Tommy, p.56
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       Tommy, p.56

           Richard Holmes

  Old India hands expected the French to understand them when they began to ‘sling the bat’. Frank Richards, loose in Rouen with his comrades Billy and Stevens in August 1914, saw how the former:

  ordered a bottle of red wine, speaking in English, Hindustani and Chinese, with one word of French to help him out. The landlord did not understand him and Billy cursed him in good Hindustani and told him that he did not understand his own language, threatening to knock the hell out of him if he did not hurry up with the wine.’15

  Wallah – person – had words added to define a man’s trade, from Vickers-gun wallah for the machine-gun officer to shit-wallah for the sanitary corporal. A rifle became a bundook and a bed a charpoy, and knife, fork and spoon were jury, chummage and conter. Roti – bread – became rooty, and so the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, awarded for eating army bread for twenty-one years in an aura of undetected crime was the Rooty Gong. Men were enjoined to put some jildi in it, or to get something done on the jildi, from the Hindustani for ‘to hurry’. An order might have to be carried out ekdum, at once. A madman might be doolally or have the doolally tap (from the hospital at Deolali near Bombay, and the Hindustani for fever), or be piache or even stone piache. Khush was pleasant in Hindi, and from it came cushy. Soldiers going up the line invariably asked the troops they were relieving what things were like up there. ‘Cushy, mate, cushy’ was a reply as common as it was inaccurate.

  A wound serious enough to procure freedom from future frontline service was a cushy blighty, or more commonly a blighty one. Blighty was perhaps a corruption of the Hindi bilāyatī, a foreign country, the Arabic beladi, my own country, or the Urdu belait, strange or foreign. John Brophy and Eric Partridge described it as meaning much more than home, but ‘a sort of faerie, a paradise which he could faintly remember, a sort of never-never land’. Blighty was a place described in song:

  Carry me back to dear old Blighty,

  Put me on the train for London Town …

  And it was an adjective too, describing not simply ‘things English and homelike’ but anything that was generally very good, as in: ‘This is real Blighty butter.’16 The two staples of French estaminet life, white wine and chips, vin blanc and pommes frites, were Point Blanc and Pomfritz, good examples of the linguistic blurring that produced Franglais. Soldiers’ Franglais included two of the war’s most characteristic words: San Fairy Ann (with its close relatives San Fairy and San Fairy Anna), came from ça ne fait rien – it doesn’t matter. And for the use of ‘napoo’, from il n’y en a plus, there is no more, let us listen to Arthur Smith of the Coldstream Guards:

  It can be no more – finished – no – and almost anything negative. For instance ‘Napoo shelling tonight’ means ‘no shelling tonight’. ‘Have you any more bread?’ – answer ‘Napoo’. When a man is drunk he is considered to be Napoo. If a man is talking too much someone tells him to ‘napoo’ or shut up. If a man gets out of breath he will say, ‘Napoo breath’ and so on.17

  Walter Guinness reported that a trench was fittingly called Napoo Avenue because it had been destroyed three times in six days. Then there was the jig-a-jig, for making love, and the descriptive zig-zag for being drunk. The latter led to the following badinage between a British soldier and a French girl.

  ‘Marie, ally promenade ce soir?’ – ‘Non, pas ce soir.’ After an interlude of unsuccessful blandishments: ‘Moi ally au estaminet, revenir ziz-zag, si vous no promenade.’18

  Franglais joined bat to produce mongey wallah – monger from manger, thus cook.

