Happy Lunar New Year! This photograph shows “Chinese Labour Battalions in France celebrating the Chinese New Year on 11th February, 1918.”
#DYK – The British Army recruited about 100 000 men from China during the First World War to perform heavy labour on the Western Front. They were not part of the military force, but worked in the same conditions as the soldier labour battalions. Chinese Labour Corps transports passed through Canada on their way to Europe; these transports happened under strict secrecy and the recruits were not allowed to leave their trains, for fear that the local population would protest. At the time, Chinese immigrants to Canada were suject to a strict quota and a head tax.
With Valentine’s Day approaching, today we’re sharing a light-hearted story involving “cooties” and love letters during the First World War. Did you know “cooties” was one of the many terms used to describe body louse?
“One sunny day in the front-line trench, I saw three officers sitting outside of their dugout… exploring their shirts… The major was writing a letter; every now and then he would lay aside his writing-pad, search his shirt for a few minutes, get an inspiration, and then resume writing. At last he finished his letter and gave it to his “runner.” I was curious to see whether he was writing to an insect firm, so when the runner passed me I engaged him in conversation and got a glimpse at the address on the envelope. It was addressed to Miss Alice Somebody, in London… the major’s sweetheart… he wrote to her every day. Just imagine it, writing a love letter during a “cootie” hunt; but such is the creed of the trenches.” (Empey, Over The Top, p. 23)
We’re keeping the food-theme going with today’s post on slang of the First World War!
During the First World War, “bon for the bust” was a slang phrase meaning “good to eat”. As with many other phrases, the origins of “bon for the bust” are unclear. The widely accepted explanation states that Commonwealth troops first heard the phrase used by French civilians trying to sell food to the English-speaking soldiers, who then adopted the phrase as their own. Whether the phrase was originally broken English, attempted by the French civilians, or partially proper French, corrupted by the English troops, remains unclear. (See Pegler, Soldier’s Songs and Slang of the Great War, p. 45 & Brophy & Partridge, Dictionary of Tommies’ Songs and Slang, 1914-18, p. 89).
19 January 1918 – “Left Marble Arch at 5:30 a.m. took underground to Victoria and got kit [from Maple Leaf Club]… Got the boat and arrived at Boulogne at 1:30 p.m… Wrote Lucy and posted a green envelope at the YMCA in Boulogne.” (Cane, It Made You Think of Home – The Haunting Journal of Deward Barnes, Canadian Expeditionary Force: 1916-1919, p. 150).
Did you know a “green envelope” was a specially coloured envelope, meant to indicate that its contents would not be censored by superior officers? The letter writer had to sign a declaration on the outside of the green envelope, swearing that the contents within were only personal or family matters. The premise was to allow soldiers to write home without concern of their private matters being read by their superiors within the battalion. However, “green envelopes” were issued sparingly and the letters were still subject to censorship further in the rear at base. (See Pegler, Soldier’s Songs and Slang of the Great War, p. 103 & Brophy & Partridge, Dictionary of Tommies’ Songs and Slang, 1914-18, p. 129).
Did you know the excessive “prescribing” of “No. 9” pills by military doctors resulted in the troops mockingly depicting it as a cure-all for the common soldier’s many ailments? In reality, the “No. 9” was “a universal laxative pill, given when no other remedy was deemed suitable. It gave rise to the bingo call ‘Doctor’s orders – number nine.’ ” (Pegler, Soldier’s Songs and Slang of the Great War, p. 135). Today’s image is meant to be a comical advertisement for the “No. 9”, and comes from the Christmas 1916 / New Year 1917 trench publication of the 5th (Western Cavalry) Battalion!
Today is #NationalEatOutsideDay. Did you know in the First World War, to have a “duck’s breakfast” meant the simple pleasure of a face-wash and drink of water? (Doyle, Walker, Trench Talk – Words of the First World War, p. 144).