Also Rank and File
Below is a list of the terms used in our posts and their definitions:
Absent Voters List: A list of servicemen eligible to vote who were still overseas.
Acting Rank: Soldiers, including officers, were quite frequently promoted to an acting rank, which meant they wore the insignia, had the responsibility and the pay, and were addressed accordingly. They might subsequently be confirmed in their new rank, or might revert to their Substantive Rank.
Active Service: Direct participation in military operations as a member of the armed forces. Simply being in the army as, for example, while training at Colsterdale, would not count towards this. See also War Diary.
ADS: Advanced Dressing Station, the second link in the evacuation chain, after the RAP.
Adjutant: An appointment rather than a rank, usually a captain or major, acting as the Colonel’s personal assistant, in charge of administration, organisation and discipline.
Affiliation Order: A legal order for the man judged to be the father of an illegitimate child to provide financial help to support it.
AOC: See RAOC
Armistice: An agreement made by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting for a certain time; a truce (not to be confused with Peace Treaty or capitulation). The Armistice of November 1918 lasted until the Peace Treaty was signed in June 1919. The Christmas Truce of 1914 only lasted a few days.
Army Number (aka Service Number): All servicemen, and women, excluding officers, were given a number on enlisting. Although referred to as a ‘number’ it could also include a letter or letters. Originally it was specific to the regiment, so soldiers from different regiments could have the same number, and on changing regiment a new number would be issued, so one soldier could have several different numbers in the course of his career. They started from ‘1’, so it was possible to tell how early or otherwise a soldier had joined up. Numbers could also have a prefix to specify the particular battalion. So the Leeds Pals, being the 15th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, issued numbers in the format 15/123 etc. In 1920 they became unique seven digit, which the soldier would keep, regardless of future postings, and then 8 digit numbers, as they are today.
Attestation Form/Attestation Paper/Attestation/Attested: Swearing allegiance to the monarch and giving all information necessary for joining the army, or navy.
AWOL: Absent without leave, a temporary absence from duty, without permission, but with the intention of returning. See also Desertion.
Badges of Rank: At the start of the Great War officers wore their rank on their cuff, but they soon discovered that this made them easy targets for snipers, along with carrying pistols and not rifles. Many officers took to wearing the badges on their shoulders, or even wearing private soldier’s tunics with no badges at all.
Bandolier: A strap carried diagonally over the shoulder and chest, having loops or pockets for holding ammunition.
Bantam/Bantams: Battalion for men under 5′ 3″.
Bar: See Clasp
Battalion: A formation of between 800 and 1000 men, divided into a number of Companies, and commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel. Traditionally British Regiments had 2 Battalions, one at home and one abroad, but during the Great War this number could rise enormously.
Battle of the Somme: Lasted from 1st July 1916 until 18th November 1916. Resulted in enormous casualties with many of the Pals Battalions almost wiped out. There were also two battles in 1918 that are sometimes given the name Somme. The first, in March/April, was Operation Michael, part of the German Kaiserschlacht, when the Germans almost broke through the British lines. The second was in August/September, and formed part of the Allied advance that culminated in the Armistice.
BEF: British Expeditionary Force, the title given to that part of the British Army that was sent to France on the outbreak of war.
Billet: Originally from the French, where it was a written order to a householder to provide lodging for troops. It came to mean the lodgings themselves, possibly a house, more likely a barn, unless they were officers. It was the officer’s responsibility to find lodgings for all his men, but he also got to choose his own.
Blighty: A Hindi word picked up by British troops in India. It originally meant ‘foreign’, but was used to refer to Britain, as in ‘Take me back to dear old Blighty’, and the soldiers’ desire for a ‘blighty wound’, one which was serious enough to get them sent home, at least temporarily, without being fatal.
Bomber: A soldier trained to throw Grenades.
Brigade: A formation composed of between 3 and 6 Battalions.
Brig. Gen./Brigadier General: The rank between Colonel and Major General, an officer commanding a Brigade, indicated by a crown and 3 stars.
British War Medal: Awarded to those who served during the war, generally overseas but sometimes, as with personnel of the Royal Navy, who served in the UK. Its ribbon has a wide central band of orange, flanked by thin stripes of white, black and blue. It is ‘Squeak’ in the trio Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’.
Cadre: A small group of specially trained soldiers. In the later stages of the war, particularly if it seemed likely that a battalion could be greatly reduced, or even wiped out, as the result of going into an attack, around 10% of the experienced men, including a representative number of officers and NCOs, were kept back, so that they could train up the replacements that came in and the battalion could be reformed.
Call to Arms: An appeal to civilians to join the armed forces.
Capitulate/Capitulated/Capitulation: Surrender, halting all resistance, sometimes under specified conditions.
Captain: The third level of commissioned officer, after 2nd and 1st Lieutenants. Indicated by 3 stars.
CB: Stands for ‘Confined to barracks’, a punishment used for relatively minor infringements of Military Law, and was exactly what it says. It was not used when troops were in the trenches.
CCS: Casualty Clearing Station, the fourth stage in the evacuation procedure after the RAP, the ADS and the MDS. It was manned by the RAMC and was beyond the range of artillery.
Clasp: A thin metal bar attached to the medal ribbon to indicate originally the recipient’s presence in a particular campaign, and bearing the name of that campaign. The First World War produced such a huge number of campaigns and actions that it became both impractical and too expensive to continue this system and their use was restricted to specific events. They were also used to indicate another award of the same gallantry medal, and were then usually called Bars.
Class Z: A reserve contingent of the British Army, comprising discharged soldiers who could be recalled in the event of further hostilities. It was abolished on 31st March 1920, when it became clear that there would be no trouble from Germany
CO: Commanding officer of a formation such as a Company, Battalion or Regiment.
Colonel/Full Colonel/Col: The rank between Lieutenant Colonel and Brigadier, indicated by a crown and 2 stars.
Colour Sergeant: A rank above sergeant and below warrant officer, indicated by the sergeant’s three stripes surmounted by a crown. In some regiments the equivalent rank of staff sergeant is used. The colour sergeant’s duty was originally guarding the ensign who carried the regiment’s colour, that of the staff sergeant more administrative.
Colours, The: The regimental flag was its colour, as in Trooping the Colour, and symbolised the regiment. Joining the Colours could be joining the army, or returning to the regiment after a period away.
Commissioned Officer: A soldier who holds a commission from the monarch appointing to the rank of officer, as opposed to an NCO who would normally be promoted by his CO. Traditionally officers were appointed straight from civilian life, after appropriate training, but occasionally officers were appointed from the ranks, a practice that became increasingly common as a result of the heavy casualties in the Great War. Very occasionally a soldier could rise through the ranks from Private to the highest level, as with Field Marshal Sir William Robertson.
Company: A formation composed of a number of Platoons, 3 or more, with anything from 80-250 men. A number of Companies, usually 4-5, form a Battalion, and one of them is the HQ Company, containing the clerks, orderly room staff etc. A company is normally commanded by a Captain.
Composite Company (aka Cadre): It became apparent as the war progressed that heavy casualties could be expected and units could be almost wiped out. It became the practice for a small part of the battalion, comprising experienced men, particularly NCOs, to be kept behind when there was an attack, so in the event of the rest being virtually wiped out a new battalion could be built around these few.
Conscription, Conscript: The enforced enlistment in the armed forces, by Act of Parliament.
Consumption: see TB.
Corporal/Cpl: The 2nd step on the promotion ladder, indicated by 2 stripes on each arm.
Corps: A large formation typically containing 2 or more Divisions, and anything from 20-40,000 soldiers, commanded by a Lieutenant General.
Court Martial: A court empowered to try a solder, and if finding him guilty, pass sentence on him. Roughly equivalent to a Crown Court under civil law. There are various types, depending on the severity of the charges brought. The Field General is the lowest level.
Cup: See under ‘Trophies’.
Demobilised/Demobilisation/Demob: The discharge of a nation’s forces when they are no longer needed, e.g. at the end of the war.
Depot Company: Traditionally a regiment was divided into battalions, one or more of which was sent abroad, and one remained in England, at the regiment’s base, or depot, to train up new recruits and to be a source of replacements/reinforcements for the fighting battalions. As the demand for men grew those staying at the depot was reduced, until perhaps only a company was left to keep the regiment going. See also Cadre.
Desertion: Abandonment of duty or a post without the intention of returning. A soldier AWOL for more than 30 days would then be considered to have deserted.
Dispatches: An official report published in the London Gazette to commend a soldier’s act of gallantry or service.