  Nicknames abounded too. Officers often retained ones awarded at Sandhurst or staff college (Archimedes Edmonds, Apple-pie Allenby-The Bull came later – Wombat Howard-Vyse, Putty Pulteney and Sally Hume) or were awarded them on first joining their units. Frank Dunham’s company commander, Captain A. R. E. Watts, was Nellie to the troops because of ‘his girlish face and swanky ways’. An officer in the Gloucesters ‘from his first appearance on parade until he left the regiment twenty years later was known as “Agony”.’19 Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Western was universally Hunter-Bunter, and Rawlinson was so well aware of his abbreviation Rawly that he kept a pet boar of the same name. Plumer was affectionately Daddy to his troops but Drip, because of a long-running sinus problem, to irreverent subalterns. There was a long tradition of nicknames that accompanied certain surnames. These were sometimes logical, like Dusty Miller, Spud Murphy, Spokey Wheeler or Chalky White. Historians in the ranks might have known that the original Charley Peace was a nineteenth-century burglar, and that Tom King had been a notorious highwayman. The connection between Fanny Fields and Lottie Collins and the music-hall singers of the same name would have been clear, as would Brigham Young from the Mormon leader. But what of Daisy Bell, Knocker White, Pincher Martin, Rattler Morgan and Smoky Holmes?

  A commanding officer or company commander, even if in his twenties, was the Old Man, and a regimental sergeant major was the reg’mental. The quartermaster, commissioned from the ranks and often the former regimental sergeant major of his battalion, was spoken of as the quarter bloke by soldiers and quarters by officers. But as Henry Williamson’s character Philip Madison discovered, a new subaltern addressing a senior quartermaster to his face as ‘quarters’ was likely to have his vocabulary quickly and helpfully broadened. Newly-promoted second lieutenants were ‘one-pip wonders’, and officers more generally might be defined by the stars they sported on cuff or shoulder:

  There were one-pippers, two-pippers, three-pippers too,

  Just hanging about with fuck-all to do …

  To his servant an officer was simply ‘my bloke’. The company quartermaster sergeant could, like his superior at battalion headquarters, be known within the company as the quarter bloke. He might, from his rank of colour sergeant, be termed the colour bloke or colour bundle.20 Or, from the commodity he so often dispensed, he might be called the soup-dragon. Sergeant was more rarely abbreviated to ‘sarge’ than novelists would have us believe: the contraction ‘sarn’t’ was far more common, both up and down the chain of command. Corporals were ‘full screws’ and lance corporals ‘lance jacks’. The rank of lance private did not feature in King’s Regulations, but old hands granted it, in mock despair, to new arrivals.

  Weapons had nicknames of their own. A Lazy Eliza was a long-range shell, probably destined for a distant battery, that rustled harmlessly overhead. But Pissing Jenny and Whistling Percy were shells from German 9-inch naval guns, and the Wipers Express was a heavy gun notably used at Second Ypres. A whiz-bang or a pip-squeak was the shell from a German 77-mm field gun, often fired at such close range that the whistle of the shell’s arrival almost coincided with the sound of its explosion: Sidney Rogerson wrote of ‘the double-tap of a Hun 5.9 inch or the Whiz-Bang! of our eighteen pounders.’ A Coal Box or a Jack Johnson was a heavy shell which burst with a cloud of black smoke. Five-nines and nine-twos were German 5.9- and 9.2-inch guns, the decimals generally omitted by those who had heard the brutes. Two German machine guns near Festubert were christened Quinque Jimmy and Blighty Albert. A rifle, when not a bundook or a shooting iron, might be a hipe, from NCOs’ practice of mispronouncing words when giving orders to give extra snap, as in: ‘Order … hipe!’ A bayonet could be a tin-opener, a toothpick or a pigsticker.

  Soldiers often sang on the march. Unlike their German opponents or their French allies, as they tramped the pavé they had a marked aversion to overtly patriotic songs (though these had their place at concerts) and preferred a mixture of the mawkish and sentimental, the pop songs of the day, borrowed from music halls, and the obscene and irreverent. Captain Dunn believed that:

  The best-known snatches are short, four-line pieces that some vocal, inglorious Milton has been delivered of suddenly. They are fitted, as a rule, to a metrical or psalm tune. They can hardly be called songs, they’re not songs. Their drollery makes them catch on, and they get an extraordinary circulation just to be hummed or trolled at odd times, with more or less variation acc
ording to individual taste and ingenuity … Here is one that is merely vulgar; it illustrates the inconsequence and clowning that give most of them their distinctively English flavour.

