Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

09 May 2014

Languages and the First World War

Julian Walker writes:

The early part of 2014 saw a rush of books, new websites and television programmes about the First World War, and for some of us there was a concern that ‘First World War fatigue’ would set in before the arrival of the actual anniversaries. Finding a new way of considering the conflict seemed a remote idea. The field of language, however, has been little considered, is a fantastically rich area, and allows examination of both the differences and the commonality of experience among civilians and combatants across all the combatant nations. How did language change during and as a result of the war, how did languages influence each other, and what effects have lasted through the century between then and now?

The conference ‘Languages and the First World War’, to be held at the University of Antwerp and the British Library in June 2014 will address some of these questions, with papers from 27 speakers, and subjects ranging from the influence of French on English trench-slang, to the professionalisation of interpreting, to the censorship of soldiers’ letters home in Welsh, the difficulties faced by French-speaking Caribbean soldiers in France, and the use of propaganda in an Italian soldiers’ magazine. The conference coincides with Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour, the British Library’s exhibition on the First World War, and is open to the public.

The linguistic experience was a fundamental part of the experience of the war, and ranged from the deeply problematic to the enjoyable. The melting-pot of the Western Front brought together speakers of different dialects or sociolects within one language, leading to the uptake and spread of previously isolated terms. Officialese brought terms such as ‘debus’ and ‘attest’, while British soldiers tucked into ‘Bombardier Fritz’ (pommes de terre frites); new terms from the conflict – camouflage, tank, air raid – quickly came into common use. The management of the war was in many cases required to be multilingual: administrators dealing with Belgian refugees were baffled by Flemish, and the 1919 report on the Belgian community in County Durham relied partially on sources from the Catholic Church, written in Latin.

Trench glossary
Pastiche glossaries were popular in trench journals, newspapers produced by soldiers for soldiers.

The British Expeditionary Force was to a large extent made up from men who were the beneficiaries of a series of compulsory education acts, and who constituted the most literate army Britain had ever had. They were led ‘over the top’ by junior officers who were in many cases public school and university educated, conversant with Latin and Greek. Trench journals, diaries and letters home give evidence of how important reading and writing were for the Tommies – 15,500 bags of mail crossed the Channel just from England to France every day in 1916 and 1917. Those who found themselves further away from home, in Palestine, Greece or Iraq, might not know exactly where they were – so labelled those parts ‘Mesapolonica’.

Examination of the linguistic aspects of the war reveals an underlying sense of shared experiences, and there are instances of parallel wordplay occurring across the hell of no man’s land. German hand grenades were called ‘potato-mashers’ by both sides. Both German and British soldiers were unimpressed with the substitute for butter in their rations: on one side they called it ‘Wagonschmiere’, on the other ‘axle-grease’. Sometimes this wordplay emerged as the most awful puns: a German raiding party scrawled the words ‘Gott mitt uns’ on a plank left amongst the barbed wire; the following night a British raiding party turned it round closer to the German lines, adding the words ‘Don’t swank – we’ve got mittens too’.

Message for the Bulgars
Message for the Bulgars: the conflict in Salonika allowed references to what was at that time a highly contentious term

German soldiers could find themselves using a phrasebook that told them how to say in French both ‘I am confiscating the money’ (schè kongfisk larschang) and ‘Waiter, bring me half a litre of wine’ (garsong, donneh moa öng dèmih litr dè wäng). It all looks very like an English schoolboy’s attempt to pronounce French; but then many of the British soldiers fighting in France were not long out of school themselves.

Postcard tray bon
Postcard home: Arthur Tildesley writes that he is ‘tray bon’.

Perhaps the one word that conjures up images of the First World War is ‘Blighty’, meaning ‘home’ or ‘Britain’. Deriving from the Hindi bilyati, meaning ‘foreign’ or ‘European’, it was applied to British soldiers and administrators, who then took the term themselves. ‘A Blighty one’ or ‘a blighty’ was a wound that would take you safely away from the fighting, while ‘a Blighty touch’ was the same thing, but self-inflicted.

Throughout the war there was discussion of the origins of the names of allies and enemies – did the nickname Poilu (‘hairy’) for French soldiers really derive from their being able to grow beards while on active service, or was it from a novel by Balzac? And where did the word ‘Boche’ come from? Indeed was it ‘Boche’ or ‘Bosche’? Newspapers regularly updated their readers with new slang terms, and there was an awareness in the UK that the ‘war of words’ was enlarging and enriching the English language. Right at the beginning of the war the Rev. Andrew Clarke set about collecting what he saw as ‘ordinary words’ – the words used in reporting the war, in advertising, and in people’s conversation as they experienced the fear, grief, relief and stress of the conflict. Lynda Mugglestone, University of Oxford Professor of the History of English, will be giving a keynote paper on his work.

The conference is at the University of Antwerp on 18th June and the British Library on 20th June, and is open to all. Regular updates and information will be posted on the blog and the twitter feed @LanguagesFWW and tickets can be booked on


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