Slang of the First World War
"Cooties"

A Canadian searches his shirt for “cooties” (body louse) in May 1917.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001331.

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)

Slang of the First World War
"Bon for the bust"

“French women selling oranges to Canadian troops on their return to camp. June, 1917.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001407 (Modified from Original).

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).

Slang of the First World War
"Green Envelope"

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).

A “Green Envelope”.
© Royal Mail Group Limited 2018.
© Royal Mail Group Limited 2018.

Slang of the First World War
The "No. 9" Pill

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!

“The Pill of the Period”
Credit: Library And Archives Canada, Inventory no.: 7322, Volume 5078, MIKAN no. 4167959, “Garland From The Front (5th Battalion) – 1916-1917 Christmas and New Years edition.”, p. 2.

Slang of the First World War
The "Halifax Explosion"

“View of the column of smoke raised by the Halifax Explosion”
Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-166585.

Did you know after the events of 6 December 1917, the “Halifax Explosion” became the common reference point against which later explosions were compared? The severity – and popularity – of the disaster ensured that anything likened in strength to the “Halifax Explosion” could be easily understood by the average citizen. In fact, J. Robert Oppenheimer later used the numbers gathered from the Halifax Explosion to determine the potential effects of a nuclear explosion (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 288).

Slang of the First World War
"Blue Puttee"

“Brothers All”
With only greatcoats supplied by Canada, the rest of the Newfoundlanders’ early uniforms were made up of a variety of civilian and military clothing.
Credit: The Rooms. Collection MG 110, Item A 8-85, 1914.

In honour of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s role in the Cambrai offensive from 20 November – 6 December 1917, today’s slang term is “Blue Puttee”.

Following the outbreak of war in 1914, Newfoundland suddenly found itself needing to clothe hundreds of volunteers, without having a stock of uniforms, nor even the proper fabric to make their own. In desperation, the Patriotic Association’s Equipment Committee hired local clothing manufacturers to create uniforms, underwear, ground sheets and blankets as quickly as possible (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 110). Without any khaki wool available for making puttees, navy blue fabric was used instead.

“Soldiers practicing first aid, Pleasantville.”
Initial clothing shortages resulted in a myriad of uniforms in 1914.
Credit: The Rooms. Series, Item E 19-25, 1914. Holloway, Robert Palfrey, 1887-1917; Holloway Studio (St. John’s, N.L.).

As a result, the five hundred troops of the Newfoundland Regiment’s First Contingent left St. John’s in October 1914 wearing blue puttees. They would be the only Newfoundlanders to be equipped with puttees in this colour and thus, it became a badge of honour.

Consequently, ‘to be a “Blue Puttee” was to be a member of the famous First Five Hundred’ (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 110).

For many years after the war, veterans of the Newfoundland Regiment – proud “Blue Puttees” – gathered annually on 4 October, marking the anniversary of the First Five Hundred’s departure from St. John’s in 1914.

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).

Slang of the First World War
"Duck's Breakfast"

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).
A Canadian enjoys a “duck’s breakfast” in May 1917.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001193.

Slang of the First World War
"Jake"

In Tuesday’s post, we quoted Canadian stretcher bearer Ralph Watson of the 29th (Vancouver) Battalion using the term “jake” as an expression of approval when describing a dugout with a corrugated iron roof and large open wood fire. A term associated mostly with Canadians, “jake” was used to refer to anything considered positive or worthy of approval, comparable to simply saying “good” (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang Of The Great War, p. 115). 

A “Rustic Summer House” dugout in January 1917. An elaborate shelter like this would have been considered “jake” to Canadian troops!
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-004400.

Slang of the First World War
Bombardier Fritz

Following this week’s post about estaminets, (read it again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/25-july-1917/ ), today’s slang term is “Bombardier Fritz”.

Bombardier Fritz – A corruption of the French “pommes de terre frites”, it referred to the ever-present eggs and fried potato chips meal that could be bought at civilian estaminets just back of the front lines. Also referred to as “pom Fritz”. (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 44 & 149, Brophy, Partridge, Dictionary of Tommies’ Songs and Slang, 1914-18, p. 88).

British and French soldiers playing cards outside a family-run estaminet. Braisne, 16 October 1914.
© IWM (Q 53337)