The War to End All Wars or The Great War For Civilisation did not achieve what the belligerents or its protagonists had imagined. In due course it very appropriately came to be labelled as the First World War, as it could not prevent the Second World War. While the larger issues of empire, colonialism, class and its effect on an entire generation impacted the world at large, it also left some terms and phrases on the military and everyday lexicon which endure till today.
The Great War was dominated by technological developments of the barbed wire, heavy and massed artillery, magazine filled rapid fire rifles and belt fed machine guns. All contributed towards the butchers work.
The Great War was dominated by technological developments of the barbed wire, heavy and massed artillery, magazine filled rapid fire rifles and belt fed machine guns. All contributed towards the butchers work. For the record, India recruited 1,440,437 men, sent 1,381,050 for service overseas of which 75000 died and 70000 were wounded. 13300 names find place on the India Gate Memorial, New Delhi completed in 1933. India also bore the cost of these men besides an outright contribution of £100 million towards the overall war effort.
By 1914, artillery systems had evolved into rapid firing breech loading guns with a hydraulic recoil system. Ranges had increased considerably and well beyond the contact distances of infantry, the shell had an explosive filling with a fuse to detonate it on impact and the industrial revolution had enabled mass production of both the gun and the ammunition. Employment of massed artillery delivering fire from well behind the front line was inevitable. The Somme offensive beginning 01 Jul 1916 on a 17 mile front was preceded by a round the clock one week preparatory bombardment by nearly 1000 guns delivering 17,38,000 shells. The British suffered 57000 casualties, including 19240 dead, on the first day of the offensive.
The Paschendale Offensive on 17 Jul 1917 was preceded by 15 days bombardment delivering nearly four million shells. As the targets were not visible from the gun positions, observers were hoisted in baskets attached to tethered balloons to observe and direct the preparatory bombardment gunfire in depth. The hoisting of such observer balloons signalled the opening of an offensive. This gave birth to the phrase ‘when the balloon goes up’ meaning when the action or hostilities start. It is still used to indicate or refer to the commencement of operations. Such massed artillery employed as a barrage of fire also introduced ‘Barrage’ as a prefix for anything done overwhelmingly and rapidly – A barrage of questions / abuse / …
The Indian Expeditionary Force to France was the first major deployment across ‘kala pani’. The multiple caste, religion, ethnic variations and food preferences of Indian troops on the Western Front…
Attempts to break through the static trench line defences involved massed infantry attacks. The soldiers would climb out from the top of their trenches to assault the enemy giving rise to the phrase ‘Going over the top’. As it resulted in horrendous, and in hindsight, needless casualties, it is today used to describe anything outlandish or irrational as —– ‘over the top’. Attacking troops were signalled to ‘go over the top’ by whistles blown by the commanders much like the commencement of a game of football giving birth to the phrase ‘kick off’ implying to commence or start an event.
By the time of the Crimean War in 1850, soldiers were equipped with thick, heavy serge great coats to ward off the cold, notwithstanding the restricted agility imposed by their bulk. World War I brought them into the trenches where mud, rain, snow and extreme cold combined to add to the great coats weight with layers of caked mud. Burberry of England had produced closely woven cloth – Gabardine – in early 1900 which was water repellent and much more practical than rubberised cloth for rain capes. The trenches of World War I prompted combining the gabardine rain cape with a warm inner lining as a substitute for both the great coat and the rubberised rain cape. Designed primarily for officers, shoulder straps were added for epaulets and a belt to give it a military appearance. Double breasted, fully buttoned front and khaki or beige colour made it compatible with military uniform. The soldiers called it ‘trench coat’. Having seen widespread use during the war, it caught public attention when Hollywood characters were shown wearing it in post war movies. Today the trench coat has transited from the trenches to the fashion ramps.
Another unglamorous off spin of the trenches was ‘trench foot’. Prolonged exposure of feet to wet, cold and unhygienic conditions prevailing in the trenches resulted in poor blood supply to the feet leading to infection and ultimately gangrene needing amputation. Medical condition of feet caused by exposure to extreme cold and moisture is today referred to as trench foot.
Indians had for long referred to England as ‘Bilait’. It gained wider currency when Indian troops landed in France in 1914. Going ‘Home’ or England was and is frequently referred to as Blighty.
The label ‘Pure New Wool’ came to indicate that an apparel had been made from non recycled fibre and therefore had no association with the wounded and the dead. Today the label confirms non re cycled wool.
Full understanding and acceptance of psychological concepts of conditions resulting from ‘shell shock’ and ‘battle fatigue’ were to come later. Cowardice, especially ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’ was the generally accepted reason for any physical failing for which military law prescribed death penalty. During World War I, 3080 British soldiers were awarded the death sentence of which 346 were carried out – 240 being for deserting their posts under fire. On reaching a breaking point under battlefield stress some resorted to self inflicted injuries. Others hoped for a ‘blighty wound’ – serious enough to be sent to England for long treatment yet not life threatening. If self inflicted it was called the ‘blighty touch’. Colonel Bruce Seaton, commanding the Indian Hospital at Brighton, examined 1,000 Indian troops to ascertain if any of them were self-inflicted. In a secret report he concluded that there was no evidence to suggest self-wounding among the Indian soldiers. The most common practice among British troops was to put a bullet in the foot. The metaphor ‘shoot oneself in the foot’ coalesced into implying unintentionally harming ones interests whilst in the process of trying to damage someone else or to demonstrate gross incompetence or ineptitude. People shoot themselves in the foot in all walks of life today!
The Indian Expeditionary Force to France was the first major deployment across ‘kala pani’. The multiple caste, religion, ethnic variations and food preferences of Indian troops on the Western Front, compounded by the prevailing field conditions, inevitably resulted in a logistics nightmare. Meat being the most complex to handle, a solution was found by delivering sheep and goat live which were slaughtered under unit arrangements as per religious and customary sensibilities. This came to be referred to as ‘Meat On Hoofs’ or MOH. The term and practice of supplying MOH is still used in the Indian Army, especially in remote areas of deployment.
Equipping and clothing millions of soldiers was a major war effort by itself. All means to exercise economy were employed. Amongst them was sorting through discarded clothing collected from the battlefields or hospital units. Anything usable or repairable was re issued and the rest sent home to be recycled. The label ‘Pure New Wool’ came to indicate that an apparel had been made from non recycled fibre and therefore had no association with the wounded and the dead. Today the label confirms non re cycled wool.
Poppy wreaths are today symbolically laid on war memorials. Some countries like Canada have a poppy imprinted on the car number plate to signify the owner as a veteran.
Paperwork never leaves an army; reports, strength returns, casualty statements, ammunition available or expended and so on. The trenches of World War I were no exception with regular piles of instructions. The soldiers called it ‘bum fodder’ or ‘bumf’ – the only use apparent to them. The term endures, especially in the military, to refer to any voluminous piece of written papers with very little inherent substance.
Loss of limbs was as commonplace as loss of life. Those who lost all four had to be carried in a basket giving birth to the term ‘basket case’ – someone or something totally dependent on help or aid.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
John Mc Crae’s In Flanders Field came to associate poppies with the war dead. Poppy wreaths are today symbolically laid on war memorials. Some countries like Canada have a poppy imprinted on the car number plate to signify the owner as a veteran.
With millions dead and many whose remains were not found or could not be identified, memorials to the ‘Unknown Soldier’ were erected to remember and pay homage to them. Today they are prominent landmarks in most capitals of the world.