  You can wash me in the water

  In which you’ve washed your dirty daughter

  And I shall be whiter

  Than the whitewash on the wall.

  She may be the ‘Colonel’s’, ‘Quarter’s’, or ‘Sergeant’s’ daughter.21

  The French sometimes produced bands and colour parties just behind the lines to give a stirring welcome to troops coming out of the line. But as one British soldier wrote:

  One of our younger officers copied the idea; and we were to sing; and about a minute later we were to stop singing. We had not got the thing right, it seemed … We all sang with extremely improper versions to the tune of ‘We Wanted to Go Home’.22

  Such frivolity could offend the serious-minded. Captain Robert Dolby, captured when his regimental aid post was overrun by the Germans at First Ypres, heard, in his prison-camp, how:

  The [German] recruit however sings all the time; on the march he is ordered to sing. One can hear the Sergeant-Majors shouting ‘Singen Sie’. And their songs are simple, homely subjects as a rule; of home, of peace, of quiet farms, of golden harvests. There are, of course, the more arrogant songs like ‘Deutschland über Alles’ and the ‘Wacht am Rhein’. But on the whole one cannot fail to be struck with the quality of the verses. German songs are melodious, simple, and speak of noble subjects. The French songs, barring the ‘Marseillaise’ are trifling and often vulgar; but our English songs are futile: American rag-time and the odious ‘Tipperary’. If songs be a test of national character, then the German has much to his credit.23

  It’s a Long Way to Tipperary was indeed a favourite throughout the war, with alternative words beginning, ‘It’s the wrong way to tickle Mary … ’, and ending rather worse. There was the supremely lugubrious We are Fred Karno’s Army, its words readily adaptable to fit the names of many units, sung to the tune of The Church’s One Foundation:

  We are Fred Karno’s Army, the ragtime infantry,

  We cannot shoot, we cannot fight, what bloody use are we?

  And when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say,

  ‘Hoch hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody useless lot’

  The ragtime infantry!

  And there were endless variations on Mademoiselle from Armentières. One told how:

  Three German officers crossed the line


  Three German officers crossed the line


  Three German officers crossed the line, fucked the women and drank the wine,

  With an inky-pinky parlez-vous …

  Or perhaps singers preferred the more respectable:

  Madame, have you any good wine,


  Madame, have you any good wine,


  Madame, have you any good wine,

  Fit for a soldier of the line

  Inky-pinky parlez-vous …

  Or then again there was the subversive:

  The Sergeant-Major’s having a time


  The Sergeant-Major’s having a time


  The Sergeant-Major’s having a time,

  Fucking the girls behind the line

  Inky-pinky parlez-vous.

  With its variants like:

  The ASC have a jolly fine time …

  Some units preferred ‘Skiboo! Skiboo!’ and concluded ‘Ski-bumpity-bump skiboo’.

  Mademoiselle … was popular partly because it allowed different voices to take up the lead down the ranks of a marching company, sometimes mimicking officers or NCOs. Thus a subaltern with a stammer and an officer’s use of expletives might be gently sent up:

  They c … c … came across a wayside inn,


  They c … c … came across a wayside inn


  They came across a wayside inn, and kicked the b … b … bally door right in,

  Inky-pinky parlez-vous …

  Indeed, the best songs allowed for the natural inventiveness of their singers. George Coppard’s battalion of the Queen’s was particularly fond of one which opened with the confident solo:

  Today’s my daughter’s wedding day,

  Ten thousand pounds I’ll give away.

  The chorus riposted with gusto:

  Hooray! Hooray!

  The solo then changed his mind:

  On second thoughts, I think it best,

  To store it in the old oak chest.

  This allowed the chorus, so often denied a legitimate expression of its dissent, to yell, with more feeling than metre:

  You stupid old bastard!

  You dirty old bleeder!24

  ‘Some of the songs we sang on the march gave vent to our private feelings,’ wrote Frederick Hodges;

  … we always laughed when we sang the old favourite ‘I want to go Home, I want to go HOME! Don’t want to go to the trenches no more, where there are whiz-bangs and shrapnel galore. Take me over the sea, where the Allemande can’t get at me! Oh my! I don’t want to DIE. I wa’ant to go HOME!’ Nostalgia or homesickness was expressed in many popular sentimental songs of the period. ‘The roses round the door make me love Mother more. I see my sister Flo, and the folks I used to know.’

  Another favourite was ‘Roses of Picardy’ with its sad haunting tune. Also ‘There’s a long trail a’winding to the place of my dreams’ and ‘Keep the home fires burning, while the hearts are yearning. Turn the dark clouds inside out, till we all come home’.25

  The king of all marching songs, rightly described in Francis and Day’s song annual for 1917 as ‘The British Army’s Battle Cry’, was Here we are! Here we are! Here we are again:

  Here we are! Here we are! Here we are again!

  There’s Pat and Mac and Tommy and Jack and Joe,

  When there’s trouble brewing, when there’s something doing,

  Are we downhearted? No! Let ‘em all come!

  Here we are! Here we are! Here we are again!

  It could be sung in cheery insouciance or with gentle disapproval. The Welsh Guards’ historian admits that when the battalion moved up to Loos:

  There was some confusion in orders and billeting arrangements. The battalion passed through Haillicourt, wandered about in the country beyond, and eventually returned to the village, which, being recognized by the men, although it was dark, was greeted with the song, ‘Here we are! Here we are! Here we are again!’26

  And it could be flung in the teeth of the worst the war had to offer. A crippled battalion coming out of the line, its men muddied and filthy and its strength left on the battlefield, somehow braced up as it reached the village where it was billeted, and found courage to bark out the old words ‘Here we are! Here we are! Here we are again …’.

  But despite the bawdiness and cynicism of much of what they sang, soldiers, perverse as ever, could sometimes sing so sentimentally that they moved others to tears. The Reverend Julian Bickersteth, looking out through the inverted V of his tent flap in a bivouac behind the Somme battlefront in September 1916, could see twenty men round a bright camp fire.

  The fire lights up their faces, and the sound of their voices singing well-known songs comes clearly across to us. ‘Keep the home fires burning’ is one of them, and I wonder how many of them will ever gather round a home fire again. A full moon fills the top of the triangle and completes the picture.27

  Welsh-recruited battalions often sang beautifully, and there is a heart-stopping account of a battalion moving up in the dark singing that most beautiful of hymn tunes, Aberystwyth, until the voices were lost in the sound of shellfire. The Welsh Guards choir came second in the male voice competition at the Welsh National Eisteddfod in 1918; but its finest hour had probably come earlier, as the regiment’s historian, an eyewitness, remembered:

sp; The really effective singing did not come from the choir standing in a body on a rough platform, but from the heart of the battalion when going into battle or after the fight. ‘In the sweet bye and bye, we shall meet on the beautiful shore,’ after the engagement at Gouzeaucourt, when the shattered battalion was withdrawn to a wood behind the village, brought a hush over the camp. The singers were hidden amongst the trees in the moonlight and the air was frosty and still. This was not a concert, but a message, a song of hope and faith.28

  So what hope and faith moved this vast assemblage of the proud and the profane, the cynical and the contemptuous, that constituted the British army in France? The question is a complex one, all the more so because it is bound up in the role of the military chaplain, an individual who has generally had a poor press. Religion and those who championed it divided men’s opinion, but there was a far more powerful spiritual undertow on the Western Front than we sometimes think. The Reverend Harold Davies was struck by the paradox inherent in a battery of artillery he visited. They were:

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