The study of ‘war languages’, ‘war words’, ‘trench slang’, from the First World War – and clearly variant forms are a major part of the subject – occasionally leads the researcher into the area of folk-etymology and the mythology of language. Folk-etymology takes two forms, erroneous stories of etymology, and word forms that through change from the unrecognized to the recognized, propose vaguely possible observational origins (such as ‘sparrow-grass’ or ‘alligator pears’, for asparagus and avocado pears). Current from Autumn 1914 were stories that the German soldiers confronted by kilted soldiers from Canada, England or Scotland were so terrified that they called them ‘ladies from Hell’ or ‘devils in skirts’.
To date no documentation in German, in newspapers, letters, diaries, memoirs or anywhere else, supports this. It is entirely a story reported, and reported vigorously, by Allied soldiers, via newspapers at the time, and in postwar memoirs. It can be found as the title of R. Douglas Pinkerton’s 1918 memoir of his time with the London Scottish, and in many other memoirs, such as A. Corcoran’s The Daredevil of the Army (New York, 1918), Over There and Back, by Joseph S. Smith (New York, 1918), and Private Peat, by H. Peat (Indianapolis, 1917). Corcoran reports the term as ‘the pretty compliment they earn from their enemy, in whose souls they are inspiring real terror.’ (p117), while for Joseph Smith, ‘”Jock” is the name he [Tommy Atkins] has given to all Scotch troops, whether they be the kilted “Ladies from Hell” or the plain pantalooned lowland regiments.’ (p. 192). Robert Ross, in The Fifty-First in France (London, 1918) gives ‘The natives were all agog with excitement to acclaim the “ladies from hell.”’ (p107), which does not give any clear indication of who originated or used the term; and William Carter’s narrative of ‘the Great World War’, written as an epic poem, The Gates of Janus (New York, probably 1919), includes the verses:
Cambrai has fallen! Great St. Quentin too!
On thirty-five mile front they’ve broken through
Haig’s “Kilties,” called by Hun: “Ladies from Hell,”
Push now to end what’s been begun so well!
The Prussians, now, start wide retreat near Lille.
They know the end is near as out they steal !
They drive, to slav’ry, hosts, their works to man;
They’ve fifty thousand ta’en from St. Quentin!
These three sources are typical of a wide use of the term, with an assumption, or explicit attribution, of German origin. Some memoirs offer dates for first uses: Peat gives: ‘In the front lines of the Ypres salient was the Third Brigade, made up of Canadian Highlanders, whom the Germans, since that night have nicknamed “The Ladies from Hell.”’ (p175), the date given being 22 April 1915. H W McBride in The Emma Gees (Indianapolis, 1918) states ‘We then appreciated the nickname given by the Germans (first applied to Canadian Highlanders at Langemarck, but afterward used to designate all “Kilties”), “The Ladies from Hell.”’ (p160) – matching Peat’s date of 22 April.
Soldiers repeatedly reported the use of the phrase to the press, enjoying the reputation for engendering terror that it signalled. ‘Devils in skirts’ is found significantly less frequently, for example in the Daily Record 30 April 1917, p.4., in an article titled ‘Praise of the Scot’, which proposed that the Scottish soldier ‘considered it a soft impeachment when the Huns defined him in the early days of the war as the Devil in skirts; but he kept his senses when, for for some unknown reason the German papers devoted much of their space proving, to their own satisfaction, that anything good that came out of England was of Scottish extraction’. Unfortunately what the German papers did not do was offer any evidence of German soldiers using the expression. In the press ‘Ladies from Hell’ appeared in September 1914 (Dundee Courier, 28 September 1914, p.7), continued through the conflict – the Aberdeen Press and Journal 18 October 1915 (p.4) specifically states in an article on ‘War Words’ that ‘The Germans have a phrase for our Highlanders which means “Ladies from Hell”’ – and after the war (The Sphere, 4 January 1919, p.12: ‘“Ladies from Hell” the Germans called the kilted soldiers then, and the term was one which, from the Germans, carried the highest sort of compliment’). An interesting variation/reaction, from the Highland Light Infantry, was published in October 1918: the Evening Dispatch, 4 October 1918, p.2, reported that they were calling themselves ‘Harry Lauder’s Idiots’; ‘no German, however, has yet been brave enough to call them that’. A further suggestion was ‘Hell’s Latest Invention’. After doing a trawl through the British Newspaper Archive, my first impression was that reports in Scottish newspapers were outnumbering those in newspapers from the rest of Britain; in reality fewer than a third of the reports were from Scottish papers.
