Monday, July 31, 2017

Over the Top -- Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches, Part Three -- July 31, 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.  

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  
Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches, Part Two


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.


S. A. A. Small Arms Ammunition. Small steel pellets which have a bad habit of drilling holes in the anatomy of Tommy and Fritz.

Salvo. Battery firing four guns simultaneously.

Sandbag. A jute bag which is constantly being filled with earth. Its main uses are to provide Tommy with material for a comfortable kip and to strengthen parapets.

Sap. A small ditch, or trench, dug from the front line and leading out into "No Man's Land" in the direction of the German trenches.

Sapper. A man who saps or digs mines. He thinks he is thirty-three degrees above an ordinary soldier, while in fact he is generally beneath him.

Sausage Balloon. See observation balloon.

S. B. Stretcher Bearer. The motive power of a stretcher. He is generally looking the other way when a fourteen-stone Tommy gets hit.

Scaling ladder. Small wooden ladders used by Tommy for climbing out of the front trench when he goes "over the top." When Tommy sees these ladders being brought into the trench, he sits down and writes his will in his little paybook.

Sentry Go. Time on guard. It means "sentry come."

Sergeant's Mess. Where the sergeants eat. Nearly all of the rum has a habit of disappearing into the Sergeant's Mess.

Seventy-fives. A very efficient field-gun of the French, which can fire thirty shells per minute. The gun needs no relaying due to the recoil which throws the gun back to its original position. The gun that knocked out "Jack Johnson," therefore called "Jess Willard."

"Sewed in a blanket." Term for a soldier who has been buried. His remains are generally sewn in a blanket and the piece of blanket is generally deducted from his pay that is due.

Shag. Cigarette tobacco which an American can never learn to use. Even the mules object to the smell of it.

Shell. A device of the artillery which sometimes makes Tommy wish he had been born in a neutral country.

Shell Hole. A hole in the ground caused by the explosion of a shell. Tommy's favorite resting-place while under fire.

Shovel. A tool closely related to the pick family. In France the "shovel" is mightier than the sword.

Shrapnel. A shell which bursts in the air and scatters small pieces of metal over a large area. It is used to test the resisting power of steel helmets.

"Sicker." Nickname for the sick report book. It is Tommy's ambition to get on this "sicker" without feeling sick.

Sick Parade. A formation at which the doctor informs sick, or would-be sick Tommies that they are not sick.

Sixty-pounder. One of our shells which weighs sixty pounds (officially). When Tommy handles them, their unofficial weight is three hundred weight.

Slacker. An insect in England who is afraid to join the Army. There are three things in this world that Tommy hates: a slacker, a German, and a trench-rat; it's hard to tell which he hates worst.

"Slag Heap." A pile of rubbish, tin cans, etc.

Smoke Bomb. A shell which, in exploding, emits a dense white smoke, hiding the operations of troops. When Tommy, in attacking a trench, gets into this smoke, he imagines himself a magnet and thinks all the machine guns and rifles are firing at him alone.

Smoke Helmet. See respirator.

Sniper. A good shot whose main occupation is picking off unwary individuals of the enemy. In the long run a sniper usually gets "sniped."

Snipe Hole. A hole in a steel plate through which snipers "snipe." It is not fair for the enemy to shoot at these holes, but they do, and often hit them, or at least the man behind them.

"Soldiers' Friend." Metal polish costing three ha' pence which Tommy uses to polish his buttons. Tommy wonders why it is called "Soldiers' Friend."

"Somewhere in France." A certain spot in France where Tommy has to live in mud, hunt for "cooties," and duck shells and bullets. Tommy's official address.

Souvenir. A begging word used by the French kiddies. When it is addressed to Tommy it generally means, a penny, biscuits, bully beef, or a tin of jam.

Spy. A suspicious person whom no one suspects until he is caught. Then all say they knew he was a spy but had no chance to report it to the proper authorities.

"Spud." Tommy's name for the solitary potato which gets into the stew. It's a great mystery how that lonely little spud got into such bad company.

Stand To. Order to mount the fire step. Given just as it begins to grow dark.

Stand Down. Order given in the trenches at break of dawn to let the men know their night watch is ended. It has a pleasant sound in Tommy's ears.

Star Shell. See Flare.

Steel Helmet. A round hat made out of steel which is supposed to be shrapnel proof. It is until a piece of shell goes through it, then Tommy loses interest as to whether it is shrapnel proof or not. He calls it a "tin hat."

Stew. A concoction of the cook's which contains bully beef, Maconochie rations, water, a few lumps of fresh meat, and a potato. Occasionally a little salt falls into it by mistake. Tommy is supposed to eat this mess—he does—worse luck!

