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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Related Content

A woman brewer securing the lid of a barrel of beer.
IWM Q 31065
First World War

10 Surprising Laws Passed During The First World War

The outbreak of war in 1914 brought many new rules and regulations to Britain. The most important of these was the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), passed on 8 August 1914 ‘for securing public safety’. 

A British trench club sometimes referred to as a 'knobkerry'.
© IWM (WEA 2134)
First World War

Weird Weapons And Other Surprising Objects From The First World War

During the First World War, the Allies and the Central Powers employed modern weaponry and firepower on an unprecedented scale. Both sides also developed new protective equipment in response to changes in military tactics and technologies.

A photograph of an officers versus other ranks football match being played by members of the 26th Divisional Ammunition Train.
First World War

9 Facts About Football In The First World War

When war was declared on 4 August 1914, it was expected that the Football Association (FA) would follow the example soon set by cricket and cancel all matches. But, despite opposition, matches were played in the Football League throughout the 1914-1915 season and the FA Cup held as normal.