What did the soldiers specifically say about the term, and did their comments in any way focus more on the gender or the infernal aspect? Private Alick Moore of the Camerons, reported in the Aberdeen Evening Express 25 December 1914 (p3) stated that ‘ … the Germans nicknamed us ‘the ladies from hell’. We looked as if we were relations of the devil sure enough, our kilts covered with mud, and a few weeks beard on our chins.’ Private Clifford Walker, serving with the Cameron Highlanders, whose letter to a relative in Leeds was reported in the Leeds Mercury 14 July 1915, p2, stated that ‘The French people in the villages nearly go daft when they hear the pipes and see us in our ‘frocks’, as they call them. A good many times I have been offered money and a pair of trousers for the kilt, but it is far warmer and helps to frighten Johnny German away’. An interesting use of ‘the’ rather than ‘my’ in ‘the kilt’, indicative of it as an abstract identifier rather than merely an article of personal clothing – each individual kilt is a metonym of ‘the kilt’. There are plenty of comments about bayonet charges, war cries and the Germans running away, but no remarks on the concept of gender.
The idea of a German origin for ‘Ladies from Hell’ certainly stuck. Fraser and Gibbons, in their seminal Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (1925), define the term as ‘A name coined in the War by the German newspapers and adopted among the German troops on the Western Front’. This is confirmed by an early report from a soldier: Private John Trafford of the Gordon Highlanders (Dundee Courier 18 September 1914, p4) wrote that ‘the Gordons had some captured Germans with them, and the latter informed them that in Germany [NB] the Highlanders were called “the Ladies from Hell”’. Perhaps repeated hearsay made it stick faster, and allowed some elaborations: ‘A lady working among the troops’, as reported in the Western Mail (13 March 1915, p7), said ‘By the way I hear that the Germans call our kilted regiments “the ladies from Hell” (Hollenweiber, I suppose; it was told me in English)’. The levels of projection here are very clear – first the term as received, and then its imagined ‘original’ version. The same German term was reported as being used by General Joffre, commander of the French Army, in the New Zealand Evening Post, 20 November 1915, p.11: on a hospital visit the general, on meeting a Scottish soldier, said ‘you are one of the men the Germens call “Hollenweiber”’. The actual German word would be Höllenweiber, which should be transcribed into English as ‘Hoellenweiber’. A word search on a site digitizing German language newspapers (http://anno.onb.ac.at/anno-suche#searchMode=simple&from=1) brings up no results, while another site digitizing newspapers Europe-wide (http://www.theeuropeanlibrary.org/tel4/newspapers/issue/3000113894506?hp=3&page=3&refine-query=%22ladies+from+hell%22&query=%22ladies+from+hell%22 ) provides only an article in French about Scottish troops during the First World War from Le Figaro 25 September 1939, p.3, which finishes thus:
Lorsqu’en septembre 1914 ils chargèrent furieusement, devant les étangs d’Ermenonville, un regiment de fantassins allemands qui, tous, périrent noyés, ils gagnèrent un surnom : dans l’armée britannique, on ne les désigna plus que sous le sobriquet « The Ladies from Hell » — les dames de l’Enfer… —R. L.
Specifically this notes that ‘in the British army, they were only designated under the nickname …’ The Wikipedia article on The Black Watch https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Watch#cite_note-10 offers phrase Die Damen aus der Hölle as the original German phrase; again nothing appears within the timeframe on the two websites cited above, nor do further variations, Frauen aus der Hölle, Höllenfrauen; Höllendamen appears in the Hamburger Nachrichten, 14 November 1927, but has nothing to do with Scottish soldiers.
Other hypotheses may be offered in considering this phrase, particularly the ‘from hell’ concept. It may have carried a specific meaning rather than a general claim for inspiring terror. A number of reports talk about bayonet charges by kilted soldiers; whether these would have been specifically more frightening than charges by men not in kilts is difficult to determine, but when allied to reports such as ‘No Quarter for the Enemy. HOW HIGHLANDERS KEPT GERMANS AT BAY’ Aberdeen Evening Express, 10 November 1914 p 4., there is revealed an idea of what ‘from Hell’ might specifically mean in the culture of combat. However, the idea of ‘no quarter’, which in effect meant not giving the enemy the opportunity to surrender, is found frequently in the record, and is by no means specific to, generally applied to, or more widely associated with kilted troops. Another idea to be considered is the idea that kilted soldiers were less cautious and more abandoned in combat than other troops; Niall Ferguson offers the following casualty statistics for the percentage killed of all those mobilized:
Grand total – 13.4%
Britain and Ireland – 11.8%
British Empire – 8.8%
Scotland – 26.4%
France – 16.8%
Turkey – 26.8%
Serbia – 37.1%
Germany – 15.4%
Other stories refer this business back to a song from the Crimean War, ‘The Kilties in the Crimea’, written by John Lorimer of Paisley, in 1865; as reported in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 9 November 1914, p.2, it runs:
The Kilties are the lads for me,
They’re aye the foremost in a spree,
And when they’re in they’ll no’ come oot
Tho’ a’ the warld should turn aboot.
They’re no’ the lads will run awa’,
But feicht while they ha’e breath to draw;
Just tell them whaur they’ll meet the foe,
And shoulder to shoulder awa’ they go!
