Voices of the Great War

Talks and presentations

Voices of the Great War - Speaking Across 100 Years

Christopher Mulvey

The Great Hall, Winchester,  18 July 2014


I am from Winchester’s University and The English Project, and I am honoured to be speaking in the Great Hall at the invitation of the Morn Hill Project. I am here, as you are here, ‘To Honour a Promise’.

The Morn Hill Project’s mission is ‘To Honour a Promise’ by erecting a permanent memorial to the military personnel of the British Empire and the United States who passed through the Winchester Morn Hill Camps on their way to fight in the Great War.

The English Project has a very different mission. It is to explore and explain the English language in order to educate and entertain the English speaker by way of opening a museum in Winchester to display the riches of our language through time and across space.

Different as are the missions of the Morn Hill Project and The English Project, I will aim this evening to use the one to interpret the other, and I will note to begin with the fact that both projects mention Winchester in their mission statements.

Winchester is where The English Project plans to open its museum, and there are lots of good reasons why Winchester should be the place to do that. I won’t go into them now, but I readily admit that The English Project’s tie to Winchester is not truly as direct as is the tie of the Morn Hill Project to Winchester.

Morn Hill is one of the ring of hills that represents the end of the South Downs. The best known of these hills is St. Catherine’s, and it is joined by Chilcomb Down, Telegraph Hill, Deacon Hill, Twyford Down, Oliver’s Battery and Morn Hill, itself. Together, they almost encircle the city. Closer to Winchester, Morn Hill is known as Magdalen Hill, and the army staging camps that began to be set up in 1914 were placed quite a bit distant from the city. I have always assumed that Morn Hill is so named because the sun rises over Winchester from Morn Hill, but such are the riches of language that as we hear the name we might think of it as the hill of mourning, the hill of grieving, and, indeed, there is a cemetery there. And it was from Morn Hill that so many men went to their deaths starting in the winter of 1914. They travelled from Morn Hill to Southampton Docks. From Southampton Docks to the French ports. From the French ports to the Western Front. Two million men passed through Winchester on their way to war.

When I came to live in Winchester, an uncle of mine said: ‘I know Winchester. I was stationed there before I went to fight in France.’ At the time, I thought that he meant that he was stationed in the Peninsula Barracks, behind the Great Hall here, but now I realize that he must have been stationed at Morn Hill – a site that I have not really thought of as Winchester, not until now that is. I am happy to honour the memory of that dear uncle who survived the battles of the Western Front to die in 1980, the year indeed that he mentioned Winchester to me.

Today, there are few still alive who were alive on 28 June 1914, the day in Sarajevo when it all began. But there are many here who remember grandfathers, uncles and great uncles who talked painfully of the years between 1914 and 1918.

For my family, the war truly began with the Military Service Act of 27 January 1916. That commanded young, unmarried men to join the armed forces. Two of my uncles were directed to join the British Army. Before they were sent to France, they were dressed in the jackets and trousers issued to conscripts. There were pictures of those young men in the family homes, and I never looked at them very closely.

But in 1995 when I was talking to their youngest brother he picked up a sepia-coloured picture and said with bitterness: ‘Look at that jacket. Look how cheap it is. Poor cloth and rotten fit. They made them as cheap as they could because they did not expect them to last.’ My uncles and tens of thousands of others were very likely going to their deaths so there was no point in wasting good cloth on them.

Since killing at a distance was a difficult thing to do until the arrival of machine guns, old-style soldiers had been dressed in colourful uniforms, most notably, the Redcoats. By the Great War, bright colours had been relegated to the parade ground. The British population had become familiar with the word: ‘khaki’ and khaki had become the colour of the British Army.

‘Khaki’ was taken from the Urdu language by British soldiers to describe the mud colour of a cloth that they found in India. The first recorded use is dated 1863. Before my family and everyone in Britain began to use it when their boys got kitted out in khaki jackets and trousers, the word was used only by those who had something to do with the army. It was a soldier’s word and then circumstances made it everyone’s word.

War words take us back to those trenches, yes, and they can lead back into the history of our families and they can lead us back also into the history of our language. ‘Khaki’ led me to think again about my soldier uncles and led me to pursue the history of the word, to pursue its etymology, to discover that we first had a need for such a word in the mid-nineteenth century. A word that once very few knew suddenly became one that everyone knew.

The movement from the restricted to the general is a regular passage in language, and the Great War saw many words move from the voices of soldiers to the voices of everyone. There are two classes of word to be considered here: they go by the names of jargon and slang.

Jargon is made up of ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group.’ ‘Khaki’ was once such a word, but, other than the fact that it was an obscure word with no general application, it was, we might say, a neutral word. When the time came, it found its way into the dictionary without any trouble.

