A Glossary of The Great War


in top form. By 1916 the British War Office had created an ABC system of classification for the Department of Recruiting, with each category graded on a scale of 1 to 3. A-1 men were fit for general service overseas.
an outstanding pilot. At first simply a fine flier, but later the French singled out fliers who had downed at least five enemy planes as “aces” (the highest card in the deck).
Advance Center of Information, a point in advance of a Post of Command, where messages and information could be sent.
anti-aircraft fire; from the military phonetic alphabet “A-A.”
aide-de-camp (Fr.), military officer acting as secretary and confidential assistant to a superior officer.
British Department responsible for all aspects of the Navy’s operations, supplies, ordnance, pay, manning, etc.; now incorporated into the Ministry of Defence.
Advance to Victory
name sometimes given to the period starting on 8 August 1918 and ending on 11 November 1918 (Armistice Day).
American Expeditionary Force; the US declared war in April 1917 and President Woodrow Wilson sent the AEF to the Western Front under the command of General John Pershing. By July 1918, there were over a million US soldiers in France. The AEF suffered 264,000 casualties (including 50,500 killed in battle and 25,000 killed by disease).
aerial torpedo
finned mortar bomb dropped from an aircraft.
air base.
aerial burst
artillery shell detonating at a certain height to rain shrapnel on entrenched troops
Allied Powers
almost 30 nations joined against the Central Powers; the principal ones were Britain and its Empire (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India), France, Belgium, Romania, Serbia, Russia, Japan and the USA; also called Allies.
British slang for a German soldier; from the French “Allemand.”
Armed Merchant Cruiser: large civilian vessel armed as auxiliary cruiser.
Amiens hut
temporary structure of canvas on a frame used at British base camps.
Australian and New Zealand Army Corps; the Anzacs landed at the so-called Anzac Area on the west coast of the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915. See “Gallipoli.”
anti-aircraft gun or gunnery.
two or more corps under a general; between 120,000 and 200,000 soldiers.
army group
two or more armies under the command of a field marshal; generally between 400,000 and one million soldiers of all ranks, the largest land force formation.
strategy of wearing down the enemy through continual attack and pressure.


members of battalions between 5’1” and 5’4.”
buildings specifically designed for occupation by military personnel.
barrier of excessive, continuous artillery or machine gun fire in “lines” on a specific area designed to destroy the enemy or make them keep their heads down.
barrage balloon
hydrogen-filled balloons, moored by a cable by which they could be raised or lowered, to force enemy aircraft to fly higher out of fear of entanglement in the cables, where they would be at greater risk from heavy anti-aircraft fire.
basic infantry unit under a lieutenant-colonel and comprising about 35 officers and 750 soldiers; this varied widely from army to army and from period to period.
artillery section consisting of about 150 soldiers under a major and armed with 4 to 8 guns of a particular type (e.g., howitzers).
battle order
British term for reduced infantry equipment; the pack was removed and the haversack put in its place, to reduce weight and facilitate movement in action.
the largest warships with the heaviest gun armaments and armor.
British Expeditionary Force; name given to the original four infantry and one cavalry divisions of the Regular British Army that went to France in August 1914. Of those 100,000 soldiers, the BEF had lost 50,000 by December 1914.
when a tank’s underside is caught upon an obstacle so high that its tracks cannot grip the earth.
area at the back of a trench; ledge used to keep grenades from rolling into trench.
Big Bertha
German 42-cm howitzer with a 15 km range built by Gustav Krupp’s factories in 1914 and nicknamed after his wife. Four Big Berthas were built and all were used during the assault upon Verdun from February 1916. See “Paris Gun.”
The Big Push
(UK) the Battle of the Somme (1916); later known as the Great Cock-Up. Fought from 1 July to 18 November 1916, the Allies advancing less than six miles. The battle claimed over 1 million lives: 400,000 British Imperial, 200,000 French and 500,000 German.
The Big Show
(US) the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (26 September to 11 November 1918), near the town of Verdun. The largest US battle of the Great War, it resulted in Germany’s capitulation. The AEF suffered 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded, while the Germans suffered 126,000 casualties.
order requiring person to lodge a soldier; place where troops are lodged.
a wound (sometimes self-inflicted) ensuring a return to England (“Blighty”); from Hindi “bilayati” (foreign country) and taken up by British troops in India.
dirigible airship used for submarine reconnaissance over the English Channel.
a German (derogatory); from the French, an alteration of “Alboche,” which comes from “caboche” (blockhead). See “Hun” and “Kraut.”
a Royal Artillery corporal; pronounced “bombadeer.”
heavy assault or attack of artillery bomber.
in French orders, “to advance by bounds,” meaning in regulated distances according to a schedule.
box barrage
artillery bombardment upon a small area.
high-ranking officers; from their “brass hats” (that had a red band around them).
bridge head
holding sufficient amount of territory on the enemy side of a river to enable friendly troops to build bridges and cross, or cross troops on preexisting bridges.
four battalions, totalling about 120 officers and between 4,000 and 5,000 NCOs and enlisted men, commanded by a brigadier.
private soldiers (US slang).
bull ring
British training camp behind the lines which prepared recruits for service at the front by inculcating an “offensive spirit.” The British training-ground at Étaples, infamous for its severe discipline, was called the Bullring.
bully beef
tinned, boiled, or pickled beef, the principal protein ration of the British Army; called “willie” by US troops. From the French “boeuf bouilli” (boiled beef).
below-ground fortification with overhead protection.
bus move
to move troops by motor; a “bus” was a covered motor vehicle with seats along each side and for 18 to 30 men each. French: “camions”; British: “lorries.”
mound behind a target on a rifle range to bring the bullet to a safe stop.


