Trench Talk: Words of the First World War

Trench Talk: Words of the First World War

by Peter Doyle, Julian Walker


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The First World War largely directed the course of the 20th century. Fought on three continents, the war saw 14 million killed and 34 million wounded. Its impact shaped the world we live in today, and the language of the trenches continues to live in the modern consciousness. One of the enduring myths of World War I is that the experience of the trenches was not talked about. Yet dozens of words entered or became familiar in the English language as a direct result of the soldiers’ experiences. This book looks at how the experience of World War I changed the English language, adding words that were both in slang and standard military use, and modifying the usage and connotations of existing words and phrases. Illustrated with material from the authors’ collections and photographs of the objects of the war, the book will look at how the words emerged into everyday language.

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"I think any word-lover would enjoy this book. If you're a history buff too, it's a must have. It expertly balances context and trivia, history and lexicon, gravitas and humor." — Visual

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752471549
Publisher: Spellmount, Limited Publishers
Publication date: 01/01/2013
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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Trench Talk

Words of the First World War

By Peter Doyle, Julian Walker

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Peter Doyle & Julian Walker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7921-7


A War of Words

Isolationist, and dependant upon its navy for defence, Britain had been aloof from European politics for decades. Though close links with Germany had been mooted in the early years of King Edward VII's reign, the King himself rejected the idea of a triple alliance of the three major European nations, turning instead to France with the Entente Cordiale of 1904. Although Kaiser Wilhelm II was a cousin of King George V, there was little in the way of family warmth expressed in his direction; instead, the British press was generally antagonistic towards Germany, depicting stereotypical representations of swaggering, sabre-rattling, Prussian militarists – stereotypes that became strongly entrenched. Suspicious of German intentions, the British Government took exception to the Kaiser's desire to build an effective navy, and prewar there was much scare-mongering over possible German invasion plans and antagonism directed across the North Sea by the new British tabloid press. William Le Queux's fictional tale, The Invasion of 1910 (1906), serialised in the Daily Mail, set the tone for a 'war of words', of propaganda and counter-propaganda intended to discredit the enemy and to sponsor recruitment.

The invasion of Belgium in August 1914, in contravention of the Treaty of London (1839) guaranteeing Belgian borders, led to an upsurge in condemnation of Germany, though before the war few people would have had knowledge of what became known as 'Plucky Little Belgium'. The invasion resulted in a focused propaganda campaign that ultimately saw the British Government sponsor an inquiry into 'Alleged German Outrages' in Belgium, under a former Ambassador to the United States, James Bryce. The Bryce Report would concentrate on the 'attrocities', and would help fuel further antagonism towards the Germans, which was intensified by the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania in 1915.

Britain had long held on to its position as the only major European power not to depend upon conscription for its armed forces. The onset of war drew men to the colours, which peaked in August 1914, after the setbacks suffered by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons. Highly charged recruiting posters issued by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, and the actions of some women in handing out white feathers to those at home led to the pressure on the workforce.


The country where the first shots of the war were fired underwent a name change, as 'Servia' was felt to have negative connotations of servility, inappropriate for an ally. The Times used 'Servia' in August and September 1914, introducing 'Serbia' on 21 September; this soon became the dominant form in The Times, with 'Servia' occurring only eleven times in 1915 and five times in 1916.


In British eyes 'Prussia' came to mean the effective, soulless militarism that threatened to destroy European culture. The 'junkers' class, the old nobility of Prussia and eastern Germany, was particularly blamed for dominating military and international policy in the region, notably after the success of the war with Austria in 1865–66, while Prussian internal policy from this time included universal conscription and rigorous training of the army. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 had left a lasting distrust and fear of what quickly came to be known as 'Prussian militarism' throughout Europe, but especially in France.

