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Remembered Today:

German soldier slang


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From The Times, 01 Mar 1919:


With the thoroughness on which he prides himself in all his works, the German has built up an Army-slang vocabulary of wonderful completeness. For every detail of his life, in peace-time as in war, he has a mirth-provoking name, comtemptuous or affectionate, obvious or far-fetched, often very far-fetched indeed.

To us, whose soldier-slang has levied toll upon the tongues of many lands, one interesting feature of the enemy's is that all of it is indigenous - Teutonic to the last syllable; it is characteristic of the race that it should be so.

The German soldier-slang has, none the less, a good deal in common with our own, and there are one or two coincidences of nomenclature striking enough to suggest that they are more than mere coincidence. "Schwarze Marie," and "Kohlenkasten" were current terms through- out the German lines, when "Black Maria" and "Coal-box" - their exact equivalents - were our most popular names for "heavy stuff."

It is, however, in its contrasts to our British termino logy that the German is chiefly interesting, in its absurd use of ordinary, everyday words, mis applied or grotesquely combined. "Spargel" (asparagus) as a generic name for shell would never have occurred to our men, though, if it had, "Stink-spargel" for gas-shell would have followed it inevitably with us too.

"Stink," like many another sturdy Saxon word, has fallen into something like disfavour in our modern polished speech, but the Boche knows little of such squeamishness and the word forms part of many a German Army term of quite kindly regard. To our fastidious ears "Stink-beast" as an epithet is perilously near the frontiers of offensiveness, but the German sapper who should take offence on being so addressed by his colleagues of the Line would be a surly fellow and indeed something of a phenomenon.

So, too, when referred to as a "Kilometerschwein," by his lofty brother of the Pioneers, the "foot-slogger" would smile rather than frown, for if you do it in the proper spirit, you may call your dearest friend a swine in the Vaterland's idiom, and run but little risk

of damage to his feelings.


These are fair samples of the civilities interchanged between the different arms. Other pretty names in which the infantry rejoiced

are "Landhase," "Dreckfresser," and the absurd-sounding epithet of "Stoppelhüpser."

All three are somewhat difficult of translation, the first two conveying to the initiated much more than their literal significance of "country hare" and "mud glutton," while the last is shorn of its mirth-provoking sound in the English guise of "Stubblehopper."

The Line, of course, are by no means backward in retaliat-ing, and while some of their ideas are of a very obvious kind, as "Stachelschweine" (porcupines), "Erdratten" or "Erdmännchen," applied to the pioneer branch of the sappers, others, like "Artisten" bestowed on the same corps, are more obscure in origin. "Laubtrösche" (tree-frogs) as a name for the Uhlans,

has doubtless reference to the colour of their peace-time kit, while "Fliegende Holländer" as a generic term for all the cavalry owes its origin more probably to Wagner than to the ancient legend.

"Totengräber" (grave-diggers) for the engineers appears to show that Fritz, no less than Tommy, could make a jest of tragic things if it might help him to endure them.

The origin of "Zwieback-kutscher" (literally "biscuit-coachmen"), which means the railway troops, is as difficult to guess as "Pulverjüden," applied to the artillery. To the German "Jüde" is an ugly epithet, in a way that "Jew" has never been to us, so that it is hard to understand its application to the infantryman's good friend-in-need, the gunner.

Of all the endearing terms bandied between one arm and another, the most pleasing is perhaps "Benzin-Husaren," for which neither transla tion nor explanation is required. Our own "M.T." rejoiced in no such flattering epithet.

Not unfriendly to us is his "Fussballindianer," which is merely "Englishman," though it seems a clumsy effort.

"Nicknames" for his superiors in rank are for the most part on similar lines to ours, though "Tintenspion" (ink-spy) the adjutant, suggests a conception of that officer's thankless duty somewhat different from the British one. The regimental padre is variously and irreverently known as "Kommisjesus," "Himmelsfähnrich" (Heaven's ensign), or as the "Sündenabwehrkanone," which we would render as the "anti-sin-gun."

It is not so far-fetched, this last, as might appear, since "Abwehrkanone" is an official term in frequent use. The field kitchen

had many names, among them "Kohlendampfauto" (coal-vapour-auto), which has a sinister significance not at first apparent.

Rations were sadly short sometimes among the enemy, and "Kohlendampf" came to be used as meaning actual hunger. It was too

obvious, however, to escape the regimental censor's eye, and a long list of words, always more and more unlikely, had to be pressed into the service if any reference was to be made to this forbidden but supremely interesting subject.

Even when of plentiful quantity, the rations seem to have left something to be desired in quality. The peas in "Schrapnellsuppe" must have been rather hard, to earn that title, and carrot-soup is scarcely appetizing under its name of "Polizei-finger-suppe." Potatoes were sometimes served with pretty hard, dry, vegetables cut in slices, and this dish was known as "Handgranaten mit Drahtverhau" (hand grenades with wire-entanglement).

Bread itself was variously dignified as "Kaiser-kuchen" or "Kronprinzentorte," and when issued without butter, simply as "Brot mit Brot." Fritz's term for straying sheep or game is "Kochgeschirrverdächtige," "under suspicion for the cook-pot."


Wounds and sickness too have called into being many quaint expressions, such as "Karbolkaserne" (carbolic barracks or hospital).

There, the medical N.C.O. was a "Karbol-dragoner," "Knochenbrecher" (bone breaker), "Schnelltöter" (sudden death dealer), "Opium-fritz," or more often than any of these, "Ricinus-Onkel" (castor oil uncle).

Of the nurses' many names, the most pleasing is "Schleich-patrouille" - creeping, or silent, patrol. Another name, "Karbolmaüschen," suggests the same thing. "Soldatenhonig" (soldiers' honey) and "Gasbombenangriff" (gas-shelling) most of us would guess correctly as "castor-oil" and "anæsthetic"; but the term "Arrasver-dächtige" (under "suspicion" for Arras) re-quired a little thought before emerging as "convalescent."

The machine-gun has a large number of titles. Among those which may be quoted in respectable society are "Drehorgel" (hurdy-

gurdy), "Nähmaschine" (sewing machine), "Tippmamsell," "Kaffeemühle," and the amusing "Stottertante" (literally "stutter-aunt").

But laughter is largely a matter of circumstance, and even the sewing machine once came near to being the writer's undoing.

It was during a lonely excursion in the darkness and the mud of No Man's Land - one of the occasions when a breath-holding silence is, as we say, "clearly indicated."

A machine-gun away back in our own lines suddenly added its voice to the sounds of the night, and from very close at hand came the cheerful, guttural remark, "Na, da sitzen sie wieder an der Nähmaschine" (There they are again, sitting at the sewing machine).

To the listener who dared not make the slightest sound, it was laughter-compelling in the way that things so often are when laughter is forbidden.

Of the many inventions for which the aeroplane gave ample scope, two only need be cited, the grotesque "Wolkenkratzer" (cloud-

scratcher) and the more poetic "Schwalbenvater" (Father of the swallows).



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Very interesting, thanks for posting. Rather sinks the view of the humourless Teuton, and puts me in mind of the thread about German trench songs, including (IIRC) one about having a piece of jam or marmalade.

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