Etc. The regiment portrayed is ‘the Royal forty-twa’ commanded by Sir Colin Campbell ‘wi’ his kilted clan’. The battle takes an interesting turn when:
The kilties gaed to help the Turks,
Wi’ a’ their pistols, guns, and dirks.
But when the bagpipes ga’e a blaw
The Turkies fainted clean awa’.
Their lassies, too, and wives sae queer
They werena like our lassies here,
For they buckled up their e’en wi’ clouts.
As if our kilties had been brutes.
Islamic female dress it seems caught the attention in mid-battle. Later:
The Russian General, when he saw
The kilties chase his men awa’
Cried oot, ” Does ony mortal ken
Whether they’re wild beasts or men ? ”
Sir Colin cried, « Come here, my man,
And I will tell, for weel I can,
The kilted lads are just,” he says,
” Our horsemen’s wives in Sunday claes.”
Presumably the joke is that the Scots are so terrifying that the Russians are afraid even of Scottish women. The Aberdeen Weekly Journal repeated excerpts from the poem on 4 December 1914 (p.5), an indication that it was relevant. But it would be unwise to make a definite link between this poem and the appearance of the phrase; despite the use of the kilt in the British Army since the early eighteenth century, this phrase does not appear till 1914, making it more likely an invention, or an adoption, of the New Armies rather than a term from the pre-1914 army.
If we are to discuss this in terms of concepts of gender, as well as of terror, which the phrase proposes, we need also to take into account that women as well as men used the term. Should gender be discussed as part of the phenomenon? Yes, of course. The responsibility for the term, and thus raising the question of gender, is safely projected onto the enemy: projecting the responsibility for the issue onto the ‘other’ allows it to be discussed, ignored, challenged, whatever, but we cannot pretend that the issue is not raised. But there are two parts to the phrase: if the first part of ‘ladies from hell’ is a clear challenge to the soldiers’ gender, the second half of the phrase stares down any challenges to their masculine power. And being the second part of the phrase, since language is linear, it supersedes the first part, making the whole a celebration of the ability to engender terror, whatever the presuppositions of gender. Primarily a phrase for expressing the enjoyment of being able to create fear, it as part of the process proposes and then crushes any thoughts of effeminacy. Even the simple form ‘Mademoiselle soldats’, proposes gender and then aggression: Pte R G Hill, in August 1914 when he was marching through Armentieres, reported that ‘The highlanders in our brigade caused much amusement, the female part of the population shrieking with laughter at the dress of the “Mademoiselle Soldats”’ (quoted in Doyle & Schafer, Fritz and Tommy, 2015), though the observation of laughter rather than admiration is unexpected.
While the revival and enthusiastic use of ‘ladies from Hell’ during the Second World War shows that it clearly was reckoned successful, and useful, it should be compared with the actual evidence for how kilted soldiers were portrayed in the press as received by German soldiers. Images from the Tornister-Humor für Aug und Ohr (‘Knapsack Humour for Eye and Ear’), Berlin, 1915, show a rather less solid view of the kilted soldier:
The texts in German translate into English as “the newest lighter – made in Germany – just don’t burn your nose, man!” (Neese being northern German dialect for Nase), and “Go in front, you’ve got more stubble than me”, a possible reference to the meaning of poilu as ‘hairy’. These also come from a journalistic source, a publication of the Lustigen Blätter, a satirical weekly. In British popular culture kilted soldiers were subject during the war, as previously and since, to jokes concerning speculation as to whether anything was worn under the kilt – one Bamforth postcard circulating in 1916 has a cartoon soldier with a very short kilt saying to a woman ‘D’ye ken, Maggie, they’ve cut down ma allowance’, to which she replies ‘It’s a guid job, Mac, they left your kilt alone’. Such views sit uncomfortably alongside the romantic Victorian visual ideal of the muscularity and solidity of the Scottish soldier, frequently seen during the war; but as seen above, it is clear that there is something in the nature of the image that carries an uncomfortable duality.
With thanks to Ursula Reisenberger
In an article titled “The Clothes Men Wear” by ‘The Hon Mrs Cowdall’, published in The Manchester Guardian on 5 November 1926 (p6), the following appears:
‘In order to know feminine respect at its best and strongest a man must make it clear that he “has a leg”. The psychology of kilts is not quite plain sailing, because, although a census of feeling would probably show that kilts carry more weight of opinion than plus fours, the additional inches of limb displayed are not enough to account for the difference. Perhaps the French, with their Gallic intuition, leapt to the right answer when, in their first paroxysm of terror at the sight of the Highlanders, they referred to them as the Ladies from Hell, for what more shattering combination of ideas could be evoked?’
A mistake, or was there some idea that the term originated a century before the First World War? Mrs Cowdall’s article about the curiosities of male dress is subtitled “Can nothing be done?’