Thus 'Prussian' by 1914 was placed to take on all that was feared and abhorred in the German military. For the Daily Express 'Atrocity was part of "the war as the Prussian wages it"' (22 August 1914); the Kaiser was 'the Prussian drill-sergeant' (24 July 1915); and the German Army was supposed to have a 'Prussian Guard', consisting of 'giants' (31 August 1914). 'Prussian militarism', compared to Britain's 'basic peaceful decency', was supposedly the cause of the war; as late as November 1915 the Depot Review was stating in 'An Open Letter to the Kaiser' that 'It is the glory of Britain that she was not prepared for the war. It is the glory of Britain that she is preparing for war.'

There was, however, an awareness that 'Prussia' did not mean the same as 'Germany'; a German living in London was quoted in the Daily Mirror, 12 January 1915, as saying 'South Germany is not Prussianised. South Germany will always hate Prussia'.


'Kultur' was a concept of German, and particularly Prussian, supremacy in arts, customs, conventions, laws and other high ideals of western civilisation. Central to these ideals were the reliance upon discipline, obedience and military power, with an autocratic head – the Kaiser, Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia. With the influence of Prussian Kultur being felt in the opening campaigns of the war, it was not surprising that the Allied propagandists quickly siezed upon the idea, and depicted half-crazed, jack-booted madmen striding across Europe, all 'For Kultur'.


To 'strafe', from the German for 'punish', was a much-repeated slogan throughout the war, and an example of a German phrase that was quickly assimilated into British speech, usually tinged with irony. Derived from the German slogan 'Gott Strafe England', it was adapted for a variety of situations. A 'strafe' in the frontline was an attack or bombardment; elsewhere 'to strafe' was to argue, chastise or generally punish.


[God punish England!] German propaganda slogan, used on postage stamps, pin badges, even coal briquettes.

'Der Tag'

Much in evidence in the early part of the war was the phrase 'Der Tag' – The Day, which was taken to mean the moment when Germany could finally get to grips with Britain following the Kaiser's build up of his armed forces.

'Scrap of Paper'

The 'Scrap of Paper' was the Treaty of London that guaranteed the sovereignty of Belgium in 1839, and to which Prussia, Britain, France and other nations had put their signatures. The German disregard for this treaty was to be a cause célèbre that was used tirelessly in propaganda and recruitment posters in Britain during the early part of the war. The origin of the phrase relates to an interview between Sir E. Goschen, British Ambassador to Germany, and the German Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, in 1914: 'I found the Chancellor very agitated. His Excellency at once began a harangue, which lasted for about twenty minutes. He said that the steps taken by His Majesty's Government was terrible to a degree; just for a word – 'neutrality,' a word which in war time had so often been disregarded – just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her.' The term 'Scrap of Paper' also became known as 'The Broken Pledge', and was widely used in propaganda.

The Kaiser: 'Big Willie'

The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, was widely blamed for the war and his posturing was mercilessly lampooned and parodied in the press. Belgian attitudes towards the Kaiser were typified by the actions of a group of refugees in Ilford, East London; they rounded off their Christmas in 1914 with a performance described to the Ilford Guardian as 'Making the funeral with the Kaiser from Germany'. The Daily Express, who had called the Kaiser 'The Mad Dog of Europe' on 4 August 1914, no doubt took some satisfaction in being able to report 'the Mad Dog Is Muzzled At Last' on 11 November 1918. In line with the customary distinction between trench language and the terms used by the home press, British soldiers hardly ever referred to him as anything but 'the kaiser'.

The difficulty that George V and Willhelm II were first cousins was neatly circumvented by the King, who said to F.D. Roosevelt on 29 July 1918, 'You know I have a number of relations in Germany, but I can tell you frankly that in all my life I have never seen a German gentleman.' The relationship beween the Kaiser and his son was the topic of much ridicule. Newspaper cartoons regularly referred to 'Big Willie' (the Kaiser) and 'Little Willie' (Crown Prince Willhelm), who was Commander of the German Fourth Army, and were merciless in portraying them as fools. In October, 'Littlest Willie' began to appear in cartoons – this was another Prince Willhelm, who was twelve years old by this stage. On 8 June 1916, the Daily Mirror reported that in America there was a nickname for the Kaiser – Hunzollern, a play on the Imperial family name of Hohenzollern.


