That “souvenir” came to displace “keepsake” was another result of French influence.
As the pages of the wartime Scarborough Evening News and weekly Mercury amply illustrate, soldiers and to a lesser extent sailors, kept closely in touch when they could with their families at home. And their “trench talk” soon became part of everyday civilian speech and writing.
Of the many expressions commonly spoken in the British army arising from its long service in India, the best known was “Blighty”. In Hindi the word “bilati” meant foreigner and was applied by Indians to describe the British who then used “Blighty” to mean their home country. During the Great War, “Blighty” also came to be used as an adjective such as “Blighty wound”, an injury serious enough to take a soldier back home and out of the war, whereas “Blighty touch” was a self-inflicted injury designed to have the same result. However, “Blighty wound” might be enviable, but “Blighty touch”, if identified as such, was a certain court-martial offence. A “Blighty Blue” was a wounded or sick soldier who wore the distinctive honour of a blue suit and red tie during his convalescence. Such “heroes” were a familiar sight in Scarborough throughout the war.
Within days of the first use of poison gas by the Germans, the word “gas” was made into a verb. Bombardier Percy McCourt of St Mary’s Walk assured Mrs Wilkinson of 52a Newborough that her son Fred had been “in the thick of the fighting” but was OK, only for the Mercury to announce the following week, June 4, that Percy had been “gassed”.
Some army slang words have survived more than a century. Some of us still describe paper information which has no value or relevance as “bumf” (bum fodder). An older generation say “cushy”, when they mean easy or safe, and “lousy”, when they mean poor or bad, not literally infected with lice, the trench soldiers’ permanent pest.
Surprisingly, “machine-gun” did not become the common term until after 1914. As late as November, 1916, The Times preferred the French word “mitrailleuse”. Originally known as a “landship” or “landcruiser”, when it first appeared on the battlefield in September 1916, the “tank” was in fact the secret codename to disguise its true purpose.
Another invention of the war was the steel helmet, first issued on the Western Front to British Tommies in the autumn of 1915. Eventually, all armies used their own versions. The Germans began the war wearing their spiked helmets, but they were made of only toughened leather and gave little protection against bullets and shrapnel. As the London Illustrated War News of November 1915 pointed out, “Head-wounds have been even more than usually numerous...owing to the trench fighting and more than usually severe owing to the extensive use of shrapnel.” So about this time both the French and the BEF began to replace their soft headgear with metal helmets and soon afterwards the Germans followed suit with their own design shorn of its conspicuous spike. The British Tommy preferred to call his broad-brimmed helmet a “tin hat”, a name which continues in use.
Trench warfare generated many new terms or altered the significance of older ones. The word “trench” had been applied to military siege works for centuries, but between 1914 and 1918 the Western Front defences stretched on both sides continuously for more than 450 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier. On both sides they became a network maze covering thousands of square miles of interlocking and opposed trenches.
The Western Front gave a new meaning to “sandbags”, which were dove-tailed in millions into trench parapets, and “duck-boards”, which lined the water-logged trench floors. Where the ground water level was too high to dig deep trenches, as in Flanders, walls of sandbags were essential to give sufficient cover to front-line troops. No-man’s-land, the neutral ground between opposing trenches, was another old term which acquired new significance. It varied in depth from hundreds of feet to miles, but it became the main killing area for both sides once they left the comparative safety of their trenches and dug-outs.
Finally, barbed wire became another characteristic feature of this relentless, static, murderous warfare. It had been first invented and used for cattle control in the American West; it was adopted by the British military in South Africa to imprison Boer civilians in camps; but on the battlefields of 1914-18 a “merciless mesh” of sharp metal barbs created an impenetrable barrier to advancing infantry and became a chief obstacle to mobility. Only well-directed high explosive shells and tanks could cut swathes thought it.