Friday, June 30, 2017

Over the Top -- Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches, Part Two -- June 30, 2017

Arthur Guy Empey was a member of the US Cavalry who resigned to volunteer for the British Army during World War One. He was wounded during the Battle of the Somme. When the US entered the war, he tried to rejoin the US Army, but was rejected because of his wounds and possibly because of some disparaging comments about American draftees. He wrote a book, Over the Top, about his experiences during the war.

"Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches"  is a glossary of terms used by British soldiers.  I am presenting it in three parts.  

Jack Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight champion.  

CHAPTER I -- From Mufti to Khaki
CHAPTER II -- Blighty to Rest Billets
CHAPTER III -- I Go to Church
CHAPTER IV -- Into the Trench
CHAPTER V -- Mud, Rats and Shells
CHAPTER VI -- "Back of the Line"
CHAPTER VII -- Rations
CHAPTER VIII -- The Little Wooden Cross

CHAPTER IX -- Suicide Annex  

CHAPTER X -- "The Day's Work" 
CHAPTER XI -- Over the Top CHAPTER XII -- Bombing  
CHAPTER XIII -- My First Official Bath    
CHAPTER XIV -- Picks and Shovels
CHAPTER XV -- Listening Post
CHAPTER XVI -- Battery D 238
CHAPTER XVII -- Out in Front  
CHAPTER XVIII - Staged Under Fire
CHAPTER XX -   Chats With Fritz
CHAPTER XXI -  "About Turn"
CHAPTER XXII -  Punishments and Machine-Gun Stunts
CHAPTER XXIII -  Gas Attacks and Spies
CHAPTER XXIV - The Firing Squad
CHAPTER XXV - Preparing For the Big Push 

CHAPTER XXVI - All Quiet (?) on the Western Front

Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches, Part One 


In this so-called dictionary I have tried to list most of the pet terms and slangy definitions, which Tommy Atkins uses a thousand times a day as he is serving in France. I have gathered them as I lived with him in the trenches and rest billets, and later in the hospitals in England where I met men from all parts of the line.

The definitions are not official, of course. Tommy is not a sentimental sort of animal so some of his definitions are not exactly complimentary, but he is not cynical and does not mean to offend anyone higher up. It is just a sort of "ragging" or "kidding," as the American would say, that helps him pass the time away.


"Jack Johnson." A seventeen-inch German shell. Probably called "Jack Johnson" because the Germans thought that with it they could lick the world.

Jackknife. A knife, issued to Tommy, which weighs a stone and won't cut. Its only virtue is the fact that it has a tin-opener attachment which won't open tins.

Jam. A horrible mess of fruit and sugar which Tommy spreads on his bread. It all tastes the same no matter whether labelled "Strawberry" or "Green Gage."

"Jam Tin." A crude sort of hand grenade which, in the early stages of the war, Tommy used to manufacture out of jam tins, ammonal, and mud. The manufacturer generally would receive a little wooden cross in recognition of the fact that he died for King and Country.

Jock. Universal name for a Scotchman.


"Kicked the bucket." Died.

Kilo. Five eighths of a mile. Ten "kilos" generally means a trek of fifteen miles.

"King's Shilling." Tommy's rate of pay per day, perhaps. "Taking the King's Shilling" means enlisting.

"Kip." Tommy's term for "sleep." He also calls his bed his "kip." It is on guard that Tommy most desires to kip.

Kit Bag. A part of Tommy's equipment in which he is supposed to pack up his troubles and smile, according to the words of a popular song (the composer was never in a trench).

Kitchener's Army. The volunteer army raised by Lord Kitchener, the members of which signed for duration of war. They are commonly called the "New Army" or "Kitchener's Mob." At first the Regulars and Territorials looked down on them, but now accept them as welcome mates.


Labor Battalion. An organization which is "too proud to fight."  They would sooner use a pick and shovel.

Lance-Corporal. A N. C. O. one grade above a private who wears a shoestring stripe on his arm and thinks the war should be run according to his ideas.

"Lead." The leading pair of horses or mules on a limber. Their only fault is that they won't lead (if they happen to be mules).

Leave Train. The train which takes Tommy to one of the seaports on the Channel en route to Blighty when granted leave. The worst part of going on leave is coming back.