coloring schemes applied to equipment and uniforms to make them harder to see; from the French “camoufler” (to disguise).
short-range artillery anti-personnel shell filled with pellets, chain-links, etc.
human being killed, wounded or missing in action.
Canadian Expeditionary Force; over 600,000 Canadians enlisted in the CEF.
(literally “empty tomb”) sepulchral monument to a person whose body is elsewhere; the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, commemorates the dead of WWI and WWII.
Central Powers
Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), and Bulgaria.
informal conversation; lice were sometimes called “chats” and soldiers who spent hours removing them from their clothing passed the time in conversation.
Chinese attack
a faked attack. When a preliminary bombardment ceased, the defending troops would return to their trenches to meet the presumed attack, whereupon the artillery would start firing again and catch the defenders out of their shelters.
British slang for a piece of paper; popularized by the Anglo-Indian army.
food, rations; to “chow down” is to eat; a “chow hall” is a military dining hall.
Commanding Officer; in the British Army, the CO was the lieutenant-colonel in command of an infantry battalion or cavalry regiment.
term used by British soldiers to describe cigarettes.
cold feet
to have cold feet is to be discouraged or afraid; possibly linked to “trench foot.”
communication trenches
narrow trenches used to go to and from front line trenches and support trenches, for messengers to relay messages to the front line and back, and for telephone wire to be strung up to the front line system.
four platoons totalling 240 men under a major or captain; 4 companies make up a battalion.
a conscientious objector, who refused military service on moral or religious grounds.
concussion shell
artillery shell that explodes on contact and throws out a mass of shrapnel.
system of compulsory military recruitment. In January 1916, Parliament passed the first conscription laws in Britain, for single men and childless widowers aged 18 to 41; by 1918 compulsory service included all men aged 18 to 51.
group of merchant ships protected by an armed naval escort; used to combat the threat of unrestricted submarine warfare. Also used to refer to columns of motor vehicles.
metal post for supporting a wire entanglement, with twisted base enabling it to be screwed into the ground (without a hammer, which might attract enemy fire).
the main British service explosive of WWI.
two or more divisions, under a lieutenant-general, totalling about 1,200 officers and between 30,000 and 60,000 NCOs and enlisted men.
covering party
detachment of soldiers protecting a working-party in the front line.
court martial
judicial court of military officers who try infractions of military law; it has the right to pass the death sentence.
hole in the ground caused by a shell, bomb, mine, etc., from a few feet across to hundreds of feet in diameter; some were used for burials and became war graves.
creeping barrage
barrage intended to suppress the enemy long enough to enable troops to occupy his position. The trick was to act in the brief interval between the lifting of the barrage and the return of the enemy. Troops were trained to walk literally into the barrage as it lifted or moved.
terrible (slang); from the eggs of lice (hence “lousy”) resembling crumbs of bread.
comfortable (slang), as in a comfortable job; from the Urdu “kushi” (pleasure), popularized by the Anglo-Indian army.