Slang, by contrast with jargon, has a more tricky passage into the dictionary. However, it is a class of word that is large in number and powerful in impact. This class includes a large component of soldiers’ words. Linguistically, the slang words are not different from other words. Socially, they are very different.

Primarily, slang is used by one group of speakers to distinguish it from other groups of speakers, and slang changes rapidly creating an ever-renewing in-language. Soldiers are famous for using slang and that means for inventing slang. You can’t have an in-language for an in-group if you do not invent the language yourself.

As a tribute to his British grandfather, an Australian, David Tuffley, has created a dictionary dedicated to the slang of that very large in-group, the soldiers of the First World War. Incorporating a list by historian, David Hinckley, he arrives at close to four hundred words. A full list would probably be closer to a thousand words, but Tuffley’s list is a good one, and the old soldier who passed on his slang to his grandson was a true voice of war.

A striking feature of the old man’s English is the way it mangles French and Dutch. The troops had their own names for the towns and villages of Northern France and Flanders. It is plain that they were mostly reading the names on signposts rather than hearing them from the lips of natives. The results are wonderfully evocative of the marching and the mixing of those times.

Hébuterne became About Turn. You need to see how the French is written to get the best of that joke. Albert became Bert. Etaples became Eat Apples. Foncquevillers became Funky Villas. Montauban became Monty Bong. Ploegsteert became Plugstreet. Poperinghe became Pop. Wytschaete became Whitesheet. And famously, Ypres became Wipers.

Trench French was a garbled language. My uncle used it in a cheerful, mocking tone. He particularly liked to ask for ‘some dulay’ for his tea. When he did, I would hand him the milk jug. After more tea and more war stories, he would take his leave by saying he was going for a sortie. ‘Sortie’, the French word for ‘exit’, was also used to describe a quick incursion into no-man’s land, and it was often a prelude to being shot.

The soldiers may have hated the Germans, but they had no love of the French either. The British used the French language to insult, joke, taunt. ‘Allez’, they’d shout. ‘Go, get out.’ And a German became an ‘Alleyman’ ‘Alleyman’ combined ‘aller’ to go and ‘Allemagne’, the French word for German. It was a typical punning blend that played between the sounds of English and French. And that German, that Alleyman, would be told to ‘Allez, Oot Sweet’ from the French ‘toute de suite’. ‘Toute’ became ‘oot’ became ‘out’.

The troops created a gibberish language. They talked about having a bon time with boko chums drinking plonk at the estaminet. ‘Plonk’ started by meaning ‘white wine’ from the French ‘vin blanc’, ‘blonk’, ‘plonk’. It developed as the word was used and as the wine was drunk a more general sense of cheap or rubbish wine, a meaning that it has today, a hundred years later. ‘Estaminet’, meaning café or tavern was one of the words that they spoke with a French pronunciation. ‘Estaminet’ was one learned by ear not by eye.

‘A typical estaminet’, says David Hinckley, ‘would have a low roof, an open iron stove and wooden benches and tables. The proprietress would serve wine, cognac, thin beer, coffee, soup, omelettes and the most popular of all French dishes of the time - egg and chips.’ If things were no bon, then a man might get ‘fashy’, angry, and go ‘dingo’ from French ‘dingot’, mad or insane. A rather witty adaptation of French was the Tommies’ use of the word ‘souvenir’, meaning a ‘memory’, a ‘keepsake’, a ‘token’. The soldiers turned it into a verb so that to ‘souvenir something’ meant to steal it.

Not all Anglo-French slang was so double edged. Some words were simple borrowings. A dugout might be called an ‘abri’ from the French word for ‘shelter’. ‘Banquette’ was a name that the Tommies had for the fire-step. Fire-steps were placed every few yards and from them a soldier could get a good view of the enemy line and fire at anything that moved. The good view of the Germans also provide a good view of the soldier and to step onto the banquette put a man in danger, put him into the firing line. When his older brother died, my uncle turned to my father and said: ‘Our turn on the fire-step now’. He probably said ‘fire-step’ and not ‘banquette’ because my father had been in the Royal Navy and had a different slang.

The Tommies took words from the Germans as well as from the French, but not so many words. One word that they adopted for a while was ‘kamerad’ – the German for ‘comrade’. The Tommies used the word ironically among themselves. Occasionally, a word would be taken from German as a piece of Army slang and then enter the regular vocabulary of the English speaker with no overtones of foreignness or vulgarity. That happened with the German word for ‘punish’.

The troops discovered that ‘punish’ was being used in a motto, in a song, and as a greeting. Germans were saying and singing ‘God punish England’. In German, that was ‘Gott strafe England’. That was read as ‘God strafe England’. Straafer was pronounced ‘strafe’ by the troops. The most punishing thing that the Germans did was to spray the battlefields with machine gun fire. That really did punish England. When they were strafed, men died in their tens of thousands.