Lee Enfield. Name of the rifiVused by the British Army. Its caliber is .303 and the magazine holds ten rounds. When dirty it has a nasty habit of getting Tommy's name on the crime sheet.

"Legging it." Running away.

Lewis Gun. A rifle-like machine gun, air cooled, which only carries 47 rounds in its "pie-plate" magazine. Under fire when this magazine is emptied you shout for "ammo" but perhaps No. 2, the ammo carrier, is lying in the rear with a bullet through his napper. Then it's "napoo-fini" (Tommy's French) for Mr. Lewis.

"Light Duty." What the doctor marks on the sick report opposite a Tommy's name when he has doubts as to whether said Tommy is putting one over on him. Usually Tommy is.

Light Railway. Two thin iron tracks on which small flat cars full of ammunition and supplies are pushed. These railways afford Tommy great sport in the loading, pushing, and unloading of cars.

Limber. A match box on two wheels which gives the Army mule a job. It also carries officer's packs

Liquid Fire. Another striking example of German "Kultur." According to the Germans it is supposed to annihilate whole brigades, but Tommy refuses to be annihilated.

Listening Post. Two or three men detailed to go out "in front" at night, to lie on the ground and listen for any undue activity in the German lines. They also listen for the digging of mines. It is nervous work and when Tommy returns he generally writes for a box of "Phosperine Tablets," a widely advertised nerve tonic.

"Little Willie." Tommy's nickname for the German Crown Prince. They are not on speaking terms.

"Lloyd George's Pets." Munition workers in England.

"Lonely Soldier." A soldier who advertises himself as "lonely" through the medium of some English newspaper. If he is clever and diplomatic by this method he generally receives two or three parcels a week, but he must be careful not to write to two girls living on the same block or his parcel post mail will diminish.

"Lonely Stab." A girl who writes and sends parcels to Tommy. She got his name from the "Lonely Soldier Column" of some newspaper.

Loophole. A disguised aperture in a trench through which to "snipe" at Germans.

Lyddite. A high explosive used in shells. Has a habit of scattering bits of anatomy over the landscape.


M. G. C. Machine Gun Corps. A collection of machine gunners who think they are the deciding factor of the war, and that artillery is unnecessary.

M. G. Machine Gunner. A man who, like an American policeman, is never there when he is badly wanted.

Maconochie. A ration of meat, vegetables, and soapy water, contained in a tin. Mr. Maconochie, the chemist who compounded this mess, intends to commit "hari kari" before the boys return from the front. He is wise.

"Mad Minute." Firing fifteen rounds from your rifle in sixty seconds. A man is mad to attempt it, especially with a stiff bolt.

Mail Bag. A canvas bag which is used to bring the other fellow's mail around.

Major. An officer in a Battalion who wears a crown on his uniform, is in command of two companies, and corrects said companies in the second position of "present arms." He also resides in a dugout.

Maneuvers. Useless evolutions of troops conceived by someone higher up to show Tommy how brave his officers are and how battles should be fought. The enemy never attend these maneuvers to prove they're right.

Mass Formation. A close order formation in which the Germans attack. It gives them a sort of "Come on, I'm with you" feeling. They would "hold hands" only for the fact that they have to carry their rifles. Tommy takes great delight in "busting up" these gatherings.

Mate. A soldier with whom Tommy is especially "chummy." Generally picked because this soldier receives a parcel from home every week.

Maxim. Type of machine gun which has been supplanted by the Vickers in order to make Tommy unlearn what he has been taught about the Maxim.

M. T. Mechanical Transport. The members of which are ex-taxi drivers. No wonder Tommy's rations melt away when the M. T. carries them.

M. O. Medical Officer. A doctor specially detailed to tell Tommy that he is not sick.

"M. and D." What the doctor marks on the " sicker" or sick report when he thinks Tommy is faking sickness. It means medicine and duty.

Mentioned in Despatches. Recommended for bravery. Tommy would sooner be recommended for leave. .

"Mercy Kamerad." What Fritz says when he has had a bellyful of fighting and wants to surrender. Of late this has been quite a popular phrase with him, replacing the Hymn of Hate.

Mess Orderly. A soldier detailed daily to carry Tommy's meals to and from the cook-house.

