A scoop

We are rather late-comers to the quest to find the earliest documentation of war-words; ‘trench-coat’ looked promising, as did ‘home front’, but nothing came of it. However, we hereby wave the flag of Languages and the First World War over the earliest yet documentation of that rather unwarlike word – “kinky”. Improbable but there it is; currently the earliest documentation in the OED stands at 1959, but we can push it back by 43 years.


Magnus Hirschfeld begins the introduction to The Sexual History of the World War (1946) with a proposal that while there was no change in the kind of sexual activity in a society on the outbreak of war, there might be perceived a huge change in the degree. A number of salacious magazines in print in Britain before the war used the opportunity of the conflict to publish cartoons of highly exaggerated figures of women in uniform, and also to continue what was clearly an editorially created correspondence page dealing with stories of cross-dressing, spanking, high heels and tight corsets, now opportunistically extending it into the military experience. This included in 1916 a reference to British papers in the early days of the war reporting that ‘German soldiers had been taken captive wearing ladies’ lingerie under their clothes, which they had looted from French wardrobes’ (Illustrated Bits 12 August 1916), and a few weeks later a writer under the name ‘Sapper’ who claimed to be a soldier and ‘simply love[s] to wear tightly-laced corsets and high heels’. The correspondence page continued through the conflict, and by 1918 had grown to two pages, now embracing tales of conscientious objectors being subjected to punitive cross-dressing, and referencing the drag artists who performed in concert parties. No doubt it was still mainly fictional, but equally doubtless catered for real readers with an actual desire to read such material.


But to the word. Illustrated Bits on 30 September 1916 carried a response to Sapper’s letter, headed ‘A bit kinky’, and signed ‘Tight Lacing Mad’; the writer, also claiming to be in the forces, wished he had been born a girl, and stated ‘I suppose this is a “kink” of mine’. He claimed to have enjoyed wearing 18-inch corsets, was ‘never happy unless wearing them’, and was ‘quite miserable without my corsets in the army’. The same paper on 2 December 1916 carried a response to this, headlined ‘Another kinky one’, and signed ‘A lover of fine things’, the writer stating that he wished he ‘had been born a girl instead of a boy’.


By 1918 the magazine, probably just a step ahead of the censor, had changed its name to Bits of Fun; on 7 September that year there was a long letter from a soldier who, having spent three years in France, and having taken part in many concerts, though never as a girl, acquired from a friend the ‘kink’ of dressing in women’s clothes. A week later a further letter under the heading ‘Another Strange “Kink”’ began: ‘Dear Sirf [sic], – I notice several of your readers have written confessing their various kinks, so I thought perhaps my special kink might be interesting.’ The kink in question was wearing ‘female underclothing’ and ‘having a baby’s “dummy” teat in my mouth’.


So, wartime slang, in a civilian paper, with texts claiming to have been written by soldiers, using ‘kink’ and ‘kinky’ in a sexual context; of questionable veracity of course, but openly acknowledging a readership for this kind of material. The whole question of the sexualizing of the war is currently under research, with intended publication next year.


This post owes much to Lynda Mugglestone’s work on Andrew Clark’s collecting of words during the war, particularly in the area of the diminutive ‘-ette’. The most well-known diminutive form that emerged during the conflict was ‘munitionette’, which owed a lot to the form ‘suffragette’, both in the model of the word and the sense of women taking some power in society. But Lynda Mugglestone points out the link made in this suffix between the female and the sense of the ‘less’ or the ‘imitation’; by 1918 people in Britain were familiar with a wave of imitation fabrics which had been characterised by names that carried both these senses – ‘leatherette’ from 1880, ‘silkette’ and ‘moirette’ from 1895, and ‘suedette’ from 1915. Popular journalism extended the belittling power of ‘ette’ to create some startling neologisms: Woman’s Weekly in autumn 1914 ran a page of ‘Husbands’ Storyettes’, while a writer to the Derby Daily Telegraph criticised an editorial by calling it a ‘leaderette’, and Punch on 14 April 1915 described the German Crown Prince’s daughter as a ‘burglarette’. Reaction to the women’s suffragist movement had in 1913 and 1914 given rise to the terms ‘arsonette’ and even ‘hungerette’, which provided in turn a model for the ‘munitionettes’ and a number of other terms, including ‘peacettes’, ‘farmerettes’ and ‘canteenettes’.


The source for this construction is of course French, which during the war provided English-speaking soldiers with other terms ending with ‘–ette’: ‘flechette’, the heavy dart dropped from planes in the early part of the conflict, and the ‘omelette’ (in the estaminet). Already there were also the sniper’s favourite – the silhouette above the parapet, the French officers’ epaulette, and the French destroyer Escopette (built 1900). Henri Barbusse in Le Feu (1916), translated as Under Fire, makes frequent use of ‘banquette de tir’ (shooting step), ‘musette’ (haversack), and ‘fourchette’, a slang term for bayonet (similar to pig-sticker). Olivier Leroy’s A Glossary of French Slang (1922) also has ‘arbalète’ for a rifle.


‘-Ette’ would normally be recognised as feminine in French (again the link between feminine gender and diminution), but, after ‘cigarette’, the most outstanding ‘-ette’ word from the First World War has to be the bayonet, ‘baïonnette’ in French. Much fetishised in French civilian wartime popular culture, the bayonet was given the name ‘Rosalie’ in an erotic song by Theodore Botrel, written in 1914.  One verse chosen, not entirely at random, reads:


Mais elle est irrésistible

Quand elle surgit, terrible,

– Verse à boire ! –

Toute nue : baïonnette… on !

Buvons donc !


But she is irresistible

When she arises, terrible,

“Pour and drink!” –

All naked: bayonet … one!

Let’s drink!

According to Barbusse the poilus did not rate the term ‘Rosalie’ highly, Fitzwater Wray’s 1917 translation stating that it was a phrase for ‘padded luneys’. Eric Partridge, however, felt that the French soldiers came round to it in the end.


But, taking the story back further, the bayonet was originally a female weapon, and an empowering one too, at least according to one source. The siege of Bayonne in 1130-31 may have been the origin of this term (see picture), though the word is not known in English before the end of the 16th century; Brachet and Dussouchet’s 1873 An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language trans Kitchin (1873) does not offer a date, but confirms Bayonne as the origin. The caption to the picture states clearly that this was a women’s weapon – this is from an issue of the French wartime magazine La Baïonnette (29 June 1916) dedicated to … Rosalie. It states that the ‘Bayonnette’ was a simple knife fixed to a shaft, with which the women of Bayonne defended their city.


How did Gertie come to wear velvet?

We are reposting a few posts from the former site, so that these become more widely available.

The Anglicisation of placenames in France and Belgium raises the question of how these came about; the humour of the result is so good that it should, but often does not, lead us to look for the process of word-creation. There is little evidence for anyone saying or writing ‘let’s call this place Wipers’, so we are thrown back on internal or circumstantial pointers. Wipers is the most well-known Anglicisation, but the place was also called ‘Eeep’ and ‘Eeprees’; the first example comes from John Buchan writing in 1919, who said that ‘“Wipers” [was] not a name given by the British private soldier. He called it “Eeep.” “Wipers” was an officer’s name, gladly seized on by journalists and by civilians at home’. [St Barnabas Pilgrimage to the Menin Gate, 1927. p8]. Veteran RFA gunner (i.e. non-officer) Percy Bryant interviewed in 1975 pronounced it ‘Eeprees’ [IWM interviews 24862].

Given that there was little contact between British soldiers and Flemish-speakers, the greater likelihood is that exposure to the name of Ypres was through its French pronunciation, which would have come into English as ‘Eepre’, or reading the French or Flemish spelling (Ypres/Ieper), which would have given ‘Eepres’ or ‘Yeper’; the local Flemish pronunciation is more like ‘Eeper’. ‘Wipers’ seems to be a deliberate joke based on the first letter of the French spelling, while the standard English pronunciation, with a bit of knowledge as to how French pronunciation works, would have given Buchan’s proposed ‘other ranks’ version, ‘Eep’; with a bit less knowledge of French, but making a good attempt, this would easily come out as ‘Eeprees’. It is worth remembering here that there is plenty of evidence for British soldiers being prepared to have a go at French, and in many cases to set themselves to try to learn a bit: in a recorded dramatization In the Trenches directed by Major A E Rees in 1917, which has both authenticating and absurdly unrealistic aspects, cockney Private Reginald ‘Tippy’ Winter is spotted reading a French manual (of which there were several cheap versions printed, with pronunciation guides), though his chum Ginger claims he is doing it only to be able to speak to French girls. An Anglicisation such as Sally on the Loose (Sailly sur la Lys) depends on understanding ‘sur’ and ‘la’; not much, but at least some awareness of French.