In the early days of the war, anti-German feeling was stirred up by the stories of atrocities in Belgium, the extent of which is still debated. German soldiers believed there was a guerilla campaign against them, the Bryce Report on 'Alleged German Outrages' commissioned by the British Government has been largely discredited, and Belgian refugees were encouraged to talk about atrocities by the British press, eager for stories. But there is no question that there were summary shooting of civilians, that non-combatants Edith Cavell and Charles Fryatt were executed by the German authorities, and the university city of Louvain was largely destroyed. These and other events were to add to the patriotic fervour whipped up by the popular press – in September 1915 the Daily Express vilified Jerome K. Jerome and Kier Hardie for not believing atrocity stories. The word 'atrocity' had been around for some time; Ottoman suppression of uprisings in Bulgaria in the mid1870s had been described as 'the Bulgarian atrocities'. The word 'atrocity' is one of the most sensitive verbal legacies of the war.


On 27 August 1914 the American Ambassador to Belgium described the damage caused in Louvain by the invading German Army as 'perhaps the classic instance of Schrecklichkeit ... but it was not the worst.' The term Schrecklichkeit, translated as 'frightfulness' was, according to the lexicographer Ernest Weekley, 'officially applied to the intimidation of a neutral civilian population by outrage, massacre, and the destruction of historic buildings and artistic treasures'. 'Frightfulness' came to cover atrocities, any new weapons ('The Hun, with his terrible devices of frightfulness' noted by F.C. Hitchcock in his 1936 book Stand To, A Diary of the Trenches), as well as Germany's pursuance of the war (the Daily Express in December 1914 referred to 'pillage, arson, rape, butchery, treachery, and all the rest of German "frightfulness"'), and the 'inhuman hate [which] appears to possess these Prussian invaders whom terror drives' (New York Times, 1914). It embraced stories such as the report of a whale found stranded on the Belgian coast with a mine attached to its tail (the Manchester Guardian, March 1915). The effect of 'frightfulness' was 'ghastliness'; the loss of the Lusitania was an example of ghastliness according to the Manchester Guardian, 10 May 1915, as was 'the smell from dead bodies lying round' (Stand To, F.C. Hitchcock, 1937).


Frightfulness could be countered, however. In a cartoon, the Daily Express in January 1915 contrasted 'frightfulness' with 'fraternity' following the Christmas truces; 'fraternity' was violently stopped by 'Willie' (the Kaiser), with a caption stating: 'The Prussian lesson of war-frightfulness must be enforced by the Willie upon the fraternizing heads of the soldiers'. 'Frightfulness' had its uses in showing the value of its British opposite: in an advertisement for Sunlight Soap in July 1915, 'The Nation takes its cue from the Navy. Cheerfulness is uplifting. Frightfulness is a millstone round the neck. Cheerfulness will overcome Frightfulness. Cheerfulness at Sea – Cheerfulness on Land – Cheerfulness in trenches – Cheerfulness in Factory – Cheerfulness at War – Cheerfulness at WORK.'

Spectacles and the German soldier

The German soldier was the target of much ridicule in the press. Some were shown as thuggish with protruding lower jaws and brushlike hair, others as weaklings with glasses. In Battery Flashes (1916) C.W. Langley imagines shooting a German soldier and hearing 'the tinkle of glass as his spectacles caved in!' The headline to a column in the Daily Express, 15 May 1916, is 'Through German Spectacles', rather than 'Through German Eyes', while as late as March 1918 the Manchester Guardian was saying 'there is a tendency, too, in this country to picture the German soldier as a fat stubbly individual with earnest spectacles ...'.


