When members of the Entente alliance met for the first time during the First World War there was often a period of intensive cultural exchange. Often the soldiers of the different combatants had previously had, at best, limited contact with the people of other nations. How they came to understand each other was a crucial part of building a functional alliance.
However, these initial contacts were often complicated by competing issues of national identity and vocabulary. What names did the soldiers of each army wish to be called by and did these preferences match the names and ideas their newfound allies already held?
As the cornerstone of the Entente alliance, the identity assumed by French soldiers was a manifestation of their own political ethos. The self-styled Poilus, or ‘hairy ones’ that composed the French army viewed themselves not just as soldiers but politicised defenders of the ideal of French republicanism. Such was the importance of their goal they believed it could not be achieved without becoming dishevelled by both dirt and hair.
For their part, the British soldiers took on the identity of Tommy Atkins, a term that had existed since at least the early 19th century. Being a ‘Tommy’ was a less political role that that of a Poilu, with the British soldiers seeming to draw strength from the inclusive nature of a term that meant common soldier.
Both the British and French soldiers recognised the preferred nature of each other’s identities and would generally adapt to referring to each other as such. However, this was not always without incident. The tendency within the British army to refer to the French as ‘Frogs’ or variations on this theme endured throughout the war, much to the annoyance of their French allies. This situation was not improved by the fact that the British appear to have passed this habit on to the arriving American soldiers in 1917 and 1918, which caused friction between these new allies.
For their part, whilst some French soldiers recognised the different nations that composed the British army and its empire but often, for convenience sake, simply used the term ‘British’ as a catch-all description. This in turn often caused irritation in some Scottish soldiers who objected to being stripped of their own national identity.
The arrival of American soldiers in the war’s latter years also brought a new plethora of potential collective names, with their own political dangers. British soldiers found that different groups of these men would answer to ‘Doughboys’, ‘Sammies’, and ‘Yankees’ but would also react angrily to being identified by the ‘wrong’ name. This was particularly notable in the way those who came from states that had once been part of the Confederacy reacted to being called ‘Yankees’ or ‘Yanks’.
Whilst these nicknames could sometimes be used out of a mocking humour, they were often motivated by a grudging form of respect based upon an understanding of each nations place in the Great Power system. Names bestowed on allies who were viewed as being notably inferior were often much more derisive. One British soldier noted that the military High Command had issued an order for British soldiers to stop referring to their Portuguese allies as ‘Pork and Beans’. An order which had little success.