As regards Ypres though, there are two other important factors: the medieval Ypres Tower at Winchelsea, which Fraser & Gibbons (1925) point out, was always called the ‘Wipers Tower’ or ‘Wypers Tower’; and it is easy to underestimate the influence on this question of the Wipers Times. So, from the example of Ypres we see the joke version coming from officer-level wordplay based on the written/printed word, and the ‘have a go’ version coming from spoken language from the other ranks; but ‘Wipers’ was used so widely in the press (from November 1914) that it quickly spread throughout soldiers in training before they got to Flanders.


A more clear etymology can be seen in the wonderfully dismissive change from Albert to ‘Bert’; in this case the French pronunciation of the town is nothing like the Anglicisation, lending weight to the proposal that this case derived from the written or printed word. The French Mouquet Ferme (Moo-cow Farm), Armentieres (Armentears), Ingouville (Inky Bill) and Auchonvillers (Ocean Villas) clearly are examples of Anglicisation from sound, as are the Flemish Wytschaete (White Sheet) and Dickebusch (Dickybush). But the Anglicisation of Bois Gernier as Boys Grenyer depends on spelling, as do Doignes (Dogs Knees), and Doingt (Doing It), the French pronunciation not resembling the Anglicised version. Godewaersvelde (Gertie wears velvet) is less clear, but the Flemish spoken version would have been fairly difficult for the untutored British soldier to unravel, so the Anglicisation here possibly comes via both paths. In any case the anglicised versions travelled along spoken paths with speed, and settled quickly to what sat comfortably in the various accents of the British Army as Hoop Lane (Houplines), Plugstreet (Ploegsteert) and the delightfully pragmatic Pop (Poperinghe). What remains is to see if there were variations emerging from the various accents and dialects within the British and Imperial forces: did similarities to names familiar to battalions before 1916 influence or provide variations on place-names?

Native American codetalkers in World War One

The use of Native American codetalkers, e.g. the Navajos, in World War Two by the US military is by now quite well known.  What is lesser known, although hardly a secret, is that the US military also employed codetalkers in World War One towards the very end of the conflict.   The use was successful enough that the United States tried it again in World War Two, this time on a much larger scale.

What exactly was codetalking?   In the case of the Native Americans, it was translating battlefield instructions, e.g. orders, from English into their own languages and conveying them by telephone, radio, etc., to another speaker of that language on the other end, who would then translate them back into English.  The “codes,” if you want to call them that, were essentially special words made up in the respective language that were needed on the battlefield.   The Choctaws for example, used “bad air” when they wanted to say “gas” and “scalp” when they wanted to say “casualties” because “gas” and “casualties” were words that did not necessarily exist in their own language.  Those Choctaws that knew the special vocabulary were codetalkers—those that didn’t were not.  Said another way, not every  Choctaw in World War One would have been a codetalker.

The abovementioned Choctaws are the most famous of the World War One  codetalkers.   As members of the 36th Division (made up on many Oklahoma-based Native American tribes), they first conducted operational  codetalking during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France on 26-27 October 1918. The end result was the US capture from the Germans of an area called Forest Farm.  The Germans, who had the uncanny knack of knowing when the Americans would be attacking, were caught completely by surprise this time.

Further research has shown that the Cherokees codetalkers from the 30thDivision (composed of many Native American tribes from the southeastern part of the United States) were actually used before the Choctaws—on 7-8 October 1918 in a successful assault against the German Hindenburg Line in France.   There are also reports and claims that the Comanche, Osage, and Sioux tribes also engaged in codetalking about this time.  Unfortunately, there is no “smoking gun” out there to prove any of these three beyond doubt. It is of course possible that further research will find that gun and will find other tribes as well who did World War One  codetalking.

Finally, the United States should be congratulated for bringing recognition to its codetalkers.  We have to ask why other nations have been reluctant to publicly reward  their own codetalkers.   While these other World War One combatants (except for Canada) did not have Native Americans of their own, they certainly must have seen the advantages of passing messages on the battlefield in an obscure language.   Many of the combatants, e.g., the British, had colonies of their own, with their choice of obscure tongues to utilize.  Yet only the Americans, it seems,  are recognizing their people.  At the time of the 100th Anniversary of World War One, it is time for other nations to be more forthcoming about the work of their codetalkers in this conflict.

