Awards and decorations November 1916

ribbons 4A little leaflet has come our way, published in November 1916; it folds up to about the size of a playing-card. It would have been useful indeed for recognising the ribbons which take the place of medals in undress (i.e. when not wearing uniform).

We like the understatement: ‘Contrary to the British practice, French, Belgian and Russian soldiers may be seen in the streets of London displaying the medals themselves’.

Oh dear.ribbons 2ribbons 3ribbons 1


And, in passing, an early use of the term ‘PT’ in Rifleman Fred Walker’s diary from November 1918; at this point he was convalescing from the effects of a gas attack. As regards the dancing, this was tweeted by Dr Emma Hanna:

Folk dancing was used in convalescents notably by YMCA-sponsored instructor Daisy Daking. Dispatched to France in 1917 from Cecil Sharp’s group. Daking created a team of 30 folk dance instructors working with BEF in France and Flanders by end of 1918.

13 to 16 November 1918




Selectivity, 12 November 1918/2018

Here is the news – our careers and interests are not finished. The centenary period was always going to be about relating the past to the present, the taut line connecting date to date, experience to imagined experience, act to remembrance. Perhaps now it gets in fact more interesting as we are less tied to that framework, and can roam more freely over the whole business, and over how people began to digest it, evaluate it, and archive it in so many ways. We look at how people in the past looked at the past, and find ourselves at last in the same position – that after a period of what was beginning to appear like endless war, the end had come: like us, they finally knew what happened next.


From the point of view of language, we now have 100 years of people looking back at the linguistic experience of the war, remembering, evaluating, archiving, arguing, and above all selecting. Which terms are thought worth noting, which linguistic phenomena become the ‘words of the First World War’? Our recent blog noted the words and phrases that middle-brow radio comedy selected (see previous blog), a curious and refreshing focus on ‘cushy’, ‘lousy’, ‘breaking new ground’, ‘when the balloon goes up’, and ‘snipe’, rather than the usual ‘no man’s land’, ‘shell-shock’, etc.


What did Eric Partridge, the great observer of wartime language in English highlight, and how did he process it? As regards slang Partridge wrote in Ernest Swinton’s Twenty Years After:

The mixing of the classes has been far more influential than the mixing of the nations. This mixing has been more profitable to the educated than to the uneducated for the latter picked up little more than some arresting or grandiloquent journalese and some useful officialese: the former gained immensely by their acquisition of vivid popular words and phrases, and by tier perception of the vitality and immediacy characteristic no less of dialect than of slang – indeed many cultured men and a few cultured women that had been in danger of becoming effete, pretty-pretty … were revivified by contact with their less ‘respectable’ fellows.


There is a critique of this in Words and the First World War, but essentially Partridge sees this in terms of language acquisition rather than a power shift as one group adopts the language of another.


A decade later Partridge felt that the influence of 1914-1918 was ‘very considerable’ (Partridge and Clark, British and American English since 1900, 1951), yet chose to focus on terms coming into English from German and French:


‘The contemptible little army’ has had quite a lot of usage on the twitterfeed, but there has not been much on how ‘plangemäss’ and ‘spurlos’ actually moved into English. The OED gives:

Times 9 Sept 1919   ‘Here indeed, to use the language of the German bulletins, everything went “according to plan”’, but with earlier usages.

‘Sunk without trace’ was a phrase picked up from German semi- or fully official usage, like ‘Hun’ or ‘hate’, and used both as a challenge and then, from October 1918, mockingly. Fraser and Gibbons describe it as ‘A notorious German phrase of the War that has become historic’, though history has proved its continuing use. Partridge’s teasing ‘several extremely expressive slang words and phrases’ may have meant more to readers in 1951 than it does now – Brophy and Partridge gave ‘pride of place’ to ‘Archie’, and noted ‘sanfairyann’ as ‘an extremely popular phrase’, both of which have disappeared from popular usage.


Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old, shown on BBC television on the evening of 11th November 2018, and seen previously in cinemas, is an extraordinary technical achievement; the original film has been speed-reconciled (though slow-motion is used for cinematic effect), colourised, and sound has been added to rebuild the speech ambience, using lip-readers to recreate visible speakers’ words. The cinematic experience takes us there, to the mud, the noise, the bad teeth, ill-fitting uniforms, the flies and the broken bodies – we are surprised into belief, particularly with images such as the dead seated soldier from the film of the Battle of the Somme.. As Will Gompertz’ review for the BBC (20 October 2018 points out:

Every action you see has an accompanying sound, from a bottle being juggled to a tin being opened. He hired lip readers to interpret what the soldiers were saying and brought actors in to voice their words. The upshot of which is you watch the film and accept the illusion without hesitation.We accept the illusion, as our moving image expectations of the colour and sound pull this silent monochrome world into our own.


Perhaps some hesitation would be useful though. The film’s introduction of tanks with voice over describing the early July attacks on the Somme proposes that tanks were used in these attacks, rather than being introduced in mid-September; the outcome of the battle, and the war and the ‘lost generation’, might have been very different if tanks had rolled across on 1st July 1916. The speech recreation is excellent, but at odds with the information provided by the voice overs; specifically it takes no account of the documentation of swearing. There is so much documentation of soldiers swearing, and it’s there in the the voice overs: ‘The language was really edifying – you heard words you never dreamed existed’, and ‘We told dirty stories and made crude remarks’.  Yet what we hear is very tame: a soldier on a stretcher brushes away a nosy magpie with ‘Bloody birds’; a wounded man on a stretcher says ‘Jesus’, perhaps; a soldier says ‘bloody hell’. It is all rather polite. We are told that the pain induced by iodine was ‘terrific’, but a soldier with two neat holes in his arm, when having iodine painted on them, says nothing. Nobody says ‘bastard’ or ‘shit’; a soldier walking along a trench away from the camera holds his upper teeth over his lip as he turns away, but we do not hear him say ‘fuck’. As 2nd Lt Claude Sisley pointed out in The Athenaeum, 1 August 1919:

‘No dialogue pretending to represent military conversation ever rings quite true because this essential word is omitted’.

For W H Downing’s Digger Dialects of 1919 the use of the word was practically synonymous with being a British soldier.

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Is this perhaps because the film was made with an awareness that it would probably be going into schools, even becoming, through the requirement of colour and sound, the definitive ‘grim though educational’ view of the war? Curious, if so, since few children over the age of 10 would be phased by ‘fuck’, though they are likely to be distressed by the sight of smashed and rotting bodies. Repetitive obscenity might even bring it closer to modern experience, even link it to the war’s most familiar contribution to the curriculum. Partridge believed that the senseless repetition of obscenity was one of the most dynamic aspects of military slang, and that the ‘surrealist use of obscenity’ brought a ‘near-poetic value’ to the language. On which subject, as was pointed out on twitter, Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem actually reads ‘They shall grow not old, …’. A small thing maybe, but poets do tend to be selective about which words they use, and in what order.



Wartime slang on BBC Radio 4

On the eve of the centenary of the Armistice BBC Radio’s comedy sketch programme The Now Show marked the end of the centenary of the war with a brief session on words. Introducing the subject by questioning David Cameron’s use of the word ‘celebrations’ to suggest the tone of centenary activities, the sequence went on to state that ‘the cultural impact of the First World War can be seen in our everyday language’, which we wholeheartedly endorse.


A look in detail at the words and phrases offered:


‘Chatting’ and ‘lousy’ are well-known, and have developed away from their original usages, if ‘chatting’ is taken to mean ‘removing chats, i.e. lice from clothing’; it looks like a happy coincidence that one chatted (easy conversation, from the sixteenth century) while chatting with the fingernails or a candle, which Partridge (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937/1974)) dates as from around 1850, coming into general use during the war, and ‘responsible for obvious puns’.




‘Breaking new ground’ according to The Now Show’s script-writers, or more likely their reference material, ‘meant digging a new trench’. We’ve not previously come across this as a First World War new phrase, though its development from the Regular Army and the Territorial Army into wider use through contact with the New Armies may certainly be a result of the war; for the OED the sense of ‘doing something new’ is rather earlier, from 1631, and the usage for an army beginning to dig trenches dates from 1678.


