Why no Goths?

We are so accustomed to the epithets ‘Hun’ and ‘Boche’ that were applied to the Germans during the war that we seldom ask, ‘why these and not others?’ Why, for example, was the term ‘Goths’ not used, especially of the large bombers called Gothas which raided Britain in 1917 and 18? There were a few incidences of the use of ‘Goth’, but so few that they stand out as anomalies, even as linguistic misshits. A cartoon in the New York Tribune was reported in the Pall Mall Gazette of 31 August 1914; it showed ‘a German giant trampling Louvain underfoot’, and was captioned ‘Return of the Goth’. Then the word more or less disappears from the British press: under a subheading ‘Ye Goths!’ (the press loving a pun), the Daily Mirror 17 July 1917 ran a brief comment:


‘Did I dream? Is there a war on? I overheard a lady ask for a habitable basemented house in the Greek or Gothic style as she had a staff of fifteen servants.’

This may have been a comment on the number of servants, staff being hard to come by during the war, but, given the subheading, may equally have been a comment on the use of the word ‘Gothic’. If so, writers on church architecture must have been hard-pressed.


Irene Rathbone has Joan Seddon in We That Were Young describe the Germans as ‘swarm[ing] over Europe, like the old Goths’, but this was published in 1932 and is not echoed in the records of table-talk of the time. There was a brief appearance as the heading to an article in the Western Times 16 November 1918 – ‘The Goths’ Lair’ – but this most usable word seems to have been almost deliberately avoided, though its contemporary, and fairly unchanging, definition was absolutely appropriate for the situation. ‘One of an ancient Germanic nation, supposed to have come originally from Scandinavia: a rude or uncivilised person, a barbarian’, was given by Chambers’s Etymological Dictionary in 1867, not much different from the ‘one of an ancient tribe of Teutons, who first appear in history as pouring down upon S Europe from the North, and subverting the Roman Empire: a rude or uncivilised person; a barbarian’, of Nuttall’s Popular Dictionary of the English Language, printed after 1934. Neither Fraser and Gibbons nor Brophy and Partridge register ‘Goth’, and Ernest Weekley, usually quick to have a dig at the Germans in his Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1921) offers ‘Often used of a savage spoiler’, but makes no reference to the war. Nor does it appear as slang in French, at least as registered by Leroy (Glossary of French Slang, 1922), Dauzat (L’Argot de la Guerre, 1918), Sainéan (L’argot des tranchées d’apres les lettres des poilus et les journaux du front, 1915), or Déchelette (L’Argot des Poilus, 1918). There was, however, an attempt to create something of it by Théodore Botrel.


Botrel’s involvement in the language of the war has a strong legacy, though certain voices have spoken out against his most famous contribution, ‘Rosalie’; he was an extremely popular Breton singer-songwriter, and by 1912 had already published a collection of martial songs, Coups de Clarion. He attempted unsuccessfully to join the French army, and then the Belgian army, on the outbreak of war, but supported the war effort by performing for soldiers at the Front. It was his song about the bayonet, first performed in October 1914, with the use of the name ‘Rosalie’ for the weapon, that brought him fame beyond France. Henri Barbusse in Le Feu (1916) (‘Under Fire’) famously has one of his characters reject the term as used by ‘empaillés’, which Leroy translates as ‘clumsy, noodles’, and it usually falls into the category of ‘terms invented by civilians’, a distinction which in turn opens up a huge question of validity and authenticity as applied to language during the conflict. But the question of the origin of ‘Rosalie’ provokes speculation – did Botrel invent it or hear it? Fraser and Gibbons propose that Botrel took the name from a mix of popular mythology and local devotion:


The French linesman’s pet name in the War for the bayonet. It originated from a war-song by M Theodore Botrel, published in the Bulletin des Armées in the autumn of 1914. The bayonet is popularly (but erroneously) said to have been invented at Bayonne, and Ste. Rosalie being a favourite patron saint in the South of France, that possibly suggested the name to the writer of the song.


But Le Petit Comtois for 9 October 1914 carries the following article:



Botrel a Besançon

Avant de quitter Besançon, notre confrère Théodore Botrel à tenu a se faire entendre dans plusiers hôpitaux et ambulances. Il y a interprêté pour la première fois – avec un immense succès – une chanson nouvelle don’t il nous communique le manuscrit. Il y chant la petite baïonette que nos pioupious, on ne l’a pas oublié, la voyant rouge et rose apres la bataille, ont surnommée Rosalie. Voici cette chanson qui, demain, sera célèbre dans tous les dépôts et bivouacs de France:


This clearly credits the French soldiers with naming their bayonets ‘Rosalie’ because of the post-battle colour of the weapon. Another Botrel weapon song, Ma P’tite Mimi from 1915, celebrated the machine-gun (mitrailleuse), but this nickname also failed to register with Leroy, Dauzat, Sainéan or Déchelette. The song is fairly fierce, verse three running as follows:


“Quand les Boches

Nous approchent

Nous commençons le concert

Après un bon démarrage

Nous précipitons le fauchage

Comm’ des mouches

Je vous couche

Tous les soldats du kaiser

Le nez dans nos fils de fer

Ou les quatre fers en l’air.”