daisy cutter
shell with impact fuse to explode immediately on touching ground.
initial day of a military operation; first used by the American First Army at St. Mihiel on 12 September 1918. (D + 1 is one day after the operation has started, and D - 10 is 10 days before. By using this system, the date of an operation remains secret and can easily be altered.)
in the transition from war to peace, the disbanding or discharging of troops
base of regiment or departmental corps, where servicemen are trained and kitted out before joining units (e.g., battalions, batteries) or held, for example, after being in hospital. Also a place for stores, ammunition or fuel.
Derby Scheme
voluntary recruitment instituted by Lord Derby just prior to 1916 conscription.
small, fast warship armed mainly with torpedoes and anti-submarine devices.
dig oneself in
to establish one’s position strongly; from entrenching. See “dugout.”
an Australian soldier (slang).
a tank became ditched when the ground beneath became so soft or waterlogged as to prevent the tracks from gripping.
three brigades and supporting artillery, supply, and medical units totalling 600 officers and about 18,000 NCOs and enlisted men; commanded by a major general.
Demilitarized Zone: area from which all military effects have been removed.
dog fight
air combat at close quarters (as seen from the ground).
Defence of the Realm Act (8 August 1914). Under DORA, one could not discuss military matters in public, buy binoculars, trespass on railway lines or bridges, light fireworks or bonfires, or ring church bells. The British government could take over any factory or land, censor newspapers, and try any civilian breaking these laws.
American soldier (slang); at first disparaging, later positive; from the buttons on the Union Army uniforms of the Civil War that resembled doughnuts. The English called US soldiers “Yanks” (Yankee Doodle) or “Sammies” (Uncle Sam).
conscripted soldier (from the “draft”) in contrast to a “regular” (volunteer) soldier.
huge, heavily armed battleship first launched by Britain in 1906; it carried ten 12 inch guns and had a top speed of 18 knots.
drum fire
artillery barrage fired not in salvo but by each gun in succession.
Distinguished Service Order, instituted under Queen Victoria on 9 November 1886 to reward meritorious or distinguished service in war; it was given to officers only. Although the DSO was awarded for acts not directly involving actual combat with the enemy during the first two and a half years of the Great War, from 1 January 1917 officers were issued guidance stating that the award was reserved for distinguished conduct under enemy fire.
narrow path of wooden slats in trench or over field mud; also called trenchboard.
a shell that has landed but failed to explode (and that remains dangerous until expertly defused); later, the term came to mean a failed person or enterprise.
rough shelter in the side of a hill or the wall of a trench, varying from a small one man area to a deep dugout ten or more feet underground. See “fox hole.”
a soft-nosed bullet that expands upon impact, causing horrific wounds.
designated place for storage of rations or assembling ammunition and supplies (from US 19th century: pile of refuse, rubbish, trash).


Eastern Front
fighting on the German-Russian, Austro-Russian and Austro-Romanian fronts.
eleventh hour
just in time, at the very last moment; the armistice came into effect at the 11th on the 11th day of the 11th month.
(French) to fire down a trench or at a row of men length-ways, rather than cross-ways.
(French) impromptu, shabby café selling food and wine to soldiers behind the lines.
to send back. Evacuating the wounded meant sending them to hospitals or dressing stations in rear of the firing line. Sick men were counted as evacuations but not casualties.
usually for cowardice. 332 British soldiers were executed in the Great War. A campaign is ongoing to get them officially forgiven as victims of “shell shock” (not then recognized by the military as a genuine reason for cowardly behavior).


Field Artillery.
long, firmly bound bundle of brushwood used in filling up trenches and ditches, constructing batteries, or reinforcing a defensive line.
field dressing
each soldier’s small bag of bandages and pins for application to minor wounds.
Field Marshal
the highest rank in the British Army. The other services’ equivalent ranks are Admiral of the Fleet (Navy) and Marshal of the Royal Air Force.
trench from where soldiers fired, protected on each side by earth and sandbags.
raised way, running the length of the inside of the parapet or the bottom of the trench, on which soldiers stand to fire at the enemy. The floor of the trench was lower so that soldiers could walk upright without exposing their heads.
artillery shells that drop poison gas.
rundown hotel or accommodations; from army slang for sleeping bag or bedroll.
Field Order: orders issued in the field.
army term for a body of troops larger than a battalion (e.g., brigade and division).
fox hole
individual shelter; a hole in the ground in the side of a hill, ditch, or embankment away from the enemy; also called funk hole, cubby hole, and bolt hole.
a German soldier (slang); sympathetic Allied nickname derived from “Old Fritz,” from Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-86). See “Jerry.”
a Frenchman (derogatory); from frog-eater, with 18th-century origins.
front line
area of trenches nearest to the enemy.
“frontline pigs”: how German soldiers referred to themselves; implied slaughter.
state of fear, nervousness, or dejection. See “fox hole.”
originally (1680) an elite infantry soldier armed with a light flintlock musket called “fusil” (French “gun”); now a regimental designation denoting British light infantry, the Fusiliers. There were eight regiments of Fusiliers in 1914.


inaccurately used to mean the Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. The fighting occurred on the Peninsula, not at the town of Gallipoli (Gelibolu), some 20 miles away. The Battle of Gallipoli (25 April 1915 to 6 January 1916) was a disaster for the Anzacs, who had to abandon the operation. Of the 50,000 Australians who fought at Gallipoli, 8,709 were killed and 18,235 wounded; New Zealand troops suffered 2,701 deaths and 4,880 wounded. Over 86,000 Turkish soldiers were killed.
General Staff
a group of military officers acting in a staff or administrative role under the command of a general officer.
General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces (Pershing’s HQ).
GI can
large trash receptacle made of galvanized iron; the abbreviation GI was then applied to large German artillery shells. (During WWII, it stood for “Government Issue” equipment, which eventually came to include the troops themselves.)
Great War
WWI; formerly used for the Napoleonic Wars. The expression was first applied to the 1914-18 war in the October 1914 issue of Macleans Magazine (Canada).


hanging on the wire
slang for dead; refers to corpses hanging on barbed wire.
military prison or detention center.
High Command
decision-making body of German Army (including the Commander-in-Chief).
high explosive shell
detonates with very high explosion after impact; used to destroy bunkers and earthworks; by far the most widely used artillery shell of the war.
Home Front
civilian population (and their activities) during wartime.
short gun for high-angle firing of shells at low velocities. See “mortar.”
a German (derogatory); Kaiser Wilhelm originally associated Germany with the ancient nomadic tribe that plundered Europe. See “Boche” and “Kraut.”
Hundred Days
The Battle of the Hundred Days: Commonwealth and Allied offensive that lasted 96 days from the morning of 8 August to 11:00 hours on 11 November 1918.
reference to top-secret information or operations.
German or French light cavalryman; in rare cases, some of the British cavalry units were referred to as hussars.


something (bullet, shell) that sets fire to something else on impact.
foot soldiers; they suffered many casualties due to machine gun fire, poison gas, trench warfare, and poor, outdated tactics.
medical treatment facility for minor illnesses or injuries; first aid station.
iron ration
emergency ration of corned beef, tea, sugar and biscuit carried by all soldiers.


a German soldier (slang); sympathetic Allied nickname derived from “Germany” or from the resemblance of German helmets to chamber pots, also known as jeroboams and abbreviated to “Jerries.” See “Fritz.”
extreme nationalism; chauvinistic patriotism.
jump off line
line or position from which an attack is launched; also called “take off line.”
peninsula of northern Europe comprising mainland Denmark and northern Germany; the Battle of Jutland was the only major naval battle of the Great War.


Queen Victoria’s eldest grandson, Wilhelm II (1859-1941), third German Kaiser (Emperor), ninth King of Prussia; reigned from 1888-1918. Commander-in-Chief of the German army; nicknamed the “Beast of Berlin.”
soldier’s compact set of cooking and eating utensils.
Kitchener’s army
enlistees who responded to Lord Kitchener’s 1914 appeal for volunteers; they provided the manpower for the disastrous 1916 Battle of the Somme. Kitchener, Minister of War, was in one of the most famous posters of all time: “Your country needs YOU.” He was killed when his ship was torpedoed. See “Pals.”
kite balloon
observation balloon controlled by a cable from the ground.
a New Zealander (slang).
a German (derogatory); from the German dish “sauerkraut.” See “Boche” and “Hun.”
Kings Royal Rifle Corps.


British cavalryman; with trench warfare, Lancers took up an infantry role.
land ships
original name for tanks.
last post
British term for the tune, usually played on a bugle, used at military funerals and ceremonies commemorating those who have fallen in war (US: “taps”).
outside toilets.
system of assault in which the first wave took the first objective and the second wave passed through them to take the second objective.
British sailor (US slang); from the lime juice issued to the crews of British ships as an anti-scorbutic (to prevent scurvy) in the 19th century.
usually literally a zig-zag line of trenches, facing the enemy’s line.
liquid fire
flames shot from flame throwers; introduced by Germans at Verdun in 1916.
listening post
forward position usually set beyond barbed wire (in No Man’s Land) for closer enemy observation, overhearing enemy conversation, or tapping phone lines.
the art of moving and quartering troops, and especially of supplying them.
British passenger ship torpedoed without warning by a German U-boat on 7 May 1915 off the coast of Ireland; it sank within 18 minutes. 1,198 died, 761 were rescued. 124 (out of 197) Americans died, prompting the US to enter the war. (It was later revealed that the ship also carried a cargo of munitions.)
High explosive widely used during the Great War.


Canned British ration of turnips, carrots and potatoes, in a thin soup. Named for the Aberdeen Maconochie Company that produced it.
Headstone (upright) or plaque (recumbent or semi-recumbent) over a grave, but not infrequently indicating that the actual grave is elsewhere.
Maxim gun
single-barreled quick-firing machine gun.
Medical Corps.
Medical Department or Medical Doctor.
Structure which provides wall space on which are inscribed the names of those with no known grave, no grave but the sea, or who have been cremated.
Machine Gun Corps of the British army.
Mills bomb
British hand grenade developed in 1915; it remained in service until the 1960's.
Underground passage extending under an enemy’s works to secure access or deposit explosives for blowing up a military position; also the explosive device itself, usually buried at a shallow depth and detonated upon contact.
(“mine thrower”) German short-range mortar on wheels; nicknamed “Minnie.”
To make ready or muster forces for military service.
Nearly full-sized, non-working model of a new design.
Muzzle-loading canon firing low-velocity shells at short range and at a high angle; it is essentially a short tube designed to fire a projectile at a steep angle so that it falls straight down on the enemy. See “howitzer.”
War materiel: weapons, ammunition, shells, etc. See “ordnance.”
mustard gas
Volatile, corrosive poison gas (dichloroethyl sulphide) first used by the Germans at Ypres in 1917; it attacked mucous membranes, lung tissue, and eyes, causing severe skin wounds, lung burns, and conjunctivitis.


Done, used up (slang); corruption of the French “il n’y en a plus” (“there is/are no more”); later, it came to mean “to kill.”
Non-Commissioned Officer; with a rank from corporal to staff sergeant.
Several machine guns in different locations but in close proximity to each other.
Psychological disorder resulting from explosion of shells or bombs at close quarters; characterized by chronic fatigue and weakness, memory loss, hallucinations, flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares and depression. Also called “battle fatigue,” “shell shock,” and (from mid-1970s) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
No Man’s Land
Territory between Allied and German trenches on the Western Front; a desolate, barren wasteland of barbed wire, shell craters, mud, debris, and corpses; it varied from yards to miles in width, but averaged about 100 to 500 yards. Dates from the 1300s, when it meant the waste ground between two kingdoms.
nose dive
A fighter-pilot’s tactic of pouncing down from above; nowadays: any sharp descent or decline (as in stock market prices).