Gregory J. Nedved is Vice President of the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland, and a historian for the US Department of Defense.


A guest blog from Joan Rees, on the subject of soldiers’ post-war silence.


My mother’s father was a coalminer in Wheatley Hill in County Durham. He volunteered as a soldier in WW1. He needn’t have gone and my grandmother never forgave him for going off and leaving her with four young children: my mother, the fifth, was born early in 1916.

I don’t know why he went or even where – with a name like Tom Smith and no date of birth, you’re hard to trace, though there was a Tom Smith in the South Yorkshire Regiment. My guess would be that he responded to propaganda and was perhaps curious to know what the world was like away from the coalfields, for the probability is that, at best, he’d never been further from the village than Durham City, within walking distance, on Miners Gala Day.

Grandpa fought on the Somme. Somewhere I have his Somme medal… But he was wounded and his left shoulder and arm never worked properly afterwards and probably were painful, though I never heard him complain. He had been a check weighman before the war and, as such, had a significant job in checking the coal in the trolleys that came up from the pit and the extent to which this was mixed with stones and useless rubbish on which depended the wages of the men working at the coal face. He wasn’t capable of this when he came back but, instead, was given (no doubt out of the kindness of heart of the manager) the job of ‘knocker- upperer’, the man who went round with a stick, banging on the windows of miners to get them up on time for their shifts underground.

He was, of course, retired by the time I knew him but living still in Wheatley Hill in a rented, terraced house rather than in 1Miners’ Villas where my mother grew up with the Working Men’s Club as his social life and rather heavy drinking of the local brew as his solace. He was a silent figure who hardly ever said a word and never joined in conversations. Sometimes there were family get-togethers when my mother and her three sisters gossiped and argued, while their men folk went into the rarely used front parlour and played solo. Grandpa just went on sitting quietly and unsmiling in his corner.

When WW2 had started and my father was in the RAF as an intelligence officer and all the other maternal uncles, apart from one in the police force (and some aunts), were fighting in various parts of the world. I was intermittently left to stay with my grandparents when my mother went off to meet my father and, convinced as I was that Hitler and the German army’s main target would be my father, I wanted to know what it was like fighting a war. To the great irritation of Granny, I pestered my grandfather with questions about ‘his war’.

Grandpa never responded. He refused to say a word and sat behind a newspaper in the corner of the kitchen/ living room drawing on his pipe. If he had been out to the Club and come home slightly the worse for wear, he would respond to my pestering by singing ‘mademioselle from Armentieres who’s never been kissed for forty years’ though he never got any further than that – and Granny was always telling the pair of us to ‘have hush and leave it.’

Almost certainly he spent the whole of his life after he came home suffering from what we would now call ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ and probably he had some sort of war disability pension, but almost certainly no other help.

It’s only now, many years later, after much reading and looking at photographs and the work of war artists, that I can recognise, albeit not really comprehend, what my grandfather must have seen and experienced to effectively have placed a barrier between him and the world around him for the rest of his ‘life’. And yet, as a miner, habituated to the dangers of working underground and the all too frequent injuries and deaths, he must have been more familiar than many of his fellow tommies, with risk and with mortality.

Grandpa was hardly a ‘war hero’. His name is obviously not inscribed on any of the memorials erected in towns and villages countrywide to the fallen nor are his ‘exploits’- what ‘exploits? – celebrated in any way but there must have been hundreds of men just like him whose lives were effectively destroyed by ‘the war to end all wars’ and who never came back to savour a ‘land fit for heroes to live in,’ and, as we prepare to celebrate the centenary of WW1, I think that he and his fellows should be remembered sympathetically.

‘The Signalman’, Debbie Lyddon

This week’s blog is by Debbie Lyddon, whose artwork, The Signalman, highlights signalling systems at the Battle of Jutland.



Charles Thomas Sewell was a Leading Signalman on the Light Cruiser, HMS Southampton during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. He was also my paternal grandfather. Charlie survived the battle and left a concise, but personal account of the events of 31 May and 1 June in a hand-written memoir that was the starting point for this body of work. In The Signalman I have told the main events of the battle using key words and phrases that have been taken either from Charlie’s memoir or from the record of Naval signals that were sent during the battle.