"Strafeing." Tommy's chief sport—shelling the Germans. Taken from Fritz's own dictionary.

Stretcher. A contrivance on which dead and wounded are carried. The only time Tommy gets a free ride in the trenches is while on a stretcher. As a rule he does not appreciate this means of transportation.

"Suicide Club." Nickname for bombers and machine gunners. (No misnomer.)

Supper. Tommy's fourth meal, generally eaten just before "lights out." It is composed of the remains of the day's rations. There are a lot of Tommies who never eat supper. There is a reason.

S. W. Shell wound. What the doctor marks on your hospital chart when a shell has removed your leg.

Swamping. Putting on airs; showing off. Generally accredited to Yankees.

"Swinging the lead." Throwing the bull.

"Sweating on leave." Impatiently waiting for your name to appear in orders for leave. If Tommy sweats very long he generally catches cold and when leave comes he is too sick to go.


"Taking over." Going into a trench. Tommy "takes over," is " taken out," and sometimes is " put under."

Taube. A type of German aeroplane whose special ambition is beating the altitude record. It occasionally loses its way and flies over the British lines and then stops flying.

Tea. A dark brown drug, which Tommy has to have at certain periods of the day. Battles have been known to have been stopped to enable Tommy to get his tea, or "char" as it is commonly called.

"Tear Shell." Trench name for the German lachrymose chemical shell which makes the eyes smart. The only time Tommy is outwardly sentimental.

Telephone. A little instrument with a wire attached to it. An artillery observer whispers something into this instrument and immediately one of your batteries behind the line opens up and drops a few shells into your front trench. This keeps up until the observer whispers, "Your range is too short." Then the shells drop nearer the German lines.

"Terrier." Tommy's nickname for a Territorial or "Saturday-night soldier." A regular despises a Territorial while a Territorial looks down on "Kitchener's Mob." Kitchener's Mob has the utmost contempt for both of them.

Territorial. A peace-time soldier with the same status as the American militiaman. Before the war they were called "Saturday-Night Soldiers," but they soon proved themselves "every-night soldiers."

"The Old Man." Captain of a company. He is called "the old man," because generally his age is about twenty-eight.

"The Best o' Luck." The Jonah phrase of the trenches. Every time Tommy goes over the top or on a trench raid his mates wish him the best o' luck. It means that if you are lucky enough to come back, you generally have an arm or leg missing.

"Thumbs up." Tommy's expression which means "everything is fine with me." Very seldom used during an intense bombardment.

"Time ex." Expiration of term of enlistment. The only time Tommy is a civilian in the trenches; but about ten minutes after he is a soldier for duration of war.

"Tin Hat." Tommy's name for his steel helmet which is made out of a metal about as hard as mush. The only advantage is that it is heavy and greatly adds to the weight of Tommy's equipment. Its most popular use is for carrying eggs.

T. N. T. A high explosive which the Army Ordnance Corps prescribes for Fritz. Fritz prefers a No. 9 pill.

"Tommy Atkins." The name England gives to an English soldier, even if his name is Willie Jones.

Tommy's Cooker. A spirit stove widely advertised as "A suitable gift to the men in the trenches." Many are sent out to Tommy and most of them are thrown away.

Tonite. The explosive contained in a rifle grenade. It looks like a harmless reel of cotton before it explodes,—after it explodes the spectator is missing.

"Toots Sweet." Tommy's French for "hurry up," "look smart." Generally used in a French estaminet when Tommy only has a couple of minutes in which to drink his beer.

"Top Hats at Home." Tommy's name for Parliament when his application for leave has been turned down or when no strawberry jam arrives with the rations.

Town Major. An officer stationed in a French town or village who is supposed to look after billets, upkeep of roads, and act as interpreter.

Transport. An aggregation of mules, limbers, and rough riders, whose duty is to keep the men in the trenches supplied with rations and supplies. Sometimes a shell drops within two miles of them and Tommy doesn't get his rations, etc.

Traverse. Sandbags piled in a trench so that the trench cannot be traversed by Tommy. Sometimes it prevents enfilading fire by the enemy.

Trench. A ditch full of water, rats, and soldiers. During his visit to France, Tommy uses these ditches as residences. Now and again he sticks his head "over the top" to take a look at the surrounding scenery. If he is lucky he lives to tell his mates what he saw.

Trench Feet. A disease of the feet contracted in the trenches from exposure to extreme cold and wet. Tommy's greatest ambition is to contract this disease because it means "Blighty" for him.

