A RHYMING SLANG LETTER FROM THE IRON WRENCHES OF WORLD WAR ONE

The following rhyming slang letter appeared in a World War 1 British ‘trench journal’, or soldiers’ newspaper known as The Direct Hit of July, 1917. Apparently penned by Lce-Corp. A. J. Lilliman, RF, it provides an insight into the popularity of rhyming slang among World War 1 troops. It is couched in the form of a letter to the writer’s sister, providing some news of training camp activity and expected departure to the front and of a planned visit home during an upcoming period of leave. It is unlikely that this letter was ever sent, or that it was ever meant to be; it seems more likely to have been a manifestation of the fascination for rhyming slang at the time and place, something the editor of the Direct Hit also mentions in introducing the letter. Many of the terms are not recorded in the usual compilations and dictionaries of rhyming slang, or have other meanings, and so can either be considered personal inventions of the writer and/or terms that had a brief and perhaps restricted currency among those with whom he socialised.
MY DEAR JUST-MISSED-‘ER,
Many thanks for the all-the-better and the Windsor Castle received the last pip-squeak. I am glad to hear mother and the old pot-and-pan are still keeping fit, and that the Giddy-Gaby is doing well. The contents of the parcel were highly appreciated by the Sain-Foys in my water-butt; the piper’s knees went down well for supper with a piece of mine-host made in front of the old-cove, and a drop of pig’s ear. The you-can-bets smoked like small American bars. Keep on sending the bones-and-rags. The give-and-take was one of the best, whilst the small-kits came in very handy on the stiff-as-starch.

We are all still hiding in the rob-and-pillage and expect to be here until the lager beer. I suppose we shall be going on-our-knees early in the wedding ring; it is quite time we put some of the Germans’ Hampstead Heath down their ugly nanny-goats. I am fed-up with cleaning my small-trifle to satisfy the Sergeant’s mince pie, and with firing nothing but muddy-banks.
I went sick the other day with a saucy-goat, but the oh-dear-oh! only gave me a darling-mine with Sleeping Beauty, so I went on first-aid the following day. I am pleased to say I am quite William-Tell again now, although the tough-as-leather has left me off with a bit of a up-the-hill and a slight old-toff.
I had a double-mine from Jimmy last week. He has been in the iron-wrenches for three weeks now, and so far has come through all John-Bright. He says he is going back to the fried-fillets in a day or two for a give-and-be-blest. I am glad he is safe and baker’s-round, for Jimmy was always a good world’s-endt o me.
Now I must hurry up with my you-and-me, get a wave-after-wave and a shine up just call in the always-man to light me to my white-and-red tonight, and then I’m off to the knock-me-down to see the pictures at the new near-and-far.

I am hoping to see you shortly, for I believe we are to get four day’s Adam-and-Eve. So keep you’re eye on six o’ clock, and be sure to meet me at the Birth-of-a-Nation when I let you know the only-way I am coming, and the time the might-and-main will arrive.
Write soon, and don’t forget the old-nags.
Your loving Brother, SAM.
Lce-Corp. A. J. Lilliman, RF.
The rhyming slang terms used in this letter translate as:
just-missed-her  sister
all-the-better  letter
Windsor-Castle  parcel
last pip-squeak  last week
old pot-and-pan  old man (father)
Giddy-Gaby  baby
the Sain-Foys  the boys
water-butt  hut
piper’s knees  cheese?
mine-host  toast
old-cove  stove
pig’s ear  beer
you-can-bets  cigarettes
American bars  cigars
give-and-take  cake
small-kits  biscuits
stiff-as-starch  march
rob-and-pillage  village
lager-beer  new year
on-our-knees – overseas
wedding-ring  spring
Hampstead Heath  teeth
nanny-goats  throats
small-trifle  rifle
mince-pie  eye
muddy-banks  blanks
saucy-goatsore throat
oh-dear-oh!  MO – Medical Officer
darling-mine  number nine pill ( a laxative)
Sleeping Beauty  duty
first-aid  parade
William Tell  well
tough-as-leather  weather
up-the-hill  chill
old-toff  cough
double-mine  line (letter)
iron-wrenches  trenches
all John-Bright  alright
fried-fillets  billets
give-and-be-blest  rest
safe and baker’s-round  safe and sound
world’s-end  friend
you-and-me  tea
wave-after-wave  shave
always-man  batman
broom-handle  candle
white-and-red  bed
knock-me-down  town
near-and-far  cinema
Adam-and-Eve  leave
[the] six o’ clock  clock
Birth-of-a-Nation– station (from the title of D W Griffith’s movie just released at this time)
only-way  day
might-and-main  train
old-nags  fags (cigarettes)