Successive lines which troops are to take or advance to according to schedule.
An attack or assault, usually on a large scale; see “The Big Show.”
Waterproof sheet.
Old Contemptible
Nickname adopted by the original British Expeditionary Force of 1914 because the Kaiser supposedly referred to it as a “contemptible little army.”
Observation Post, from which enemy movements or actions are observed.
Military materiel and supplies: weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and equipment; general term for the great guns requiring carriages or mountings. See “munitions”
over the top
Troops emerging from a trench at the start of an attack (often facing certain death); in civilian use, it meant taking the final plunge to do something dangerous.
A soldier’s unit; usually an infantry regiment or artillery battery.


Men from the same town or trade who were encouraged to enlist together in Kitchener’s army in 1914. See “Kitchener’s army.”
Pieces of white cloth or paper used to signal from the ground to an airplane; carried by the infantry. When a friendly airplane flies over and calls for the signal, the panels are shown. The observer in the plane marks their location on his map, flies back and drops the map at headquarters, thus locating the front line.
The side of a trench farthest from the enemy; raised earth behind the rear trench wall used to help diffuse the shock of high explosives going off behind the line.
The side of a trench facing the enemy; raised soil of rocks in front of a trench line used to protect troops from enemy observation and fire.
Paris Gun
Krupp weapon designed to fire over 75 miles and bombard Paris. The French did not realize a gun could fire that far. See “Big Bertha.”
Paris Peace Conference
1919 peace conference in Paris that produced the treaties between the Allies and each of the Central Powers. See “Versailles.”
Post of Command; sometimes the same place as HQ. Located in a convenient place where it can function without annoyance from the enemy, while the CO and part of his staff go forward to be nearer the front line to better direct operations.
Low, reinforced concrete machine-gun post.
Any 2nd lieutenant; also a small German trench gun; nowadays, any small (physically) or insignificant person.
Small infantry detachment of 60 men commanded by a lieutenant; there are four platoons in a company.
Section of a war cemetery with rows of graves, usually separated from the other sections by paths or grass.
Plug Street
British nickname for the Belgian village of Ploegsteert; Ploegsteert Wood was the site of fierce fighting.
French private soldier (Fr.: “hairy one”); “poil” refers primarily to animal hair, but here refers to the virility traditionally symbolized by an unshaven man.
place, point, fort, etc. for which a soldier is responsible or at which he is stationed; verb: to move soldiers (or units) from one place or unit to another.
potato masher
nickname for German hand grenade or the club used in trench raids.
Gavrilo Princip, who shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife at Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia) on 28 June 1914. A Bosnian Serb, Princip was a member of the Young Bosnia Movement, a group of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims committed to achieving the independence of Bosnia. Too young (19) for the death penalty, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he died (of tuberculosis) on 28 April 1918.
a large-scale attack on enemy positions.
push up the daisies
to be killed and buried (euphemism).


Quartermaster Corps.
armed anti-submarine vessels disguised as common steamers that sailed in waters known to contain German U-boats, which they tried to catch on the surface.
army officer in charge of supplies, rations, ammunition, fuel, and the administration of all quarters and barracks in his regiment or battalion.