In 1914, we had no word in English for the concentrated, killing fire that came with the machine gun; by 1918, we had a word, and because it filled a gap in the general vocabulary, ‘strafe’ passed rapidly from slang to jargon to standard English. It is a useful illustration of the different levels of language usage.

Jargon is a means of speeding communication; slang is a means of restricting communication. Slang is typically found among teenagers, prisoners, criminals, soldiers and sailors - all sections of society that find themselves in some way at odds with society. Soldiers and sailors have always regarded themselves as outsiders. Traditionally they have been as much despised as admired. To go for a soldier or a sailor was what few wanted for their sons. In response, soldiers and sailors formed themselves into tight, self-defensive groups with their own ways and their own language.

I have said nothing about sailor’s slang – that must be for another lecture – but the soldier’s slang that I been talking about shows all the marks of an in-language. And if it has a particular feature, it is a readiness to build its vocabulary on other languages, on foreign languages, often the languages of the people with whom the soldiers were at war. In the Great War, the Tommies took words from the Germans, but they already had a stock of words that they had taken from earlier enemies, especially those in India and in Egypt.

In the nineteenth century, India had been the great theatre of military action for the British so much so that they had created a parallel army, the Indian Army, which, when there was no war in Europe, was larger than the British Army. So it was that the British Army came to use very many words that came from Hindustani, the language that had become the lingua franca of the Indian Army, an army that was recruited from men speaking a hundred languages.

England, itself, had its own name in this Army talk: ‘Blighty’ from the Hindustani ‘bilayati’. For the Indian troops, ‘bilayati’ meant ‘foreign land’, but for the British troops, it meant quite the opposite; it meant ‘homeland’; it meant ‘England’. Hindustani ‘char’ became the common word for ‘tea’, to be drunk before going to your ‘charpoy’, your ‘bed’. But if instead of char, you drank a lot of ‘cherb,’ or ‘beer’ you might end up in ‘chokey’, Hindustani for a lockup.

In Flanders, strange, twisted meanings developed for some old Indian Army words. ‘A Blighty one’ became the phrase for a wound not so bad that it killed you but bad enough to get you sent back to England. A cushy wound got you out of the trenches for a while. To get ‘a cushy job’ was everyone’s ambition, but a job you did not want was that of the ‘shit-wallah’. ‘Shit’ is from the Old English ‘scittan’; ‘wallah’ is from the Hindi word for a man. To be appointed shit-wallah was heavy work in the trenches, and appointment to that office was more a punishment than a promotion.

Though Indian Army lingo was coming into widespread use throughout the British Army and often spreading into mainland English, the influence of Indian Army slang was most evident in the voices of the troops in the Middle East. The British Army was fighting all the way from Egypt to Turkey. It is not surprising then to find Arabic appearing. The Arabic word ‘mafeesh’, meaning ‘nothing’, ‘all gone’ was used in the Middle East ‘in the same way that the French “napoo” [garbled from “il n’y a pas plus”] was used by those on the Western Front’. The word ‘bint’, a young woman, from the Arabic for daughter, was used by everyone as was ‘buckshee’, meaning ‘free’, or ‘spare’. Those words were in widespread use in England fifty years ago. I wonder if young men use them today. Probably not.

‘Buckshee’, like the word ‘bundook’, for rifle, came into English from Arabic but in fact both words were learned by the Arabs from the Indians. Words are like coins. As coins are passed from hand to hand until they are worn smooth, so words are passed from language to language, and from person to person, until their foreign edges are worn away. The World War One word lists are addictive and every item deserves its paragraph.

I would love to go on forever, and I am sure you would like me to. I would also love to hear a lecture from a Hindustani or Arabic expert who could tell me what words have been taken from the English language and what is their status in their adoptive languages.

I should say more about the voices of the imperial soldiers who took part in Europe’s Great War. There were over a million and a half men recruited from India and Africa, and we could call them the silent voices of war. They were not silent of course. It is just that our histories have so little so say about them and by them. It must have been strange as well as terrible to come from Kenya to fight in France. And such men must have had divided loyalties. For whose protection were they fighting? The British were busy stealing Kikuyu land just at the time when Kikuyus were giving their lives for Britain.

Not all voices of the war were for the war. In Britain, there were those who would not fight. In 1914, on the day war was declared, Bert Brocklesby said: ‘God has not put me on this Earth to go destroying His children.’ And in 1916, when Parliament approved conscription, a body of politicians and writers banded together to lead a movement to repeal the act that compelled their sons into battle.

Fellow citizens, [they wrote]: Conscription is now law in this country of free traditions. Our hard-won liberties have been violated. Conscription means the desecration of principles that we have long held dear; it involves the subordination of civil liberties to military dictation; it imperils the freedom of individual conscience and establishes in our midst that militarism which menaces all social graces and divides the peoples of all nations. We re-affirm our determined resistance to all that is established by the Act.