Mess Tin. An article of equipment used as a tea-kettle and dinner-set.

"Mike and George." K.C.M.G. (Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George). An award for bravery in the field.

Military Cross. A badge of honor dished out to officers for bravery. Tommy insists they throw dice to see which is the bravest. The winner gets the medal.

Military Medal. A piece of junk issued to Tommy who has done something that is not exactly brave but still is not cowardly. When it is presented he takes it and goes back wondering why the Army picks on him.

M. P. Military Police. Soldiers with whom it is unsafe to argue.

"Mills." Name of a bomb invented by Mills. The only bomb in which Tommy has full confidence,—and he mistrusts even that

Mine. An underground tunnel dug by sappers of the Royal Engineer Corps. This tunnel leads from your trench to that of the enemy's. At the end or head of the tunnel a great quantity of explosives are stored which at a given time are exploded. It is Tommy's job to then go "over the top" and occupy the crater caused by the explosion.

Mine Shaft. A shaft leading down to the "gallery" or tunnel of a mine. Sometimes Tommy, as a reward, is given the job of helping the R. E.'s dig this shaft.

Minnenwerfer. A high-power trench mortar shell of the Germans, which makes no noise coming through the air. It was invented by Professor Kultur. Tommy does not know it is near until it bites him; after that nothing worries him. Tommy nicknames them "Minnies."

Mouth Organ. An instrument with which a vindictive Tommy causes misery to the rest of his platoon. Some authorities define it as a "musical instrument."

Mud. A brownish, sticky substance found in the trenches after the frequent rains. A true friend to Tommy, which sticks to him like glue, even though at times Tommy resents this affection and roundly curses said mud.

Mufti. The term Tommy gives to civilian clothes. Mufti looks good to him now.


Nap. A card game of Tommy's in which the one who stays awake the longest grabs the pot. If all the players fall asleep, the pot goes to the "Wounded Soldiers' Fund."

"Napoo-Fini." Tommy's French for gone, through with, finished, disappeared.

"Napper." Tommy's term for head.

Neutral. Tommy says it means "afraid to fight."

Next of Kin. Nearest relative. A young and ambitious platoon officer bothers his men two or three times a month taking a record of their "next of kin," because he thinks that Tommy's grandmother may have changed to his uncle.

"Night ops." Slang for night operations or maneuvers.

Nine-point-two. A howitzer which fires a shell 9.2 inches in diameter, and knocks the tiles off the roof of Tommy's billet through the force of its concussion.

No Man's Land. The space between the hostile trenches called "No Man's Land" because no one owns it and no one wants to. In France you could not give it away.

N. C. C. Non-Combatant Corps. Men who joined the Army under the stipulation that the only thing they would fight for would be their meals. They have no "King and Country."

N. C. O. Non-commissioned officer. A person hated more than the Germans. Tommy says his stripes are issued out with the rations, and he ought to know.

"No. 9." A pill the doctor gives^you if you are suffering with corns or barber's itch or any disease at all. If none are in stock, he gives you a No. 6 and No. 3, or a No. 5 and No. 4, anything to make nine.

Nosecap. That part of a shell which unscrews and contains the device and scale for setting the time fuse. Some Tommies are ardent souvenir hunters. As soon as a shell bursts in the ground you will see them out with picks and shovels digging in the shell hole for the nose cap. If the shell bursts too near them they don't dig.


Observation Balloon. A captive balloon behind the lines which observes the enemy. The enemy doesn't mind being observed, so takes no notice of it. It gives someone a job hauling it down at night, so it has one good point.

Observation Post. A position in the front line where an artillery officer observes the fire of our guns. He keeps on observing until a German shell observes him. After this there is generally a new officer and a new observation post.

O. C. Officer commanding.

Officers' Mess. Where the officers eat the mess that the O. S. have cooked.

O. S. Officers' servants. The lowest ranking private in the Army, who feeds better than the officers he waits on.

"Oil Cans." Tommy's term for a German trench mortar shell, which is an old tin filled with explosive and junk that the Boches have no further use for.

"One up." Tommy's term for a lance-corporal who wears one stripe. The private always wonders why he was overlooked when promotions were in order.