Royal Air Force; formed in April 1918 when the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service joined together.
to give someone a limited portion or allowance (a ration) of food or goods; food for one man for one day. 1,000 rations means food for 1,000 men for one day.
investigation or exploration, as in “reconnaissance mission” (Fr.: “recognition”).
red cap
British military policeman.
red tab
British staff officers (from the lapel tabs on the blouse of General Staff officers).
small, temporary, self-contained refuge for soldiers outside the main defences; a usually square or polygonal fortification.
red tabs
British staff officers (slang); from the lapel tabs on General Staff officers’ uniforms.
German for “kingdom”; the First Reich was the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806); the Second Reich was from 1871-1918; the Third Reich was the Nazi regime (1933-45).
a mess or failure (British slang); abbreviation of “regimental foul-up.”
term used by gunners, meaning to locate a target by means of each gun in a battery firing rounds; a forward observation officer would inform the battery of what adjustments were required in order to hit the target.
payment or other compensation offered for loss, damage or suffering. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) formally ordered Germany to pay reparations to the Allies. The US did not ratify the treaty and waived all claims on reparations.
men, animals or materiel sent forward to replace those killed, wounded, or broken and worn out.
gas mask in which air was inhaled through a metal box of chemicals.
to fight back, to avenge; in wartime, a counterattack.
retaining wall (lumber planks, tin sheets, etc.) supporting the sides of a trench.
Royal Field Artillery; responsible for using all types of available artillery.
Royal Flying Corps; it later became the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918.
Royal Garrison Artillery, which used medium-sized artillery pieces.
Railhead: railway station where replacements and supplies of a camp or division are received from warehouses in the rear.
area extending from the northern borders of France and Western Germany.
Regimental Liaison Officer.
Royal Naval Division
division of land troops, effectively part of the British Army but manned by sailors of the Royal Navy; they fought as soldiers on the Western Front and Gallipoli.
Regimental Sergeant Major of the British army, the highest NCO of the regiment.
Railway Transportation Officer.
a messenger; a soldier who carried messages by hand.


trench-system projecting towards the enemy; when not prefixed by a name, Salient was often assumed to be the Ypres Salient (late 1914 to 1918).
sanitary train
medical organization of a division, corps or army. In a division, it consists of four ambulance companies and four field hospitals.
tunnel used to approach the enemy positions to plant high explosives unobserved; narrow trench dug an angle from an existing trench.
soldiers (many ex-miners) used to dig saps; considered one of the worst jobs.
Signal Corps.
Schlieffen Plan
a failed plan devised by Alfred Graf von Schlieffen before the war. While Russia would spend 6 weeks getting her army ready, Germany would attack and defeat France and then turn the full force of France’s army against the Russians.
section or area allotted to and occupied by an Army, Army Corps, Division, Brigade, Regiment or other organization.
shell shock
medical condition caused by prolonged exposure to trench warfare. See “neurasthenia.”
small metal balls exploded from a shell in flight (not pieces of the shell itself, which are called fragments); named ca. 1793 after its inventor, Col. Henry Shrapnel.
hidden enemy gunman; sharpshooter.
Sopwith Camel
small, lightweight British single-engine fighter aircraft introduced in 1917. It shot down 1,294 enemy aircraft during WWI, more than any other Allied fighter. However, it was so difficult to fly that more men lost their lives while learning to fly it than in combat. The plane’s wood and fabric construction, and lack of protection for the fuel tank, made the Camel very susceptible to fire.
Service of Supply; responsible for the supply of all troops; formerly known as the Line of Communications.
Spanish flu
respiratory infection that spread during the later days of WWI, killing 20-30 million; originally brought to Europe by US doughboys as a form of swine flu.
term used to describe the deadlock on the Western Front.
highest state of military alert where all troops must be ready for immediate action with weapons at the ready; front line soldiers were required to man the firestep of their trench. Routinely done at dawn and nightfall when attacks were most likely.
stick grenade
German hand grenade attached to a stick for easier throwing.
Stokes Gun
British light trench mortar that fired a 10-pound projectile up to 1,200 meters. Its bombs were often called Toffee Apples and Plum Puddings.
specially-trained German assault troops that raided trenches first following a (creeping) barrage; during WWII, nickname of Nazi Brown Shirts.
to bombard or machine-gun heavily from low-flying aircraft; from the German “strafen” (to punish).
British commissioned officer below the rank of captain; 1st and 2nd lieutenants.
drainage ditch at the bottom of the trench (which seldom existed due to the serious mud problem faced on the Western Front).
support trench
secondary line of defence behind the front line system also used to house the supply areas, command elements, and artillery areas.
soldier (UK slang); person with the determination to fight and resist an opponent.


