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Foxhole: was the term used in the Great War?


Mark Hone
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In the BBC radio series 'Home Front', set in 1916, I have noticed a couple of characters use the term 'foxhole' when they are referring to the trenches. When did this term come into common usage? My gut feeling is that it dates from the Second World War, probably American in origin.

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I've never seen the term used in relation to WW1 either, by the British, at least. They often used the term "Funkhole" which I assume was the same thing.

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The 'Vocabulary of German Military Terms and Abbreviations', published by the General Staff (Intelligence) in July 1918, lists the German term 'Fuchsloch' (which literally means 'fox hole') and offers the English renderings 'small shelter' or 'funkhole' which usually means a hidey-hole under the parapet of a trench and is therefore not really the same thing as the WW2 (onwards) and largely US term 'foxhole'.

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The OED is not always right. The full fat version of the OED had 'hullabaloo' as a word of Scots Gaelic origin. In fact it is a compound of hulla/halla (=sound) and baloo (=bear) in most Indian dialects.

I have a searchable OH France and Belgium 1917 Part I and the word 'foxhole' does not appear. I also have most regimental histories of the Great War digitised and cant find a reference.

If it did originate with the British Army in the Great War it doesn't appear to have been in wide use. Given the German reference above it may well have started with the Germans.

It might be worth trawling the later editions of the Field Engineering manuals. The 1914 version doesn't include it.

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I agree with Siege Gunner and associate the term with US troops, maybe they used it in WW1. I served with the infantry for 9 years in the 1980's and we always called them shell scrapes never 'foxholes'.

Ian

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The OED onward reference to a US English dictionary repeats the allegedly British and WW1 origins of the term, which seems to exclude it having been in use during the ACW, for example. With men in the army from country districts virtually everywhere in the British Isles, someone will doubtless have used the term 'fox hole' to describe an excavation that reminded him of such ... but perhaps, in conditions of entrenched positional warfare, they did not occur very often. Are they not, at least in the US usage, more characteristic of a war of relatively rapid movement, where advancing troops have to improvise temporary shelters because there are not always abandoned enemy positions to take over and 'turn'? As regards the use of 'fox hole' in the OH and regimental histories, many of the officers involved in writing these may have been hunting men, but most are unlikely to have had much to do with fox holes, which were more the concern of terrier-men and hunt servants.

If the term is indeed British and from around the period of the GW, I would guess that it probably came from the Territorials, who would perhaps have dug such impromptu shelters during their weekend and annual exercises before the war ... not having the inclination to spend their limited time on digging formal trenches.

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Hello,

I can confirm that the German word Fuchsloch or Fuchsbau was rather common in WWI. I don't know whether the Allies used the word in WWI already.

Jan

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Did the British even use anything resembling a foxhole in the GW? Shell holes used as defensive emplacements might apply, but I assumed most Western front-type emplacements would have been entrenchments of one form or another.

"Shell scrapes" (referenced above) makes sense, and the Indian Army term "sangar" would apply for temporary emplacements in other theatres.

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Did the British even use anything resembling a foxhole in the GW? Shell holes used as defensive emplacements might apply, but I assumed most Western front-type emplacements would have been entrenchments of one form or another.

"Shell scrapes" (referenced above) makes sense, and the Indian Army term "sangar" would apply for temporary emplacements in other theatres.

Seen references to 'slit trench' in war diaries, but never 'foxhole'

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A literary search using Google's Ngram Viewer shows that the use of the word foxhole basically didn't exist before 1940.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=foxhole&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cfoxhole%3B%2Cc0

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Um. Not exactly "didn't exist". "Wasn't recorded in print."

And, contra, this is the OED as opposed to oxforddictionaries.com:

1915 Manch. Guardian 8 Oct. 12/4 As for the Boches who had taken refuge in the ‘fox holes’, they were suffocating under feet of earth and debris.
1919 Red Cross Mag. Apr. 29/1 The bitter weeks of the Argonne when the same Yank lay hungry, cold, wet, and exhausted in some insufficient fox-hole.
1928 E. Blunden Undertones of War xii. 143 Those dead men in field grey overcoats at the entrances, and others flung down by their last ‘foxholes’ near by.
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There are references in the 6th Northamptons War Diary to slit trenches dug at Hangard in April 1918 along with an illustration.

Steve.

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Um. Not exactly "didn't exist". "Wasn't recorded in print."

And, contra, this is the OED as opposed to oxforddictionaries.com:

1915 Manch. Guardian 8 Oct. 12/4 As for the Boches who had taken refuge in the ‘fox holes’, they were suffocating under feet of earth and debris.
1919 Red Cross Mag. Apr. 29/1 The bitter weeks of the Argonne when the same Yank lay hungry, cold, wet, and exhausted in some insufficient fox-hole.
1928 E. Blunden Undertones of War xii. 143 Those dead men in field grey overcoats at the entrances, and others flung down by their last ‘foxholes’ near by.

Game, set and match!

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:blush:

Mind you, I think it confirms that during the war the usage was chiefly German and possibly American. The fact that Blunden and the Manchester Guardian put the word in quotation marks suggests that they weren't quite comfortable with it in English terminology.

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Certainly not in anything by Partridge (Dictionary of Slang 1984)or Partridge and Brophy (Soldiers Songs and Slang:1914/18 p 1930) or the much revised paperback edition (Soldiers Songs and Slang:1914/18: The Long Trail 1914/18 p1965) or Frazer and Gibbons ( Soldier & Sailor word and Phrases p1925)' Its a brave man who contradicts since Partridge, Brophy and Gibbons were 'there at the time'. For me its use is on the myths and legends list with three proofs.

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But remember that you need a good build-up of use in unrecorded speech before a word reaches print - not the other way around.

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Just because Brophy and Partridge et al didn't actually hear the word being used on their particular part of the front doesn't mean to say that it didn't exist at the time, as is quite clear from the evidence above , even if it was just used in print. To use the phrase "they were at the time" doesn't mean that their information complete.

TR

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There is a danger of falling into a trap that is common in GWF debates.

A: I think X and you need to disprove it

B: I think Y and you need to disprove it

My personal belief is that theories have to be proven, not dis-proven. So far there only seems to be one recorded mention during the war years - the newspaper article that SeaJane found. Given it is in quotation marks and specifically relates to the German 'fox-holes', one might be forgiven for thinking it is providing an English translation of 'fuchsloch'. If it was in common usage by the British there would be no need for the quotation marks.

Building a robust case on such slim evidence is rather difficult. If it was in common usage one might expect to find more evidence quite easily. I have trawled 55 digitised regimental histories with a zero return. Not a single mention in over 120 British unit diaries in Gallipoli (1915 - same period as the newspaper clipping) where the trench systems were less developed than the Western Front. More evidence may yet be forthcoming, however the case looks pretty thin at the moment.

Relating this to the BBC radio 'Home Front' description of trenches, it would seem to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between a trench and a foxhole.

R A Lloyd in his Trooper in the Tins (later re-titled as Troop-horse and Trench) describes in detail the rudimentary holes in the ground at First Ypres. He provides a graphic description of the small disconnected pits; not linked up in a continuous system. If there was an appropriate period for 'foxhole' to describe the British defensive arrangements, First Ypres comes close. No mentions of fox-holes.

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There is also the thought from some on this forum that that WW1 can be explained on spreadsheets and by war diaries and regimental histories believed to be separate pieces of evidence. The fact is that the word was being used well before WW2 whatever source it came from and just because it doesn't appear in war diaries is no evidence at all.

TR

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