They ended their address to the people and the powers of Britain by saying:

Repeal the Act. That is your only safeguard. If this be not done, militarism will fasten its iron grip upon our national life and institutions. There will be imposed upon us the very system which statesmen affirm that they set out to overthrow. What shall it profit the nation if it shall win the war and lose its own soul?’

In the year before the Great War began, a group of women had begun to fight for another kind of freedom: the freedom of women to take an active part in the political life of the country. In November 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst travelled to the United States to say:

I am here as a soldier who has temporarily left the field of battle in order to explain - it seems strange it should have to be explained - what civil war is like when civil war is waged by women. I am not only here as a soldier temporarily absent from the field at battle; I am here - and that, I think, is the strangest part of my coming - I am here as a person who, according to the law courts of my country, it has been decided, is of no value to the community at all; and I am adjudged because of my life to be a dangerous person, under sentence of penal servitude in a convict prison.

That the suffragettes were ready to die for their cause had already been demonstrated by Emily Wilding Davison. On Derby Day, she had been trampled to death by the King’s horse. The voices of Pankhurst and Davison were heard because votes were granted to British women in 1918. The Great War resulted in some good things.

There were also those in the United Kingdom whose war was another war than the Great War. The Military Service Act of 1916 applied to England, Scotland and Wales only. It did not apply to Ireland because the United Kingdom was not so united that the British government could depend upon the Irish people to support the war. Many did but many did not, and in 1916, this proclamation was heard:

Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom. Having organized and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, […] she now seizes that moment, and, supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.

I have chosen two voices of war to express some of the conflict that lay behind the conflict. The two voices are those of my grandmothers.

My grandmothers were already dead when I was born, but I think that they were two women as different as women were likely to be – one was a countrywoman and a mother of ten children. The other was a townswoman and a mother of one child. One grandmother was Catholic Irish and the other was Anglican English.

In Kew Gardens, then in Surrey now in London, my Anglican and English grandmother expressed her voice of war through family prayers every night asking that her three conscripted sons might live another day. And the following night, she would pray again that they would again live another day. And she prayed that prayer every night until her three sons had returned home in 1918.

At the same time, in King’s Cross in North London, my Catholic and Irish grandmother was calling for the destruction of the British Army. Zeppelin bombing raids on London had just begun as she arrived from Dublin with her husband and child. She revelled in the fires that she could see from an upstairs window, calling out: ‘Give it to the bastards; give it to the bastards.’

By the bastards, she meant the people of London, the British, my uncles in France, my uncles whom, then, she did not know. She did not them like when she did come to know them. They, for their part, did not like her.

The voices of the Great War speak to us as powerfully as any voices of the twentieth century, but the voices of war are contrary voices or there would be no war. Beyond memories and books, there are other ways to hear the voices of war speaking across the hundred years.

In the Hampshire village of Breamore, there is a War Memorial in St Mary’s Church. It lists the names of the villagers were killed in battle between 1914 and 1918. Simon Jenkins has this to say about those names. There are ‘eight Witts, eight Candys, five Keepings and Dommetts, each presumably from one family. Not since the plagues of the Middle Ages can such tragedy have been visited on an English village.’ Breamore’s mute stone comes into full voice with that comment.

What confused and confusing voices of war we can hear now from one hundred years ago. There is no way to sum up. There is not one thing being said. Personal voices mix with official voices. English voices mix with Irish voices. Women’s voices mix with men’s voices. British voices mix with Empire voices. Allied voices mix with enemy voices. Living voices mix with dead voices.

A final voice can be heard in ‘Memento Mori, 1918’. Written by Bernard Tanter, a soldier poet in this audience, this poem memorializes a voice of war from a century past:


Sometimes he talked about the day that haunted him,

that morning in nineteen hundred and eighteen,

he’d say: ‘That one, it should have been for me!’


He’s crouching, in support, a communication trench with other men,

all signallers, a few hundred yards behind the front.

The time is 10:40 hours, 11th November, twenty minutes to the final bell,

Armistice and peace, after one thousand seven hundred days of war.


Stan said they talked about the ones they loved,

of families, young women, bank holidays,

excursions, charabancs, crowded trains,

pavilions, sandwiches, cups of tea,

green hills, green trees,

football in the park, cricket on the shore,

watching the tide come in, the sea that’s always winning.


On the left, one of Stan’s comrades looks up,

stares a moment, leaden skies, clouds all skimming,

catches a bullet between the eyes,

the last ball of his four-year innings.

Seventy years later, when I never knew why,

(but now I could be guessing,)

Stan would still be saying,

 ‘That one, it should have been for me.’


Thank you, all.