to be in a tailspin is to be out of control or about to crash (aircraft metaphor).
armored vehicle first used in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where it failed badly (but fared better at the Battle of Flers). As a deception, the original shipping crates of these vehicles were labeled “Tanks” as in water tanks.
British private soldier. Used as early as 1743 and popularized by Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy” (1892) and the music hall song “Private Tommy Atkins” (1893).
a period of front-line service; also “tour of duty.”
phosphorescent machine-gun bullet whose glowing course helped in aiming.
bodily wound, hurt, or injury; can also be mental (result of stress).
trenches were not straight ditches (which would have made them too vulnerable to enfilade fire) but had traverses built in: protrusions of earth or sandbags to reduce the effect of shells when they landed and prevent the enemy from easily overrunning a trench line; usually the sight of some of the most brutal fighting.
long, narrow excavations (at times fortified) used to shelter troops from enemy fire; they have been called “trenches” since the 1500s.
trench block
obstacle placed in a trench to hinder the movement of enemy raiding parties; commonly found in communications trenches.
trench coat
short, waterproof overcoat, belted and double-breasted, with straps on shoulders and arms; originally worn only by officers.
trench fever
influenza-like disease spread by lice; characterized by fever, weakness, dizziness, headaches, severe back and leg pains, and a rash.
trench foot
fungal infection and swelling caused by exposure to damp and cold; if the foot became gangrenous, it was often amputated.
trench mouth
characterized by painful, bleeding gums and bad breath; caused by poor oral hygiene and nutrition, heavy smoking, and stress.
trench rabbit
rat (US slang).
trench warfare
a prolonged struggle between competing entities in which neither side is able to win.
clearing station (Fr.) where casualties were classified as either “transportable,” “non-transportable,” or “slightly wounded, not to be evacuated.”
trip wire
anything that might catch someone and set off a trap or alarm.
Triple Alliance
partnership between Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy signed in 1882 and renewed periodically through 1913.
Triple Entente
partnership between France, Britain and Russia signed in 1907.
radio or wireless telegraphy; Fr.: “Télégraphie Sans Fil” (telegraphy without wire).


German submarine; from the German “Unterseeboat” (undersea boat).
Union Jack
flag of the United Kingdom.
army term for a body of troops up to a battalion in size.
up against a wall
in serious difficulties; those facing a firing squad were placed against a wall.
Upper Ten
the Upper Ten Thousand, Britain’s ruling elite comprised of those rich persons (industrialists, financiers) and families (landed gentry, aristocracy, peerage) who were thought to control the majority of England’s political and financial system.


Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration; inscribed “FOR VALOUR.”
the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty signed at the Palace of Versailles near Paris on 28 June 1919 between the Allies and Germany.
very light
aerial flares used to watch enemy activity at night or to illuminate No Man’s Land during night attacks to maximize defensive actions.
Vickers Machine Gun: heavy machine gun used by the British Army from 1912.


Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps; created to release men from administrative jobs.
euphemism (used by politicians and generals) for “killed” and “wounded.”
Western Front
400-mile long zone in France and Flanders where British, French, Belgian, and later Americans fought Germans. It varied from 20 miles (1914) to 120 (1918).
high-speed shell whose sound as it flies through the air arrives almost at the same instant as its explosion; later synonymous with excellent or topnotch.
wire break
passage system through the wire tangles used for offensive operations so that the army wouldn’t be hindered by its own wire tangles on the attack.
War Propaganda Bureau set up by Lloyd George (Aug 1914) to encourage public support for the war.
Women’s Royal Air Force: formed in April 1918; also known as the WARF.
Women’s Royal Naval Service: formed in 1916; also known as the Wrens.



small Belgium town in the medieval region of Flanders that was the focus of some of the most violent combat of the Great War; British soldiers called it “Wipers.”


large, hydrogen-filled, airships named after Count Alfred Von Zeppelin; used for strategic bombing by the German army and navy.
starting time for a military operation; later, a critical or decisive time.


We are indebted to Michel Pharand of Queen’s University, Canada. Michel very kindly donated his glossary of terms in the hope others may find them useful.