Whizz Bangs And Wind-Ups: 10 Tommy Slang Terms

During the First World War, British soldiers used language in inventive and often humorous ways. The words and phrases they used reflected everything from the dull routines of service to the traumas of front line action, often tinged with characteristic black humour and irony.

Here are ten of the thousands of slang terms widely used by British soldiers between 1914 and 1918.

  • 1. Battle Bowler

    Wounded British troops at a Dressing Station during the Battle of the Ancre, 1916.
    Wounded British troops at a Dressing Station during the Battle of the Ancre, 1916.
    Q 4510

    Officer’s slang for the British steel helmet, due to its similarity to the shape of a Bowler hat. It was more formally known as the shrapnel helmet or Brodie helmet after its inventor. To the other ranks, it was the tin hat. Soldiers often adopted a similar tone of understatement and ridicule to describe other items of kit, such as a 'tooth pick' (bayonet) and a 'piggy-stick' (entrenching tool handle).

  • 2. Blighty

    Blighty One, by John Cosmo Clark.
    Blighty One, by John Cosmo Clark.
    Art.IWM ART 17011

    A term still familiar today that means Britain, in the sense of home. The word was derived from Hindustani and Persian words meaning foreign country and dated from the pre-war Army’s service in parts of the British Empire, particularly India. It was a widespread term during the First World War and was often used as an adjective to mean ideal or good. It was also famously used to describe a wound that was serious enough to send a soldier home without threatening his life.

  • 3. Dug-out

    Interior of a Dug-out, 27 November 1916, by William McDougall Anderson.
    Interior of a Dug-out, 27 November 1916, by William McDougall Anderson.
    Art.IWM ART 16250 18

    A protective underground shelter constructed under the trenches, particularly on the Western Front. They were more common in German trenches and could even involve multiple rooms, beds and electric light, all deep underground. It was also a tongue-in-cheek name for an old officer returning to active service from retirement who displayed little efficiency.

  • 4. Funky Villas

    British troops at the entrance to a bomb store in the Churchyard at Foncquevillers, March 1917.
    British troops at the entrance to a bomb store in the Churchyard at Foncquevillers, March 1917.
    Q 1642

    The humorous anglicised name for the French village of Foncquevillers. The men of the British Expeditionary Force serving on the Western Front invented numerous anglicised names for French and Belgian towns and villages that they found difficult to pronounce. Others included 'Wipers' (Ypres), 'Eat Apples' (Etaples) and 'Ocean Villas' (Auchonvillers).

  • 5. Pukka

    A pre-war Army term for real, genuine, correct, smart and soldierly, derived from the Hindustani word pakkha. It became a commonplace word during the war years and is still familiar today.

  • 6. Rob All My Comrades

    Recruiting Sergeant of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
    Recruiting Sergeant of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
    Q 53929

    A humorous alternative for the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), due to the regular occurrence of an unconscious or sleeping wounded man losing his belongings on the way to hospital, never to see them again. Nicknames for other units, regiments, corps and formations were common, as they still are in today’s Army.

  • 7. Swinging the lead

    A soldier resting in an old bath near Maurepas, December 1916.
    A soldier resting in an old bath near Maurepas, December 1916.
    Q 4626

    Malingering or otherwise evading duty. A lead-swinger who let his fellow soldiers down was disliked by all, but one who got one over on superiors was admired by his comrades. The phrase is thought to have naval origins - when a sailor instructed to take the depth from a ship’s bows instead swung the lead and called out fictitious measurements.

  • 8. Tommy

    ‘Tommies General Supply’ shop in the village of Ghyvelde, near Dunkerque, August 1917.
    ‘Tommies General Supply’ shop in the village of Ghyvelde, near Dunkerque, August 1917.
    Q 2683

    Short for Thomas Atkins, a name widely used by journalists to denote a private soldier. It seems to have originated from a Thomas Atkins who mythically distinguished himself at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. It was rarely used by British troops themselves, unless derisively.

  • 9. Whizz Bang

    Sign advertising the ‘Whizz Bangs’ Concert Party, December 1916.
    Sign advertising the ‘Whizz Bangs’ Concert Party, December 1916.
    Q 1634

    A light shell fired from one of the smaller calibre field guns, referring to the sound as the shell came to explode. A range of slang terms were used for different types of artillery shell, including 'woolly bear' for the burst and smoke of any big German high explosive shell.

  • 10. Wind-up

    Wounded British soldier showing shrapnel damage to his steel helmet near Hamel on the Somme Front, December 1916.
    Wounded British soldier showing shrapnel damage to his steel helmet near Hamel on the Somme Front, December 1916.
    Q 1778

    A widely used term for fear. For a soldier to ‘have the wind-up’ was no disgrace and was often mentioned casually in conversation, usually to describe a past near miss. It may have derived from the days when convicted felons were transported by ship - the 'wind-up' meaning the end of their last hope as the ship would sail. It may also have come from some of the physical symptoms of fear.