‘“When the balloon goes up” … refers to the moment when just before a battle an observation balloon was sent up to see the enemy positions’. Presumably in the period after the bombardment had finished, and before the moving barrage took its place? It’s not easy to imagine this in practice, though essentially it is what soldiers saw; the phrase certainly came into use then, and is a good example of how a straightforward observation developed into a metaphorical use. Brophy and Partridge note the development in Soldiers’ Songs and Slang (1930) –



And Fraser and Gibbons (1925) have the same use of ‘What time’ rather than ‘When’


The OED is not entirely clear on exact usage: they offer from Putnam’s Magazine in 1909:

‘You tell Alfonso..that one more break like that will give him a good swift start for Spain.’..‘In brief, Alfonso, cut out the musical extras or your balloon goes up.’ This seems to be implying the balloon being cast adrift.

The OED’s earliest citation of the exact phrase is from 1924: ‘When’s the magistrate’s court?’.. ‘The balloon, I believe, goes up at 10 a.m.’

Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English notes that the phrase is ‘slightly obsolescent’.



‘Sniper’ does indeed originate in India, according to the OED, whose first citation, from the East India Military Calendar – ‘Several sepoys were killed and wounded by the enemy’s snipers’ – is dated 1824, earlier than the first OED citation for a snipe-shooter, which is dated 1840. Fraser and Gibbons go even earlier, dating it from the American War of Independence, and noting that by the start of the twentieth century it was an established military term.



The selection of ‘bullets and shells’ that gave rise to slang terms is excellent – pipsqueak, crump, whizz-bang and toffee-apple. Details on all of these can be found in Trench Talk and Words and the First World War (see below for links).


We encourage you to catch up on the programme, as much as anything to see how these words and phrases are being applied to current political satire. And indeed, as the script says, ‘All this legacy we will remember of Sunday’. The programme can be heard on BBC Radio 4 at 12.30 GMT on 10 November 2018, and is available online for another 29 days.


It is just a coincidence of date (and in all honesty of rather doubtful validity after the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in September 1752), but today’s blog has to be about fireworks; for many of us the sound of night-time muffled explosions at this time of year is as close as we will come to the sound experience of so many of our grandfathers, great-uncles and great-grandfathers.

In thinking about how soldiers communicated the experience of the Front, we continually find referents from civilian life: machine-guns are like typewriters, shells screaming overhead are like express trains, smaller projectiles are named after familiar foods and animals. Small wonder then that the Very lights and other illuminations, including exploding aircraft, were compared to, or referred to as ‘fireworks’. In a rather jingoistic account of Indian troops’ first encounter with shell-fire, published in the Banbury Advertiser on 5 November 1914, (‘Thought German Shells Were Fireworks’, runs the headline), ‘a cavalry officer’ writing initially to the Morning Post, says that the soldiers ‘behaved splendidly … and I think they thought the shells were fireworks let off for their benefit’. A soldier quoted in the Evening Despatch, 7 August 1915, described the sight as ‘one of our guns threw out a shell which burst like a firework into a glorious shower of stars, as though to ask “What on earth is the matter with you?”’ Other descriptions – ‘a most glorious firework display from ships’ guns’ (Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 16 June 1915), ‘Last Tuesday night was the big firework display’ (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 12 November 1914) – apply the metaphor, but noticeably from the shelling side’s point of view. Descriptions at a distance that referred to fireworks continued as the war progressed; the Birmingham Daily Post on 17 July 1917 reported (‘Like a Firework Display’) ‘The French general commanding afterwards described the battle from the observers’ point of view as a 14th July firework display, not unjustly, because during the whole time the evening sky was continually lit up by rockets and flares of all descriptions’. Did soldiers ever describe the shelling they were receiving as ‘fireworks’? This looks at first glance to be the case in the 5 November 1914 officer’s account above, but the actual soldiers’ views are not reported.


On the Home Front fireworks were soon perceived as a security risk, certainly in coastal areas, even before the shelling of Hartlepool and Scarborough in December 1914. Regulations forbade the letting off of fireworks ‘or other explosives of a similar nature … on the sea shore, or at any place within ten miles of the sea shore in the limits of the defended harbour of the Tyne, …’ (Newcastle Journal, 2 October 1914). Applications to ‘competent military authorities under the Defence of the Realm Regulations No.26’ permitted ‘properly organised firework displays’ in 1915, but the ‘general use of fireworks on November 5, such as was permitted last year’ was prohibited (Manchester Evening News, 30 October 1915). Presumably this caused a few problems for Sagar’s Airedale Lighting Co, of Shipley, who had placed an advert in the Shipley Times and Express for the previous day, announcing:

Fireworks! Fireworks!