"On the mat." When Tommy is haled before his commanding officer to explain why he has broken one of the seven million King's regulations for the government of the Army. His "explanation" never gets him anywhere unless it is on the wheel of a limber.

"On your own." Another famous or infamous phrase which means Tommy is allowed to do as he pleases. An officer generally puts Tommy "on his own" when he gets Tommy into a dangerous position and sees no way to extricate him.

Orderly-Corporal. A non-commissioned officer who takes the names of the sick every morning and who keeps his own candle burning after he has ordered "Lights out" at night.

Orderly-Officer. An officer who, for a week, goes around and asks if there are "any complaints" and gives the name of the complaining soldier to the Orderly-Sergeant for extra pack drill.

Orderly Room. The Captain's office where everything is disorderly.

Orderly-Sergeant. A sergeant who, for a week, is supposed to do the work of the Orderly-Officer.

"Out of bounds." The official Army term meaning that Tommy is not allowed to trespass where this sign is displayed. He never wished to until the sign made its appearance.

"Out there." A term used in Blighty which means "in France." Conscientious objectors object to going "out there."

"Over the Top." A famous phrase of the trenches. It is generally the order for the men to charge the German lines. Nearly always it is accompanied by the Jonah wish, "With the best o' luck and give them hell."

Oxo. Concentrated beef cubes that a fond mother sends out to Tommy because they are advertised as "British to the Backbone."


Packing. Asbestos wrapping around the barrel of a machine gun to keep the water from leaking out of the barrel casing. Also slang for rations.

Pack Drill. Punishment for a misdemeanor. Sometimes Tommy gets caught when he fills his pack with straw to lighten it for this drill.

Parados. The rear wall of a trench which the Germans continually fill with bits of shell and rifle bullets. Tommy doesn't mind how many they put in the parados.

Parapet. The top part of a front trench which Tommy constantly builds up and the Germans just as constantly knock down.

Patrol. A few soldiers detailed to go out in "No Man's Land," at night and return without any information. Usually these patrols are successful.

Pay Book. A little book in which is entered the amount of pay Tommy draws. In the back of same there is also a space for his "will and last testament"; this to remind Tommy that he is liable to be killed. (As if he needed any reminder.)

Pay Parade. A formation at which Tommy lines up for pay. When his turn comes the paying-officer asks, "How much?" and Tommy answers, "Fifteen francs, sir." He gets five.

Periscope. A thing in the trenches which you look through. After looking through it, you look over the top to really see something.

"Physical torture." The nickname for physical training. It is torture, especially to a recruit.

Pick. A tool shaped like an anchor which is being constantly handed to Tommy with the terse command, "get busy."

Pioneer. A soldier detailed in each company to keep the space around the billets clean. He sleeps all day and only gets busy when an officer comes round. He also sleeps at night.

"Pip squeak." Tommy's term for a small German shell which makes a "pip" and then a "squeak," when it comes over.

Poilu. French term, for their private soldier. Tommy would use it and sometimes does, but each time he pronounces it differently, so no one knows what he is talking about.

Pontoon. A card game, in America known as "Black Jack" or "Twenty One." The banker is the only winner.

Provost-Sergeant. A sergeant detailed to oversee prisoners, their work, etc. Each prisoner solemnly swears that when he gets out of "clink" he is going to shoot this sergeant and when he does get out he buys him a drink.

Pull Through. A stout cord with a weight on one end, and a loop on the other for an oily rag. The weighted end is dropped through the bore of the rifle and the rag on the other end is "pulled through."

Pump. A useless contrivance for emptying the trenches of water. "Useless" because the trenches refuse to be emptied.

"Pushing up the Daisies." Tommy's term for a soldier who has been killed and buried in France.


"Queer." Tommy's term for being sick. The doctor immediately informs him that there is nothing queer about him, and Tommy doesn't know whether to feel insulted or complimented.

Quid. Tommy's term for a pound or twenty shillings (about $4.80). He is not on very good terms with this amount as you never see the two together.

Q. M.-Sergeant. Quartermaster-Sergeant, or "Quarter" as he is called. A non-commissioned officer in a company who wears three stripes and a crown, and takes charge of the company stores, with the emphasis on the "takes." In civil life he was a politician or burglar.


Range Finder. An instrument for ascertaining the distance between two objects, using the instrument as one object. It is very accurate only you get a different result each time you use it, says Tommy.

