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HINKY-DINKY PARLEZ-VOUS: SOME WORLD WAR I SONGS AND TRENCH LINGO

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HINKY-DINKY PARLEZ-VOUS: SOME WORLD WAR I SONGS AND TRENCH LINGO

By: Anzel Veldman – Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

 

In the muddy, bloody, and hellish battlefields of World War I (1914-1918), soldiers developed a unique language and songs that reflected the harsh realities of their daily lives in the trenches. This vernacular, a mixture of slang, profanity, and creativity, allowed them to communicate with each other and to express their fears, hopes, and frustrations in a way that only those who shared their experience could fully understand. Songs were either newly composed, or adapted from existing songs, that reflected soldiers’ experiences at war. The trenches were a volatile and violent place, where soldiers faced constant danger from enemy fire, gas attacks, and disease. They were expected to live in these conditions for long periods with little mobility, which often led to boredom, demoralisation, and homesickness. Songs and trench lingo served as a mental escape for these men, allowing them to take their minds off the horrors of war, created a sense of unity while also providing much needed humour that could temporarily alleviate physical discomfort, mental exhaustion, and the ever-present threat of death. Music also represented a form of resistance and hope in the darkest of times.

Tommy was a generic term or slang for a soldier who had the rank of Private in the British Army. The exact origin of the term is unclear, but it was first used in a letter during 1743, when British forces were in Jamaica. The term gained popularity during 1899, when Private Smith of the Black Watch wrote a poem commemorating their part in the Battle of Magersfontein during the South African War (1899-1902).  “Fritz” was the common name given to the German soldiers, derived from the popular names Friedrich or Frederik in Germany, equivalent to the English names James, John, or William.  The derogatory term “Hun” was also used, inspired by a speech given by Kaiser Wilhelm I, encouraging his troops to be just as brutal and relentless as Attila the Hun was. Germans also referred to British soldiers as Tommie’s or a harsher term was Inselaffe meaning Island-ape.

Other examples of trench language include cooties to describe body or head lice, and Napoo, a slang expression commonly used by British troops, meaning “no good” in French.  A “whiz-bang” was a term for a small artillery shell that made a distinctive high-pitched “whiz” sound followed by a “bang” when it exploded. Whiz-bangs were notorious for their speed and accuracy and were responsible for many casualties among both soldiers and civilians. Big Bertha refers to a Krupp-built 42 cm Howitzer, firing an 862 kg shell.  “Shell shock” is a term that was coined during World War I to describe the psychological trauma experienced by soldiers who were exposed to the deafening noise, thunderous explosions, and relentless shelling of the battlefield. Although the term has since fallen out of use, it gave birth to the modern understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder. The word “blighty” resembled home, simultaneously describing a magical place where life was peaceful and comfortable. It also referred to a wound severe enough to send the soldier back home for recovery.

Bapoo was adopted from a Hindi word, meaning crazy or mad. Pilots would also use it to describe a plane crash: “Johnny bapooed yesterday” or simultaneously it could indicate that a soldier had a nervous breakdown: “James went bapoo yesterday”. Duckboards was the term used to describe the wooden planks that were laid over the muddy and water-logged floors of the trenches. These unstable and slippery walkways were often the only way for soldiers to move between the different sections of the trench and to avoid being submerged in the mud. Descriptions originating from South Africa is “Funk hole” which was a shallow excavation cut into the side wall of a trench and became a common expression for dug out. “To be Stellenbosched” was usually applied to senior officers who were sent home in disgrace. The term originated from the name of the camp where incompetent officers were sent to during the South African War. Sometimes rhyming words were used to describe mundane things: Cape Hope denoted soap, Captain Hook meant book, trouble and strife was wife, deuce and ace referred to someone’s face. While more comic terms served to address pending death, stretcher bearers were nicknamed body snatchers, a corpse ticket referred to an identity disc. Daisy pusher and empty beer bottles referred to dead men and coffins were known as wooden overcoats.

Trench songs were usually written or adapted by soldiers themselves, and they came in many forms: parodies of well-known songs, hymns, and original compositions. Some popular trench songs were ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag’, ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, ‘Oh it is a lovely war’ and ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’. Written by Harry Carlton and Joe Tunbridge ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’ is about an ageing but popular prostitute. By any judgement it is one of the most successful wartime songs, often adapted and invariably with somewhat cruder lyrics than those listed below. 

 

Mademoiselle from Armentières

She hasn’t been kissed for 40 years

Hinky-dinky parlez-vous

Our top kick in Armentiers

broke the spell of 40 years

 

Mademoiselle from Armentieres

You didn’t have to know her long

To know the reason men go wrong

Hinky-dinky parlez-vous

 

Mademoiselle from Armentieres

She’s the hardest working girl in town

But she makes her living upside down

She sold her kisses for ten francs each

soft and juicy as sweet as a peach

Hinky-dinky parlez-vous

 

Mademoiselle from Armentieres

Parlez-vous

I didn’t care what became of me

so I went and joined the infantry

They say they mechanised the war

so what the hell are we marching for?

Hinky-dinky parlez-vous

 

Mademoiselle from Armentieres

Parlez-vous

Many a married man wants to go back to France,

just blow your nose and dry your tears

we’ll be back in short few years

Hinky-dinky parlez-vous

 

Mademoiselle from Armentieres

Parlez-vous

You might forget the gas and shells

You might forget the groans and yells

But you’ll never forget the Mademoiselles

Hinky-dinky parlez-vous

 

Although only a few examples of the fascinating, frank and sometimes vulgar lingo developed among soldiers, songs and phrases were a way for soldiers to find solace, escape the realities of war, and feel a sense of community during one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. Songs and trench phrases reflect the social context that prevailed among soldiers. Thereby providing us with a glimpse of their everyday life and emotional turmoil of being in the trenches during World War I.

 

For further reading see:

Pegler, M. 2014. Soldier’s Slang and Songs of the Great War. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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