Hush here comes a Wiz-bang: The etymology of slang names for weapons

In this guest blog, Dan Ellin explores the many different names, puns and visual metaphors soldiers on the Western Front used to describe weapons.

The distinct language of the Western Front united men from different classes and different geographical areas. French expressions and place names were anglicised, and a medical orderly noticed that, after contact with Cockneys, Scottish soldiers began dropping their ‘h’s in the phrase ‘Not ‘arf.’ Soldiers used euphemisms for death and injuries, and troops on the Western Font also created a wide variety of names for the different shells and mortar bombs they encountered. The neologisms soldiers invented for different weapons were combinations of visual metaphors, onomatopoeia, puns on military jargon or acronyms, or cultural references. For example, named after the fireworks manufacturer, a night time bombardment was a ‘Brock’s Benefit’, while a Lewis machine gun could either be called a ‘Belgian Rattle Snake’ after the sound it made, or a ‘Huntley and Palmer’ because of the appearance of its ammunition tins.

Several names were based on military terms and jargon. The terms ‘Ack Ack’ (anti aircraft fire), and ‘Toc Emma’ (trench mortar), were taken directly from the British military phonetic alphabet. A ‘Four-two’ was a 4.2 inch German shell, while a ‘Quarter to Ten’ was a British 9.45 trench mortar. In the same way as tanks were named after their cover story as ‘water carriers for Mesopotamia’, two of the names for gas cylinders stemmed from their code names ‘Accessory’ and ‘Roger.’ British troops were familiar with the German ‘Minenwerfer’, a German trench mortar (literally a mine thrower), and German anti-aircraft fire was known as ‘Flak’ from the German Flieger Abwehr Kanone, which translates as aviator defence cannon.

It is accepted that ‘Archie’, another term for anti-aircraft fire, came from George Robey’s  hen pecked music-hall character, who was repeatedly told ‘Archibald, certainly not’ in the song’s choruses. However, the name ‘Archie’ was first given to pockets of air noticed by early aviators at Brooklands. Archie Knight was a famous pre-war flying instructor at the Vickers’ school at Brooklands, and it is unclear whether the pockets of air which caused aircraft to lurch were named after him, or the popular song. However, buffeted by bursts of ‘Flak’ over the Western Front, airmen began to refer to the shells as something more familiar and less dangerous.

First World War period German 15cm shrapnel shell.

On the ground, exploding German shells were named after their appearance. ‘Black Marias’ and ‘Coal boxes’ gave off black smoke, as did a ‘Jack Johnson’ which was named after the black heavy weight boxing champion, while a ‘Woolly Bear’ was a German shrapnel shell which left a cloud like form. Actually made from used jam tins, home-made grenades (and the early no.8 and no.9 grenades) were ‘Jam-tins’. Later models were ‘Cricket balls’ and ‘Eggs’, while the German stick grenades were ‘Potato mashers’ and ‘Pineapples’ because of their appearance. German gas shells were simply named after their coloured markings; a ‘Green Cross’ contained phosgene gas, and ‘White Stars’, chlorine and phosgene. Trench mortar shells included ‘Footballs’, ‘Oil Cans’ and ‘Plum Puddings’, while a ‘Toffee Apple’ was a trench mortar bomb with an attached shaft; a ‘Rum Jar’ was a bomb of a similar shape to the jars the rum ration was delivered in, and as it was catapulted with a high trajectory rather than fired, it could be seen coming.

However, vision in the trenches was largely restricted to a short stretch of trench and the sky above. For soldiers, hearing was important in making sense of their world and warning them of danger; sound also played a role in the naming of many of the weapons they faced. Before it became a term for cheap wine, ‘Plonk’ was the onomatopoeic sound of impact from a bullet or shell, and a ‘Crump’ was the distinctive sound of a German 5.9 shell. A ‘Wipers Express’ was a shell that sounded like a train as it passed overhead and a ‘Silent Percy’ or ‘Silent Susan’ was long range, high velocity shell. Perhaps the most well known shells were the alliterative and onomatopoeic ‘Moaning Minnie’ and the ‘Whiz-Bang’.  The ‘Moaning Minnie’ was a shell fired from a Minenwerfer, and a ‘Whiz-Bang’ was a high velocity 77mm shell; its distinctive noise in flight was followed immediately by the explosion and the sound of shrapnel cutting through the air. Their innocuous names reduced the deadly weapons to the status of an annoying girl, and a humorous euphemism.

The Battle of Arras, April-May 1917
The Battle of Arras, April-May 1917

Imaginatively named after their appearance, the sound they made, or reference to more familiar objects, the soldiers’ disparaging euphemisms made deadly weapons seem inoffensive and less frightening. Identifying a shell and being able to speak its name usually meant the soldier had survived, at least until the next incoming ‘Whiz-Bang’ or ‘Rum Jar’. The irreverent names given to weapons and incoming ordnance were part of the shared language and experience of the British Army, and played a role in the comradeship which enabled troops to endure the hardships of the trenches. Dark humour also played a role in creating new signifiers, and, in a rare direct reference to weaponry, there is an appreciable irony in the fact that most soldiers welcomed ‘Gunfire’, as tea laced with rum was known.

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