BOILING DOWN THE BODIES AND OTHER TRENCH MYTHS OF THE GREAT WAR

Cartoon from a trench newspaper
The defeat of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons in August 1914 was a crushing early blow that gave rise to a still controversial legend of divine intervention and assistance known as ‘The Angels of Mons’. This persistent story is well-known, but the war generated an endless array of other enigmatic trench legends, myths and rumours.
BOILING DOWN THE BODIES
According to this grisly tale, the Germans were recovering bodies from the battlefield and boiling them down in specially-constructed factories to make tallow for candles. Despite no evidence ever being presented to support this fantastic rumour, it was widely believed and re-told throughout the war. So poor was the credibility of atrocity stories that Lord Northcliffe the newspaper mogul, offered a prize for any authentic photograph of a German atrocity. The prize was never claimed.
THE PHANTOM MAJOR
There were ongoing rumours of enemy agents in the allied trenches, usually disguised as officers, like the mysterious German spy, usually in a British major’s uniform, who was said to appear in allied trenches just prior to an attack.
As well as the creepy major in the trenches, spies were spotted everywhere, as they would be for the rest of the war. At this early point in the conflict there were reports of suspicious characters all over Britain and throughout the forces in France.
These stories were given some credence by real events in which a number of German espionage operations had been uncovered. But most of the stories, such as the German arrested on his way to the local water supply with a pocketful of deadly poison, were urban legends of the time, the result of fear rather than clandestine enemy activity.
THE COMRADE IN WHITE
In 1915, another mysterious story began to circulate. It was said that wounded British and French soldiers had been assisted in the trenches by a ghostly white figure. Usually the soldier was sheltering from a hail of bullets and shrapnel, through which the white figure seemed to pass without difficulty or injury. The phantasm reached the soldier who then lost consciousness for a moment or two, and subsequently found himself magically removed from danger. He then notices that there is a wound on the apparition’s hand. The figure explains that it is an old wound which has recently reopened.
The French called this apparition or hallucination ‘The Comrade in White’, a term adopted by the British, who also called him the ‘Helper in White’. Many found this legend a much-needed consolation and it would continue to be heard throughout the war.
THE CRUCIFIED CANADIAN
The Times of May 10, 1915 ran the first press report of the story which claimed that a group of Canadians wounded in the fighting near Ypres had come across one of their officers who had been crucified:
‘He had been pinned to a wall by bayonets thrust through his hand and feet, another bayonet had been driven through his throat and, finally, he had been riddled with bullets.’
A similar horrific tale was picked up by the Canadian press and related in a number of versions and stories of crucified Canadians, as well as British and Australian troops, continued throughout the war. There were numerous attempts to verify the stories, but they never were, though the belief that the event, or something like it had occurred, was certainly strong among Canadian troops at the front and also many on the home front.
SNOWY RUSSIAN SOLDIERS
An early legend involved mysterious brigades of Russian soldiers in sealed trains passing through transportation junctions. They were said to be in full battle dress and with snow upon their boots – in summertime. These were usually said to have originated in the Russian city of Archangel and to be travelling to the Western Front to reinforce the British and French.
CATASTROPHIC LOSSES
It was said that the British had suffered catastrophic losses against the Germans, that hospitals were full to overflowing with wounded troops and that there had been an insurrection in Paris.
A large naval battle had been fought off Holland in which the British were also rumoured to have suffered devastating losses, including the death of Admiral Jellicoe. British naval ports were said to be clogged with war ravaged ships.
RENTED TRENCHES
 It was said that the defenders of the forts at Liege were not Belgians but British soldiers in Belgian uniforms. The British were paying the French rent for the trenches they were occupying and Vickers machine gunners fired their water-cooled weapons in order to boil water for tea.
Many other rumours swirled through the home front and battlefront during the war years:
·      One was a tale told in many wars of the ‘Wild Deserters’, a horde of refugees from all armies, who lived underground, emerging onto the battlefields at night to forage and pillage the dead and dying.
·      Most World War 1 soldiers were familiar with the rumours about ‘free shooters’ who were not fussy which side they shot at.
·      There were stories born of envy or wishful thinking, such as those about the enemy having women in their trenches.
·      Other rumours were spawned by fear and suspicion, including the belief that disloyal Belgians had signalled allied positions to German gunners
·      And there were revenge stories, like that about ‘The Admiral’, a crazed inventor who was horribly killed when one of his own devices of death malfunctioned.
Like most myths, these were the product of ignorance, fear and wishful thinking.
KEYWORDS: World War One trench myths, soldiers newspapers