Every time I read accounts on the Great War, I stumble upon nicknames that seem to appear out of nowhere, but sound as if they had been lingering in folklore and culture for way longer than one can imagine. I realised it could have been interesting to research more on the topic of nicknaming or namegiving during the war, as it was made pretty clear that the English (and so the French) used to call the Germans “Fritz“. There’s a lot more to find out in that direction. A whole dictionary of terms has come up when I tried to research this subject. Unsurprisingly, most terms are French words used by the French against the Germany and German words used by the German against the French: a never-ending rivalry which was there before and continued throughout the following decades.
Apparently, the preferred term and also the most widely used by the French to identify the Germans was “Boche” or its complete form “Tête de boche“: it’s short for “caboche” which literally means “head” but also implies stubbornness and slow-mindedness.
One must think that the period of peace between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the breakout of World War I was a very long time: 40 years of looking beyond borders and calling names, making fun of the former enemy with whom peace was known not to last too long. During the war, the nicknames for the French spanned from the more generic and almost neutral “Franzmann” to names mocking the language of the enemy: “Tulemong“, “Parlewuhs” or “Wulewuhs” for instance.
But the French were also known as “Poilu” and that was not a pejorative term. It’s of French origins, generated in France by the French themselves and means “hairy one“: it is a reference to the beard which came to symbolise the uneducated French who enrolled in the war, but also the state of the soldiers fighting in the trenches. Without any water, shaving was not an option. A particular French slang developed among soldiers and not necessarily aimed at discrediting the enemy, but simply describing objects or situations. “Pinard” was a colloquial term to define cheap red wine, one that was sometimes mixed with spices or boiled in order to ease the pain of the wounded, whereas “Gnôle” was used in reference to alchool or a specific liquor. Henri Barbusse‘s novel “Le Feu” (in English “Fire“; 1916) pretty much explains the precarious experience in the trenches and often refers to what these names were for.
As for the British, both allies and enemies agreed on the nickname: Tommy. That was mostly due to a stereotyping of the British soldier which was well established when World War I broke out. It had originated in the 1770s as soldier Tommy Atkins fought in America (the specific context is still subject to debate today) and was praised for his actions. Since then, the literary world, the media and popular culture made it a stereotype ready to be used. Thanks to memoirs, diaries and journals most of these terms survived all sorts of verbal account and the more we’re distancing from that period in time, the more these things get lost. In fact, the last “Poilu” and the last “Fritz“ died five years ago, after becoming the last living veterans of World War I.
Apart from the undeniable historical interest and research, finding out about these details of the Great War serves the purpose of drawing it much closer than we perceive it. This helps us comprehend the world of our great-grandparents or grandparents and paints the picture of the complicated international relations in which Europe was plunged into in the decades preceeding that day in June 1914 when tensions degenerated. As we approach the centenary of the outbreak of this great and terrible war, it is necessary to refresh our minds, our hearts, our values.
A few sources: