Them’s fightin’ words – naming the enemy in wartime

By VÉRONIQUE DUCHÉ

When the Great War broke out in August 1914, the French were already familiar with their enemy. A strong heritage of hatred towards the Germans had existed since the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the Prussian and Austrian armies invading France after Napoleon’s defeat (1814–15), followed by the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The French had words to call on to depict their enemy, such as the diminutive Prusco (from Prussian), or Teuton (Teutonic), both reminders of the brutality of Prussian troops.

The Australians, however, had no history with the German empire. Furthermore, Australia had a strong German migrant community: by the mid-nineteenth century, Germans were the largest non-British group in Victoria (1861: 10,000). Nevertheless, the Australian volunteers who fought alongside the British Army were quick to use the lexicon of the European Allies, as shown by a study of the trench journal Aussie: the Australian Soldiers’ Magazine.

In 1915, as military operations stabilised in the trenches, multiple unit papers were created by all the national armies. These magazines were produced under the most difficult front-line circumstances, sometimes literally ‘in the trenches’. Many of these trench journals published a limited number of issues of only a few pages, handwritten or typed, and duplicated by makeshift means. Entertainment was their primary aim, in order to engage the bored soldiers during their unoccupied time. These trench publications were regarded benevolently by the French military authorities. Although there was an official Bulletin des armées de la République, this bulletin was considered propaganda. The Poilus (French soldiers) aspired therefore to more authentic and sincere newspapers, written by soldiers for soldiers, produced entirely for consumption by soldiers on active service, and taking into account their state of mind.

Australian troops arrived on the Western Front in 1916, two years after the French had begun fighting there. Soldiers had produced magazines on board troopships, and continued the practice in Europe. Many publications, some very ephemeral, were produced. Aussie: the Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, born on 18 January 1918, was one of the most significant of these trench publications and continued on into the immediate postwar years.

Graham Seal has studied the multiple functions of trench newspapers and noted that ‘these publications sometimes acted as a means of monitoring morale for the officers and as a safety-valve for the gripes and whinges of the ordinary soldier.’ While these trench publications provide an unequalled insight into everyday life and death during the Great War, they are also an invaluable resource for linguists wanting to research language in a time of war. They were seen to capture the real language of the soldiers, as observed by Aussie editor (and former journalist) Phillip Harris: ‘the success of Aussie […] belongs to the Diggers. Aussie was not a paper done for the Diggers, but by them. That’s why it reflects their spirit.’ Harris was particularly adamant about the sincerity and originality of the texts he published in Aussie, as argued in the third issue of the magazine:

AUSSIE is a product of the battlefield, and he wants every item in him to be the work of his cobbers in the field and those in the field only. Should matter that is not original sneak in, it decreases the value of the work of those who go to the trouble to supply the dinkum goods. Therefore, he asks those to whom this is addressed to do the fair thing and send in their own work or none at all. (March 1918)

In my research, the thirteen issues of Aussie printed in France in 1918–19, first in Flêtre, then in Fauquembergues, were explored in order to look at the kinds of words used to describe the enemy. Naming the enemy was a challenging exercise for these amateur journalists, as they had to maintain a fine balance between hate and respect, reality and propaganda, especially in a journal that aimed to be humorous and entertaining.

As indicated by Amanda Laugesen in Diggerspeak: The Language of Australians at War (2005), Fritz was the word most commonly used by the diggers in naming the Germans. Fritz was ‘first recorded in 1915, and in wide usage especially in the early years of the First World War among English-speaking troops, including the Australians. It was a diminutive of the common German male name Friedrich.’ Friedrich was also one of the favorite names of the Hohenzollern dynasty, the emperors of Prussia. ‘Fritz and Co.’, the German enemy, we are told in Aussie, are ‘Purveyors of Blighties to the British Army’ (January 1918). Blighty was military slang for ‘a wound suffered sufficiently serious to cause a soldier to be returned home to Britain or kept away from the front line’. The word Fritz could also be used as part of a collective: Hans and Fritz, as a counterpart to Bill and Jim, an affectionate name for Australian soldiers. Variants included Fritzah: ‘The Billjims had something very painful to pay to the Fritzahs, a hostile tribe’ (March 1918).

Hun was the second most commonly used word for Germans. While Fritz was a term more often used specifically to refer to German soldiers, Hun often referred to the German people collectively. The Huns were, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘a warlike Asiatic nomadic group of people who, under their king Attila, invaded and ravaged large parts of Europe in the late 4th and 5th centuries.’ According to Laugesen, ‘during the First World War, British, Australian, and other newspapers played directly on this, drawing a likeness between the Huns who invaded the Roman Empire and the Germans invading Belgium and France and, allegedly, destroying historic buildings.’ In addition, we find in Aussie expressions using this short evocative name in compounds such as Hun-hunter and Hun Plonker: ‘That clamorous and voracious animal, the Hun Plonker’ (March 1918).

The diggers were quick to naturalise a new word used by the French, Boche. Boche is the most common word used by French soldiers in their journals, displacing the commonly used words Prussien and Prussco. As early as August 1914, the word Boche was used in daily newspapers such as Le Matin and Le Figaro. This word was felt by the Germans to be strongly pejorative, as illustrated by the story of twenty-year-old Gabrielle Barthel, from Rombas in Mosel, who was condemned to five months’ jail in June 1915 for having used the word boche.

The very productive suffix –oche was frequently used in French slang (and still is). According to the Trésor de la Langue Française, boche is a portmanteau word blending Allemand (German) and Caboche (slang for ‘head’). This short word, with its evocative tone, provided a pretext for numerous wordplays, such as boche/bouche (mouth), boche/poche (pocket), etc. This is seen in the titles and subtitles of many French trench journals: Le Mouchoir de boche (227th infantry regiment; deformation of ‘pocket handkerchief’); Bochophage (68th infantry regiment; ‘German eater’); and Rigolboche (10th division; ‘laughing about Germans’).

The diggers also adopted the word Teuton (three occurrences) and domesticated the French Allemand into Alleyman by composing a phonetically similar word based on the English terms alley and man.

The enemy could also be alluded to through reference to figures who played an important part in triggering the war. Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s grandson, the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, is found in both French and Australian trench journals, as Wilhelm Hohenzollern (advertisement, 1918) or more often the Kaiser. The German royal family is likewise often mentioned, in particular Rupprecht, Kronprinz of Bavaria (as Crown Prince, May 1918), also called ‘prince Rupert, the kaiser’s nephew’ (May 1919).

Other figures were taken to embody the German enemy, such as Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg (‘an unpopular person named Hindenburg’, December 1918) or Bertha Krupp (‘I dreamt we’d really won the war and finished Bertha Krupp’, March 1918), the proprietor of the Krupp industrial empire, famous for its production of artillery. Bertha also gave her name to the big gun that fired on the Allied troops, Big Bertha.

It has to be noted that despite the threat that these names could epitomise, the tone used by the Australian diggers is always humorous and the content kept at a distance. This was not always the case in French trench journals. Designated as the man primarily responsible for the war, Wilhelm crystallised the hatred of the French soldiers, whose loathing of the enemy was combined with a violent disenchantment with the elites. The Crown Prince (Kronprinz) was the subject of many puns in French – Kron being spelled con, a swear word meaning ‘stupid’. Furthermore, cartoons representing the Kaiser as a laughable puppet and a bloodthirsty monster, or Germania, the allegory of Germany, as a pitiless deity, considerably darkened the tone.

However, as previously mentioned, entertainment was the primary goal of trench journals during the Great War. Key words and phrases of German propaganda were parodied, such as ‘Deutschland uber Allies’ for ‘Deutschland über Alles’ (‘Germany above all else’, Aussie, January 1918). The peculiar German accent is strongly mocked: ‘Ach, mine friendts. You can never sometimes tell vot you least expect der most—aint it?’ (June 1918). German taste for music—‘Ach-der-schumannisch-der-musikalgessellschaft!’ (June 1918)—is also made fun of, as shown by this allusion to the German patriotic anthem, ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’, by Max Schneckenburger: ‘As Fritz, in his trenches, singeths the Wacht am Rhein, a Mill’s bomb hitteth him on his sauerkraut receptacle.’ (September 1918)

An ‘appetite for words’ seems to be the distinctive feature of Australian amateur journalists, as demonstrated in this call for ‘language rations’ in the third issue of Aussie:

[AUSSIE’S] appetite for words has increased with his growth, and he now does the Oliver Twist and comes up for more. He likes best those laughable trench incidents of which all battalion messes have a good stock. […] It is not necessary to be an experienced manufacturer of literary food to do this. Just send along the ingredients to him and he will do his best to make them into a palatable dish for general consumption. (March 1918)

The diggers on the Western Front excelled in blending new words into their slanguage, be it for the depiction of the enemy, or for the description of the world around them.

A republished version of the article, Naming the enemy in French and Australian trench journals of the Great War, first published in the April edition of Ozwords.

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