The word 'hate' took on a specific meaning in 1914, which changed as it was taken up at the Front. Public opinion in both Britain and Germany was affronted by the actions of the enemy's governments: Britons were outraged at Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality, particularly when stories of atrocities arrived with Belgian refugees, while Germans were outraged at Britain's intervention. Reporting a mass meeting at Brighton in late August 1914, the New York Times quoted Herbert Samuel MP: 'Germany has violated the neutrality of Belgium saying "What care we for a scrap of paper – what care we for our pledged word when it no longer suits us to honour it?"' On the other hand, the Irish Times on 10 October 1914 carried a letter from an American of Irish descent, which stated: 'I have talked with many German-born – now American citizens – and their hatred of England is almost on the border of insanity'. In this environment the German Ernst Lissauer wrote the poem Hassgesang gegen England ('Hatred Against England', usually translated as 'The Hymn of Hate').

This text, with lines such as: 'We love as one, we hate as one, we have one foe and one alone – ENGLAND!', indicated a singularity of enmity, which curiously was not directed at the countries which Germany was actually invading: 'French and Russian, they matter not, a blow for a blow and a shot for a shot!'

A letter to the New York Times, 15 October 1914, pointed out that the German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann had declared that 'Germany has and has had no hatred against France, and that war was forced upon Germany as a measure of defense.' 'Who was it,' he asked, 'that did conspire to bring about this war? Who even whistled for the Mongolian, for the Jap, that he should come to bite viciously and in cowardly wise at Europe's heels? It is with great pain and bitterness that I pronounce the word "England"'.

The 'Chant of Hate', as it was known in America, sparked off a rivalry in the New York Times, blaming Germany for atrocities, England for the suppression of Ireland, and against war on the behalf of mothers. This 'hate', satirised by Punch in a cartoon which showed a German family sitting in their parlour concentrating on their 'minute of hate', was not perpetuated universally in Germany throughout the war. The Scotsman in August 1915 reported on stories from the German press: 'The Berliner Tageblatt quotes with approval from the Kolnische Volkszeitung a clergyman's letter deploring Lissauer's Song of Hate, and urging its removal from all books destined for schoolchildren'.

By this time, 'hate' was being used at the front for the practice of firing at each other above the parapet in the early morning – in order to remind each other of their existence – which was referred to as 'the usual morning hate', while it could also apply to any sharp artillery bombardment. The Scotsman quoted soldiers commenting on: 'the missiles of the German Hymn of Hate' in January 1917, and 'the enemy guns keep up a daily hate' in July 1918. This was extended to the officer commanding snipers being called 'Lord of the Hate Squad' in Stand To by F.C. Hitchcock; The Scotsman's headline in August 1917 'Hun Hates Hun', which referred to a case where German aeroplanes bombed a hospital where German prisoners were being treated; and another instance where a German officer smashed his desk and bed with an axe before abandoning a command dugout 'as the final manifestation of hate'.

Thus did the mightiest War of Wars begin, The Old Earth swill'd in Blood, and War, and Sin, The best, and worst, in man was bared to Sight, And 'Hymns of Hate' were raised to God to win.

('T.I.N. Opener', Rubaiyát of a Machonochie Ration, 1919)

'Women of Britain say Go!'

Men in civilian garb were assaulted on all sides by messages compelling them to join the nation's armed forces. Posters, postcards, newspapers – even popular songs – were deployed to maintain the recruitment drives of 1914–15, and supply the armies at the front with sufficient men. Images of women were used extensively: as the victims of war in Belgium, depicted on posters and in political cartoons; as the personification of nationhood, such as Britannia and Marianne; and in the role of sweethearts and mothers imploring their loved ones to join the fight. The Parliamentary Recruiting Committee poster by E.V. Kealey, 'Women of Britain say Go!', depicts two women and a child observing soldiers marching away. Another powerful use of images of women was in the 1914 Paul Ruben's 'women's recruiting' song, which also deployed the phrase 'Your King and Country Need You', with its verse 'Oh! We don't want to lose you, but we think you ought to go', a song which promised 'We shall cheer you, thank you, kiss you, when you come back again'. The same song was subject to merciless parody by the troops, the same lines being reworked as 'Oh! We hate you; and I'll boo you and hiss you if you sing it again!'


Excerpted from Trench Talk by Peter Doyle, Julian Walker. Copyright © 2012 Peter Doyle & Julian Walker. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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