Who wouldn’t shoot “Kaiser Bill”?

Buy a 1s. or 6d. box

Of beautiful fireworks

At least the fireworks listed did not carry the names used by Edwards and Bryning of Rochdale the previous year – ‘“Black Maria” or “Jack Johnson” shells’.


The permission for public firework displays seems to have continued to 1917. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 30 October 1917, carried the Police Commissioner’s warning that the ‘use of fireworks or other similar devices’ without permission was ‘absolutely prohibited’. But in 1918, as the Huddersfield Daily Examiner reported on 5 November, it was ‘No Fireworks Today’.

Shrewsbury fireworks Zepp 1916

Did soldiers provide themselves with a moral uplift by reducing the nightly lights in the sky to a harmless firework display? On 31 May 1916 the Border Counties Advertiser carried an article in which Sapper Richard Hamer describes the destruction of a Zeppelin as ‘one of the finest sights I have seen … the sight exceeded even the splendour of the firework display at Shrewsbury show’. Fortunately the crew escaped. Eric Partridge, writing in Ernest Swinton’s Twenty Years After, notes the metaphor being taken one step further, applying a frequent trope of leaving behind the immediate referent – in this case, the lights are not ‘fireworks’ but a ‘Brock’s benefit’, from the name of a familiar firework producer

.EP fireworks



Trench teeth

One of the strongest impressions from Peter Jackson’s film We Shall Not Forget Them (not the best title) is the dreadful state of the soldiers’ teeth. This may not have been a strong intention in the colourisation process, but the film was a very bad advertisement for the state of the nation’s teeth; Britain is renowned for the general bad standard of dental health – remember Spike Milligan’s poem Teeth, which ends ‘Three cheers for the Brown, Grey and Black’. British soldiers’ teeth, as seen in the film, certainly live up to this description, where they remain at all. How did soldiers deal with toothache, rotting teeth, and the effects of gum disease?


This from In Mesopotamia, by Martin Swayne (1917):

A great many men suffered from bad teeth, and the suitable treatment of their cases became a problem. In the ordinary establishment of a general hospital, in the Army, there are about thirty medical officers, but no provision is made for dentists. In Mesopotamia decay of the teeth was rapid. Dentists in small numbers were sent from India. I hesitate to put down the amount that one dentist told me he was making each month. We had, for some time, only one dentist, and his waiting list was several hundred cases, all requiring urgent attention. Some of the bad cases became
base men that is, they were attached for permanent duty at the base and assisted in hospital work. If each hospital had had a dentist attached to it as a matter of routine, and a couple of mechanics for repairing dentures, receiving the same pay as a doctor, the problem of teeth, which is always troublesome, would have been to a considerable extent solved. I do not know why teeth decayed so rapidly. It may have been due to incipient scurvy, or to the nature of the rations, or to the general state of health, or it may have been caused by some septic condition of the mouth, induced by the heat and dryness. Some young fellows lost every tooth in their possession in a year.


For those who lost had lost their teeth, maintaining dentures in a good state of repair was problematic – soldiers in the Spanish Civil War used to keep liquorice root to chew on to stop them from breaking teeth or denture during a bombardment, but presumably during the First World War leather or cloth was used. For those at the Front who broke teeth or dentures, the civilities of home dentistry might seem very distant; Kipling, in The Irish Guards in the Great War (1923), reports the words of a soldier whose false teeth had been broken in an attack: ‘I’ve been to him [the doctor], Sorr, and it’s little sympathy I got. He just gave me a pill and chased me away, Sorr’.


Before being shipped out to a Front overseas soldiers might be treated a little more generously – Douglas Walshe in With the Serbs in Macedonia (1920), reported on a happier circumstance:


A certain private damaged his artificial dentures – argot, broke his teeth.
Tremendous issues were immediately raised. Was it a genuine accident, or was it done with intent to avoid embarkation overseas ? The culprit, or victim, declared that he had dropped them out of his mouth in the latrines.

