When the Great War began for Britain, August 4th, 1914, the British Army was recognisably the one described so affectionately in the works of Rudyard Kipling. It was ridiculously small – scarcely 450,000 men, including reservists – by comparison with the millions-strong levies being mobilised by France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. But Kipling’s army was well-trained and led by an officer caste that was proud of its achievements during two centuries of imperial expansion. Wars of conquest and pacification had brought the British infantryman, Tommy, into contact with every variety of culture and language. But the campaign about to be waged on the Western Front was of an entirely different order. New weapons were soon to inflict un-dreamed-of horrors. The mechanisation of warfare was to bring slaughter on an industrial scale. For the English language, it was to be the most violent clash of cultures since the Norman invasion of 1066.
One ‘old sweat’ recalled to the colours at the outbreak of the war was Frank Richards, a Private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the regiment of the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. Richards evoked his own type precisely in his memoir, Old Soldiers Never Die (Faber, 1933). Booze and fillies were the priorities when Frank and his mate, Billy, disembarked in the French port of Rouen in August 1914.
‘Billy used to boast that no matter what new country he went to he could always make the natives understand what he required. He ordered a bottle of red wine, speaking in English, Hindustani and Chinese, with one French word to help him out. The landlord did not understand him and Billy cursed him in good Hindustani and told him he did not understand his own language, threatening to knock the hell out of him if he did not hurry up with the wine … I remonstrated with Billy and told him we could not treat the French who were our allies the same as we treated the Eastern races. He said: “Look here, Dick, there is only one way to treat foreigners from Hong Kong to France and that is to knock hell out of them.” ’
This brief survey is confined to the ‘backchat’ that was the tap root of the lingua franca of men like Billy and Frank. To backchat was to answer back in a spirit of raillery and disparagement. When directed at a superior it was seen as insubordination, which was punishable as a military crime, but among comrades backchat was simply a routine part of the day-long bickering and banter that prevailed in the ranks. The phrase comes from the Hindustani, batchit, from bat, language. In India, which is where Frank and Billy learned their trade, to ‘sling the bat’ was to talk the language of the native population and nothing marked out a pukka Tommy more than the quantity of Hindoo in his slang. So proficiency in ‘chewing the rag’ (passing the time by expending spittle in worthless chat) with such an old sweat (one vulnerable to the recurrence of malarial fevers contracted in the tropics) was an essential first step for any volunteer or conscript seeking acceptance. The raw recruit soon learned that, in Frank Richards’ Army, bread was ‘rooty’, from roti; water was ‘pawnee’, pani; and tea was ‘char’, chai.
Some of the old Army’s Hindi derivations, such as ‘Blighty’, ‘char’ and ‘pukka’, became so widespread they have entered the mainstream of English slang. Blighty, meaning England, the homeland, derives from bilaiti, foreign land. A ‘Blighty’ or ‘cushy one’ was a fortunate wound requiring evacuation to England for treatment, similar to the German, heimatschuss, a home-shot, or the French, fine blessure, a fine wound. ‘Cushy’ or ‘cushti’, in the sense of comfortable or safe, derives from khush, pleasure. ‘Pukka’, meaning correct, proper, fit for purpose, comes from pukkha, ripe, ready to eat, the opposite of ‘cutcha’, kachcha, bad, false, raw.
Given the importance of food and drink to the fighting man (armies marching on their stomachs as they do) it is unsurprising that so many Indian words of a domestic nature entered trench lingo. Men were ‘booka’, bhukha, hungry, much of the time. ‘Burgoo’, porridge, and ‘skilly’, thin stew, reached the trenches in a ‘dixie’, an oval, bucket-sized cauldron with a lid and a handle that Hindi speakers called a degchi, cooking pot. Any offering deemed unworthy of the ‘bobbajee’, the cook, bawachi, was likely to be derided by his comrades as ‘cooter gosh’, not fit for human consumption, from kutta, dog, and ghosht, food. Like everyone else at the Front, the bobbajee often had to work under intense stress and got little thanks for his efforts. Any ingrate who spat out a mouthful of gristle with the exclamation, ‘Who called that bastard a cook?’ was likely to be rewarded with a prolonged spell of ‘dixie bashing’, cleaning greasy pans with his bare hands and a damp rag.
Once the 1914 German invasion of France and Belgium had been contained by the French and their allies, the years-long battle on the Western Front subsided into a pseudo-siege, an almost static kind of warfare in which none of the vast armies engaged was able to break the stalemate. The scale of organisation on both sides of No Man’s Land brought huge military bureaucracies into being. Everything the soldier needed to fight or keep body and soul intact required a ‘chit’ or ‘chitty’, from chitthi, a hand-written authorisation on paper. Anyone approaching the Quartermaster (‘blanket stacker’ or ‘clutching hand’) for a new piece of kit was unlikely to be successful without a ‘chit’ signed by an officer or NCO. And behind ‘the Front’ was ‘the Base’, crammed with depots and warehouses run by an army of clerks, ‘pen pushers’ or ‘ink slingers’, whose job was to fill out interminable wads of ‘coggidge’, Army forms, from kaghaz, writing paper.
Tommy’s best friend, according to his sergeant, was his rifle, his ‘bandook’ or ‘bundhook’, from banduq, musket, When the ‘foot slogger’ was ordered to march quicker he was told to ‘put some jildy into it’, juldee, meaning energy or effort. When he was ordered to slow down or halt it was ‘Arsty! Arsty!’ from ahisti, go slow. If he stood on the fire step to inspect No Man’s Land he took a ‘dekko’ at it, from dekhna, to see. And every few weeks, if he was lucky, he was marched off to see the ‘dhobi wallah’, at the local de-lousing station to get a clean, fresh uniform in exchange for his verminous ‘Khaki’, khakhi, his dust coloured tunic. ‘Dhobi’ meant laundry and ‘wallah’ meant doer, from wala, the man who does it. Everyone was a doer in the trenches. The man firing the trench mortar was the ‘trench mortar wallah’. The man who fetched the mail was the ‘post wallah’. The battalion chaplain was ‘padre’ to his face but a ‘pulpit wallah’ when his back was turned.
The most important doer of all, as far as Tommy was concerned, was the one who picked him up and carried him to safety after he had ‘stopped one’ on the battlefield. So long as he hadn’t been hit anywhere vital such as the ‘goolies’, testicles, from ghooli, ball, the ‘dhoolie wallah’ was the stricken man’s saviour – the stretcher bearer, from doli, the covered litter used in India for the conveyance of important personages. No one was more important in his own mind than the wounded warrior, especially if he was heading for ‘Blighty’ with a well earned ‘cushy one’ after ‘doing his bit’ against the ‘unspeakable Hun’.
Chris Moore’s miscellany of trench lingo, Roger, Sausage and Whippet, is published by Headline. His debut novel, The Hoarse Oaths of Fife was shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown Award in 2016. Read our interview with Chris.
- Royal Irish Rifles, the Somme 1916.
- Indian Lancers, the Somme, 1916.