Swearing

Julian Walker considers the presence and variety of swearing within World War One ranks and how its use bonded or divided soldiers.
Tim Cook’s essay Fighting Words: Canadian Soldiers’ Slang and Swearing in the Great War, (Sage Publications, 2013) gives a clear indication of how the use of swearing and slang served to create a sense of belonging for combatants. It was important for new recruits to learn and use the terms used by other soldiers, even though many would have avoided swearing before enlisting, and would almost certainly have avoided using newly-learned strongly taboo terms while on leave.

However, as swearing is largely a phenomenon of spoken language, there exists little in the way of documentation of specific terms. In order to piece together the use of swearing by troops it is often necessary to read between the lines, flesh out semi-deleted or otherwise hidden expressions, and to realise that currently innocuous terms were formerly considered both shocking and markers of belonging to a lower social class, ‘bloody’ in particular being recognised as a ‘lower-class’ word.

Differences over time

‘Bloke’ would not now be considered as a swear-word at all, but in 1914 enjoyed very different associations: a batman might then refer to his officer as his ‘bloke’, while C W Langley (Battery Flashes) refers to the ‘quarter-bloke’ – the quartermaster-sergeant – and in naval slang by 1914 ‘the Bloke’ was the captain. But in an anecdote told by the Reverend Andrew Clark about a camp concert in Essex in 1916, the term clearly prompted one shocked lady to take action: ‘Mrs Sargeant also took great exception to an expression in Miss Bannerman’s song – “I’ve been to the pictures” – viz. “my bloke and I”. Mrs S. was strongly of opinion that soldiers’ ears should not be wounded by such expressions.’[1]

Self-censorship in documentation

Self-censoring was often employed to show the use of swearing while avoiding offence – the occasional use of dashes in transcribed speech shows the natural use of swearwords in situations of stress. Private Albert Andrews’ account of an encounter on 28 January 1916 – ‘Look at this –--er ... he thinks he’s going to Blighty’ – shows a natural use of what may be any one of a number of words. The ‘accidental on purpose’ dropping of the L in ‘Bulgar’ allowed reference to a word which it was illegal to print at the time, and the arrival of Fokker aeroplanes gave provision for double-entendres.

Casual and deliberate swearing

Frequently ‘fucking’ and ‘bloody’ were used as palliatives, so that the order to ‘get your fucking rifles’ was recognised as considerably less urgent than the order to ‘get your rifles’. For many soldiers, coming from aspirational middle-class families, this kind of casual swearing was shocking, and something that left them isolated. Donald McNair was distressed by the incessant swearing of his comrades-in-arms who were ‘utterly low-class and foul-mouthed louts – I certainly have nothing in common with them, and find it difficult to put up with their wantonly pointless, witless and filthy conversation.’ [2] 

In effect the army distinguished between deliberately offensive swearing and what may be thought of as ‘occupational swearing’. Regimental records show that swearing was officially a disciplinary offence, and that when it was used without the excuse of combat-stress it was punished: Private Alfred Smith, of the West Yorkshire Regiment, was fined seven shillings and sixpence and given three days C.B. (Confined to Barracks) for drunkenness and ‘using highly obscene language.’ But under the conditions of trench-warfare it was widely recognised that swearing was an essential safety valve, and inevitable. Private Paxton Dent of the Seaforth Highlanders ‘somewhere in France’, noted in his diary for 15 March 1915 ‘It was far from pleasant, sliding into that slimy water, and a little while after we emerged, we felt very uncomfortable, and then we were told we had gone too far and should have to turn back. You should have heard the swearing.’

Casual swearing was seen as distinct from deliberate obscenity. In The Middle Part of Fortune (Frederick Manning, 1929), better known by its later title Her Privates We, there is widespread use of obscene swearwords (including ‘c—t’) but pornographic postcards are frowned upon by the older soldiers. [3]

Digger dialects: slang phrases used by Australian soldiers

Digger dialects: a collection of slang phrases used by Australian soldiers on active service

Dictionary compiled in 1919 of slang used by Australian troops. The book is called Digger Dialects after the colloquial name for Australian soldiers.

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Inventiveness and swearing

But if swearing was part of the brutalising process of the war, it was also capable of wit and invention. A devious and clever indication of word and accent comes in W H Downing’s 1919 Australian war glossary, Digger Dialects, in a couple of definitions: Carksucker – American soldier; Fooker – English private. This enjoyment of the potential for wit in swearing is also seen in the description of the anti-gas Phenate-Hexamine or PH Helmet by Captains Robert Graves and J C Dunn of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who famously described it as the ‘goggle-eyed (or googly-eyed) bugger with the tit’.[4]   

‘If a whiff of gas you smell,
Bang your gong like bloody hell,
On with your googly, up with your gun –
Ready to meet the bloody Hun’ [5]

Footnotes

[1] Andrew Clark (ed. James Munson), Echoes of the Great War: The Diary of the Reverend Andrew Clark, 1914-19 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[2] Donald McNair (ed. Philip McNair), A pacifist at war: military memoirs of a conscientious objector in Palestine, 1917-1918 (Much Hadam: Anastasia Press, 2008).

[3] Frederic Manning, The Middle Parts of Fortune (London: Peter Davies, 1929). Originally published anonymously; expurgated version published as Her Privates We in 1930.

[4] Robert Graves, Good-Bye to All That (Anchor Books, 1929).

[5]Captain J C Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, (London: Jane’s Publishing Company Limited, 1987).

  • Julian Walker
  • Julian Walker is an artist, writer and educator, who works with the Learning Department at the British Library. His research-based art and writing practice explores language, social history, the nature of objects and engagement with the past. He is co-author of Trench Talk: Words of the First World War (Stroud: Spellmount, 2012).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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