Slang of the First World War
The "Third Man"

No “third man” on this match! “A Wounded Canadian enjoys a cigarette on his way from captured Boche Trenches. August, 1917.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001719.

It’s Friday the 13th! In honour of any superstitions you might have about the 13th, we’re sharing a slang term that stemmed from a superstition in the trenches : the dreaded “third man”.

Did you know it was considered frightfully unlucky, even fatal, to light three cigarettes with the same match during the First World War? While odd to us today, there is some truth in this fear, as a lit match in the dark of night was sure to draw enemy fire. The longer it stayed lit, the greater the chances a sniper or machine gun would find its mark, aiming at this tell-tale sign of human activity. Thus, to be the “third man” on a lit match was indeed a potentially fatal omen. (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, p. 182-183).