Rapid Fire. Means to stick your head "over the top" at night, aim at the moon, and empty your magazine. If there is no moon, aim at the spot where it should be.

Ration Bag. A small, very small bag for carrying rations. Sometimes it is really useful for lugging souvenirs.

Rations. Various kinds of tasteless food issued by the Government to Tommy, to kid him into thinking that he is living in luxury, while the Germans are starving.

Ration Party. Men detailed to carry rations to the front line; pick out a black, cold, and rainy night; put a fifty-pound box on your shoulder; sling your rifle and carry one hundred twenty rounds of ammunition. Then go through a communication trench, with the mud up to your knees, down this trench for a half-mile, and then find your mates swearing in seven different languages; duck a few shells and bullets, and then ask Tommy for his definition of a "ration party." You will be surprised to learn that it is the same as yours.

Rats. The main inhabitants of the trenches and dugouts. Very useful for chewing up leather equipment and running over your face when asleep. A British rat resembles a bulldog, while a German one, through a course of Kultur, resembles a dachshund.

"Red Cap." Tommy's nickname for a Staff Officer because he wears a red band around his cap.

Red Tape. A useless sort of procedure. The main object of this is to prolong the war and give a lot of fat jobs to Army politicians.

Regimental Number. Each soldier has a number whether or not he was a convict in civil life. Tommy never forgets his number when he sees it on "orders for leave."

R. P. Regimental Police. Men detailed in a Battalion to annoy Tommy and to prevent him from doing what he most desires.

Reinforcements. A lot of new men sent out from England who think that the war will be over a week after they enter the trenches.

Relaying. A term used by the artillery. After a gun is fired it is "relayed" or aimed at something out of sight.

Respirator. A cloth helmet, chemically treated, with glass eyeholes, which Tommy puts over his head as a protection against poison gas. This helmet never leaves Tommy's person, he even sleeps with it.

Rest. A period of time for rest allotted to Tommy upon being relieved from the trenches. He uses this "rest" to mend roads, dig trenches, and make himself generally useful while behind the lines.

Rest Billets. Shell shattered houses, generally barns, in which Tommy "rests," when relieved from the firing line.

"Ricco." Term for a ricochet bullet. It makes a whining noise and Tommy always ducks when a "ricco" passes him.

Rifle. A part of Tommy's armament. Its main use is to be cleaned. Sometimes it is fired, when you are not using a pick or shovel. You also "present arms by numbers" with it. This is a very fascinating exercise to Tommy. Ask him.

Rifle Grenade. A bomb on the end of a rod. This rod is inserted into the barrel of a specially designed rifle.

"R.I.P." In monk's highbrow, "Requiscat in pace," put on little wooden crosses over soldier's graves. It means "Rest in peace," but Tommy says like as not it means "Rest in pieces," especially if the man under the cross has been sent West by a bomb or shell explosion.

"Road Dangerous, Use Trench." A familiar sign on roads immediately in rear of the firing line. It is to warn soldiers that it is within sight of Fritz. Tommy never believes these signs and swanks up the road. Later on he tells the Red Cross nurse that the sign told the truth.

"Roll of Honor." The name given to the published casualty lists of the war. Tommy has no ambition for his name to appear on the "Roll of Honor" unless it comes under the heading "Slightly Wounded."

R. C. Roman Catholic. One of the advantages of being a R. C, is that "Church Parade" is not compulsory.

"Rooty." Tommy's nickname for bread.

Route March. A useless expenditure of leather and energy. These marches teach Tommy to be kind to overloaded beasts of burden.

R. A. M. C. Royal Army Medical Corps. Tommy says it means "Rob All My Comrades."

R. E.'s. Royal Engineers.

R. F. A.'s. Royal Field Artillery men.

R. F. C.'s. Royal Flying Corps.

Rum. A nectar of the gods issued in the early morning to Tommy.

Rum issue. A daily formation at which Tommy receives a spoonful of rumj.that is if any is left over from the Sergeant's Mess.

Runner. A soldier who is detailed or picked as an orderly for an officer while in the trenches. His real job is to take messages under fire, asking how many tins of jam are required for 1917.

Next:  Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches, Part Three

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