When the Boches

Come near

We start the music;

After a good start

We crank up the mower.

Like flies

I’ll lay you out

All you soldiers of the Kaiser

With your noses on our wire

Or your four irons [horse-shoes?] in the air


While Botrel may not be in tune with modern tastes, he was extremely popular in wartime France, and his work was performed in London among the French community during the war; some of his poems were translated into English by G E Morrison and published as Songs of Brittany in 1915, with a foreword by Edgar Preston (neither Rosalie nor Mimi featured in the selection). Botrel had by this time been appointed by the French Department of War as Chansonnier des Armées. The reviewer in The Observer 2 May 1915 felt that the poems had a ‘fine Virgilian passion’ and pointed to Botrel’s performances at the Front. A later volume, Songs of Theodore Botrel, translated by Winifred Byers and published in 1916, brought a stirring comment from The World: ‘Read “Rosalie”, the song of the Bayonet, and if the blood does not dance in your veins, well, it ought to!’ (The Times 19 December 1916).


As regards ‘Rosalie’, Botrel may just have had a very quick ear; he could not write or read music, and used transcribers when publishing his work, which caused problems at times, since at first he got no credit as composer, and later gave no credit to transcribers. It may have been that his presence at the Front, in the early days of the war, gave him access to enthused soldiers celebrating their success and survival by wordplay – a familiar and continual trope of the war. If Botrel took a word that he heard and built a successful song around it he deserves credit for it; language is, after all, opportunistic. Partridge felt that the soldiers eventually came round to wholeheartedly embracing Rosalie, and the evidence for its use is fairly widespread. The May 1915 issue of the French soldiers’ journal L’Echo des Gourbis (‘organe des troglodytes de la Front’) was dedicated to ‘La Journée de Rosalie’ (the day of celebration for Rosalie): there was a journée for the 75 (field gun), there could be one for the aviators, the colonial troops, the machine-gunners, the Red Cross, etc., why not one for Rosalie? There was even another song – ‘Rosalie! Rosalie, ton nouveau nom va bien.’ Le Rigolboche soldiers’ journal for 20 July 1915 carried a song by Jules Pech, ‘Le Frère de “Rosalie”’. The 1 July 1918 typed and mimeographed issue of La Première Ligne contained a song by E Chapuis, ‘Ceinturon & Baionette’, with the lines:


Y’ f’ront fine taille com’les dames

Le ceinturon leur donnera du…cran

Rosalie fera partie du programme

On croira qu’les gros ont un enfant




The front line are as fine as ladies

The belt will give them a bit of dash

Rosalie will be part of the programme

You’ll believe the fat ones have got a kid


But Rosalie had not entirely pushed out other names: in the 16 May 1918 issue of Trench and Camp the American army writer noted that ‘The poilu calls his bayonet by various pet names: ‘Rosalie’ (especially for the new style bayonet, which makes a wound like a cross), ‘a knitting needle’, ‘a roasting spit’, ‘a Josephine’, ‘a fork’; and the old-style bayonet ‘a cabbage cutter’, ‘a corkscrew’.’


Images from La Baïonette 29 June 1916. The second compares Rosalie with Durandel, the sword of Roland.

Botrel in the end seems to have done well with ‘Rosalie’ (it’s in Leroy), hugely overshadowing the comparative failure of not just ‘Mimi’, but also another invention. The Globe on 26 March 1915 reported that ‘the French are rather more adept in inventing stinging epithets for the Germans than we are. M. Theodore Botrel, the Provençal poet [sic], who has been appointed “Chansonnier des Armées,” a revival of the old troubadour, has invented a phrase which should stick. He calls the Germans “Saligoths” (on the analogy of Visigoth), which may be rendered as “Dirty Goths.” And “Bosche” is certainly more effective than “Hun,” an opinion which seems to be shared by the British soldier as soon as he gets to the front.’


Brophy and Partridge favoured the theory that ‘Boches’ stemmed from ‘les Allboches’, a development from ‘Allemands’, which French propaganda eventually developed into ‘les sales Boches’ (‘the dirty Boches’). While ‘Saligoth’ might be a felicitous term in French – it is very close to ‘saligaud’, ‘dirty fellow’ in Leroy – it was not, in English, likely to take off.


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