Trench Fever. A malady contracted in the trenches; the symptoms are high temperature, bodily pains, and homesickness. Mostly homesickness. A bad case lands Tommy in "Blighty," a slight case lands him back in the trenches, where he tries to get it worse than ever.

"Trenchitis." A combination of "fedupness" and homesickness, experienced by Tommy in the trenches, especially when he receives a letter from a friend in Blighty who is making a fortune working in a munition plant.

Trench Mortar. A gun like a stove pipe which throws shells at the German trenches. Tommy detests these mortars because when they take positions near to him in the trenches, he knows that it is only a matter of minutes before a German shell with his name and number on it will be knocking at his door.

Trench Pudding. A delectable mess of broken biscuits, condensed milk, jam, and mud, slightly flavored with smoke. Tommy prepares, cooks, and eats this. Next day he has "trench fever."

Trench Raid. Several men detailed to go over the top at night and shake hands with the Germans, and, if possible, persuade some of them to be prisoners. At times the raiders would themselves get raided because Fritz refused to shake and adopted nasty methods.

Turpenite. A deadly chemical shell invented by an enthusiastic war correspondent suffering from brain storm. Companies and batteries were supposed to die standing up from its effects, but they refused to do this.

"Twelve in one." Means that twelve men are to share one loaf of bread. When the slicing takes place the war in the dugout makes the European argument look like thirty cents.


"Up against the wall." Tommy's term for a man who is to be shot by a firing squad.

"Up the line." Term generally used in rest billets when Tommy talks about the fire trench or fighting line. When orders are issued to go "up the line" Tommy immediately goes "up in the air."


V. C. Victoria Cross, or "Very careless" as Tommy calls it. It is a bronze medal won by Tommy for being very careless with his life.

Very-Lights. A star shell invented by Mr. Very. See Flare.

Vickers Gun. A machine gun improved on by a fellow named Vickers. His intentions were good but his improvements, according to Tommy, were "rotten."

Vin Blanc. French white wine made from vinegar. They forgot the red ink.

Vin Rouge. French red wine made from vinegar and red ink. Tommy pays good money for it.


Waders. Rubber hip boots, used when the water in the trenches is up to Tommy's neck.

Waiting Man.  The cleanest man at guard mounting.  He does not have to walk post; is supposed to wait on the guard. 

Washout.  Tommy's idea of something that is worth nothing. 

Water Bottle.  A metal bottle for carrying water (when not used for rum, beer or wine). 

Waterproof.  A rubber sheet issued to Tommy to keep him dry.  It does when the sun is out. 

Wave.  A line of troops which goes "over the top" in a charge.  The waves are numbered according to their turn in going over, viz., "First Wave," "Second Wave," etc.  Tommy would sooner go over with the "Tenth Wave." 

Wet Canteen.  A military saloon or pub where Tommy can get a "wet."  Most campaigns and battles are planned and fought in these places. 

"Whizz Bang."  A small German shell which whizzes through the air and explodes with a "bang."  Their bark is worse than their bite. 

"Wind Up."  Term generally applied to the Germans when they send up several star shells at once because they are nervous and expect an attack or night raid on their trenches. 

"Windy."  Tommy's name for a nervous soldier, coward. 

"Wipers."  Tommy's name for Ypres, sometimes he calls it "Yeeps"  A place up the line which Tommy likes to duck. It is even "hot" in the winter time at "Wipers." 

Wire.  See barbed wire, but don't go "over the top" to look at it.  It isn't safe. 

Wire Cutters.  An instrument for cutting barbed wire, but mostly used for driving nails. 

Wiring Party.  Another social affair for which Tommy receives invitations.  It consists of going "over the top"  at night and stretching barbed wire between stakes.  A German machine gun generally takes the place of an orchestra. 

Woodbine.  A cigarette made of paper and old hay.  Tommy swears by a Woodbine. 

Wooden Cross.  Two pieces of wood in the form of a cross placed at the head of a Tommy's grave  Inscribed on it are his rank, name, number, and regiment.  Also date of death and last but not least, the letters R.I.P. 

Working Party.  A sort of compulsory invitation affair for which Tommy is often honored with an invitation.  It consists of digging, filling sandbags, and ducking shells and bullets. 


Zeppelin.  A bag full of gas invented by a count full of gas.  It is a dirigible airship used by the Germans for killing babies and dropping bombs in open fields.  You never see them over the trenches, it is safer to bombard civilians in cities.  They use Iron Crosses for ballast. 

This is the end of Over the Top by Arthur Guy Empey.  Thank you to those who have been reading it.  I believe the book is in the public domain. 

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