I am sorry, but this is a military history, and in the Army that is where everything happens. Whenever you want a man, that’s where he is. If he’s late on parade or parades unshaven— that’s why.

Evidence there was none, except that of the victim, or culprit. To make a new set would mean that he must be left behind, and he claimed that he was entitled to a new set at the public expense and objected to a mere repair. Like his officers, he didn’t see why he shouldn’t get all he could out of the Army.

The matter was settled by arbitrarily sending the man and the dentures into Bristol under escort. There a dentist at first demanded a guinea to mend them, was apprised of the facts, and agreed to do it for five shillings, and finally, when the moment of settling came, accepted half a crown!

He made a most excellent repair of them, and the man himself made a most excellent soldier. He was, indeed, one of the best men in the Company.




Among the private companies sponsoring phrasebooks for soldiers in the United States Army and Navy was the Kolynos Company, who published the wonderfully named The Kolynos ‘Parley Voo Booklet’, giving English, French and German phrases with a pronunciation guide, written by Col F N Maude and Frank Scudamore, who had already written “Parley Voo”!! Practical French phrases, Arabic for our Armies … Words and phrases with their equivalent in colloquial Arabic, and Turkish for Tommy and Tar in 1915, and Sprechen Sie Deutsch and “Parley Voo”!! Practical French and German Phrases, and how to pronounce them, in 1916, all published by Forster Groom & Co. in London. F N Maude had collaborated with Scudamore in a work of fictional conjecturing, The Great War of 189-. A forecast, a pre-Entente scenario which cast Britain as an ally of Germany, but which otherwise, especially in its description of a Balkan spark to war, was, in many ways surprisingly prescient – though any study of the structuring of international treaties of mutual defence and aggression would suggest something similar.





In keeping with the spirit of private enterprise and sponsorship, the Kolynos booklet carries an advertisement on its back cover, but also, on its inside front cover, an exhortation to the serving soldier or sailor to take good care of his teeth. There is however no suggestion that sound teeth would help in the pronunciation of French or German; perhaps the absence of the ‘th’ consonant made this less of an essential. ‘Trench Gingivitis’ is a rare term, and does not have the easy application of ‘trench foot’, still less ‘trench-coat’; but anyone watching Peter Jackson’s film might imagine the need for a term something like ‘trench teeth’.





Some military terms

E S Farrow’s A Dictionary of Military Terms (May 1918) has some wonderful terms; Farrow himself, as noted in an earlier post, was Assistant Instructor of Tactics at West Point. His dictionary brings to light a few lesser-known terms as well as offering definitive definitions of well-known ones. Here, for no reason other than that they are curious, fun, and sometimes bewilderingly obvious, are a few:















Colour coding 2

A few months ago we wrote about the use of Charles Booth’s poverty map and the use of colour-coding for social class, pink for affluence, blue for poverty and so on. The military use of code has also been explored in these pages, and the concept of coding regularly appears.


The Handy Black Cat English-French Dictionary was one of a series of little booklets published fro Carreras Ltd for inclusion in their packets of cigarettes. Five titles were published, each with the same front cover design, with its inventive use of the inverted 5 to do the job of the ‘ç’. But, when seen under a handy magnifying-glass, also noticeable is the monochrome coding of the colours of the flags – the dark blue, white and red of the Union flag, the blue, white and red of the Tricolor, and the black, yellow and red of the Belgian flag.


These are tonally coded by block ink – here solid for the dark blue and black; by no ink, for the white; and by line or dot shading – horizontal for French blue, vertical for red and dotted for yellow. The three shadings for hues correspond to the language for conveying colour by monochrome signifiers used in heraldry (see ); according to the heraldica website ‘This method is usually attributed to the Jesuit S. da Pietra Santa (1638) although it was in use earlier.’

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Given that the black coloration of the Carreras Black Cat was already in use as a blocked colour, the use of solid black for the black of the Belgian flag is understandable; heraldry carries no signifier for the specific blue of the Union flag, and it would have to be distinguished from the blue of the Tricolor. A mix then of Entente compromise and very old traditional visual translation.