During WW1 signalling methods in battle were a mixture of flag, semaphore, and Morse code, sent both by wireless telegraphy and searchlight. There has been much discussion about signalling during Jutland. Not only the part it played as the engagement unfolded but also in the outcome of the battle.  Communication between ships that were spread out, in formation, over a wide area was difficult during battle and each form of signalling, unfortunately, had disadvantages. These drawbacks led to a failure to communicate efficiently and to widespread confusion in the passing of orders and intelligence.


Wireless telegraphy used coded Morse and was a relatively new method of communication to be added to the main signals curriculum. This new method of signalling required an electrical supply and aerials, both of which suffered during battle due to power loss and damage. The strength of the signal could vary from boat type to boat type and the Germans became good at jamming it. Wireless telegraphy wasn’t a quick procedure and required several operations to relay the signal. Typically an order would be coded by the signal officer from the signal books in the briefest and best way and sent to the wireless telegraphy office. Here it was decoded and a plain language version sent back to the signal officer to be checked against the original version before being returned for transmission. This procedure ensured correct reporting but was slow.


Flags, on the other hand, had been part of the Navy’s core skills since the Napoleonic Wars and a signalman or ‘bunting tosser’ would have been able to read and transcribe messages with ease. Semaphore used plain Morse code and the hoisting of flag signals used different flags and pennants to denote coded messages.  Both methods were a purely visual form of communication and weather conditions, smoke from funnels and shelling could prevent the signals from being seen. It also meant that the ships needed to be within visual distance of each other, so ships tended to sail closer together in order to read the signals. The flagship was often placed in the middle of the battle-line so that signals could radiate out from it, but at Jutland a battle-line could consist of as many as 24 ships, 8 miles long and a signal could take half an hour to reach the ends of the line. Again this form of signalling was slow, signals could be missed and not passed on, or could – due to human error – be read incorrectly.


Searchlights had the advantage of being seen at night or at times of poor visibility. But they also needed electricity and so had the same shortcomings as wireless telegraphy. Interestingly my grandfather also highlights another serious fault with this signalling method in his memoir.


It was noted that at the end of the night action when the searchlights went out, a greater number of direct hits were recorded. This was accounted for by the fact that the red glow of the carbons of a searchlight would be a better target for a gunlayer through a telescope than the dazzle of the searchlights when switched on. This of course was remedied in the production of searchlights later by fitting a prismatic shutter like the shutter of a camera.’


The Signalman takes the form of three ‘flags’ where the narrative on each is notated with a different method of signal communication: Plain Morse code, semaphore and flag signals.


Flag 1: The beginning

The sea was very calm with a light haze.

Signal method: Morse Code

Linen, wire, cotton, brass

‘On Tuesday afternoon May 30th 1916 the Battle Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (in his flagship HMS Iron Duke) and the Battle Cruiser Squadron under Sir David Beatty (in the fleet flagship HMS Lion) put to sea on customary sweeps…. my job was as a Leading Signalman, acting foreman of the Action Watch and my place on Monkey’s Island was the passing of orders to make signals.’



Flag 2: Day action

Urgent. Have sighted enemy battle fleet.

Wed 31 May 1916, 16.38 GMT

Signal Method: Semaphore

Linen, felt, cotton, brass

‘Incidents in the action were taking place very rapidly; we in HMS Southampton with our squadron ahead of HMS Lion had a close view of most events, some discouraging. At about 4.30pm we sighted the enemy battle fleet and reported the fact to Admiral Jellicoe in HMS Iron Duke…. In order to obtain the disposition and composition of the enemy battle fleet Commodore Goodenough led his Light Cruiser Squadron in between the lines and it was for all the staff on the upper bridge a very thrilling experience.’


 Flag 2 Day action



Flag 3: Night action

Fires started. Flames engulfed the forebridge.

Signal method: Flags

Linen, cotton duck, cotton, brass

‘… at 10.20pm the roar of the claxon sounded and action stations were manned again. I took my place on the upper bridge and as soon as I could accustom myself to the darkness it was clear that a line of light cruisers was just before us on the starboard beam, steering, what appeared almost a parallel course, gradually closing upon us …. finally, both seemed to challenge at the same time and immediately there were exchanges of gunfire and torpedoes, an action which historians state lasted 15 minutes, but to me five minutes….’


Flag 3 Night action




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Debbie Lyddon is an artist who explores landscape and place and her inspiration comes from paying attention to her surroundings. As a classically trained musician she has an interest in a synthesis of landscape, sound and different types of visual notation. The Signalman extends her interest to include other forms of visual communication.

Ladies from Hell


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.

Scot 1

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?’