Distinguished Conduct Medal or DCM: An award for gallantry in the field, awarded to other ranks. Considered to be second only to the Victoria Cross. The ribbon is crimson with a central dark blue stripe.
Division: A formation containing several Regiments or Brigades, with 10-30,000 men, commanded by a Major General.
DLI: Durham Light Infantry
DOW: Died of wounds
Enlist/Enlisted/Enlistment/Enlisting: To enroll or be enrolled, usually voluntarily, in the armed forces. See also Conscription.
Field (of battle): Dating back to when battles were literally fought in the fields, it now means anywhere where fighting is actually or potentially taking place.
Field Marshal: The highest rank awarded in the British Army, mainly an honorary rank, indicated by crossed batons surrounded by a wreath of oak leaves, and surmounted by a crown.
Field Punishment: Punishment awarded ‘in the field’, i.e. on active service. It replaced flogging in 1881, and was of 2 types. No.1 comprised being fettered and attached to a fixed object such as a fence-post or gun-wheel for up to 2 hours a day, 3 days out of 4, for up to 21 days. No.2 involved being fettered but not tied to a fixed object. A relatively tolerable punishment. Under both forms a soldier was also subject to hard labour and loss of pay.
Fire-step: Ideally trenches were deep enough for soldiers to walk upright without exposing their heads above the parapet and risking being shot. However this meant that they could neither see nor shoot over the top unless they had a higher platform to stand on. This platform was called the fire-step.
Flight: A subdivision of a squadron, which is frequently divided in to two flights, under the command of a squadron leader.
Furlough: Leave of absence granted to soldiers.
General/Gen.: Typically the officer commanding an army. The rank between Lieutenant General and Field Marshal, indicated by a crown, star and crossed sword and baton.
GOC: General Officer Commanding a specific formation, such as a Brigade.
Great War, The: The name applied, generally retrospectively, to the 1st World War, until World War II broke out and necessitated the change.
Great War Forum, The: A forum dedicated to researching and remembering the Great War.
Grenade: (see also Bomber): A small bomb designed to be thrown by a soldier, originally a Grenadier. It was unreliable and in short supply when the Great War started. But it soon became clear that such a weapon was needed and troops began making their own, the ‘jam-tin’ bombs. The first successful British grenade was the Mills Bomb, introduced in 1915, and some soldiers were trained in its use – the bombers – first just individuals, one in a platoon, but later as squads or even companies, with one or more actual bombers, men to carry the spare grenades, and riflemen to protect them. Their job was to clear enemy trenches. Rifle grenades, as their name suggests, were fired from rifles and could therefore travel greater distances, but not always very accurately. They could have a stalk that went into the barrel of the rifle, or be put into a cup fitted to the rifle’s muzzle. Either way they were launched by firing a special blank bullet.
Grenadier: See Grenade above
GSW: Gun shot wound.
Hewer: A miner who cuts coal from a seam.
HQ: Headquarters, the part of the Battalion containing the Battalion Commander, the Adjutant, the Medical Officer and various other specialised officers, as well as the clerical staff, signallers, quartermaster’s section and others, but still under the command of the usual Captain and Company Sergeant.
Jam-tin bomb: A homemade grenade consisting of a container, typically an empty jam-tin, packed with explosive and other material such as scrap metal, with a fuse which was lit and the bomb then thrown at the enemy. It could be effective, but could also be highly dangerous, if not fatal, to the thrower. Replaced in 1915 by the Mills Bomb.
KIA: Killed in action
King’s Certificate: A certificate awarded to troops who had been discharged from the services on account of disablement attributable to enemy action or, in the case of flyers, operations against the enemy. Anyone with such a certificate would also be entitled to the Silver War Badge, but the reverse was not necessarily the case.
KOYLI: King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
Lance Corporal/L/Cpl: The first step on the promotion ladder, indicated by a single stripe on each arm. Also referred to as Lance-Jack.
Lance Sergeant/L/Sgt: A corporal acting in the rank of sergeant, and wearing three stripes.
Leeds Pals Association: An association of surviving members of the Leeds Pals, probably formed around 1920, but details are now lost. It was dedicated to looking after members and keeping memories alive, for as long as Pals survived.
Lewis Gun: A light machine gun, capable of being carried and fired by one man if necessary, unlike the Vickers Machine Gun on its tripod. An American invention, it was issued to the British Army on a general basis in early 1916.
Lieutenant/Lt. 1st and 2nd: The lowest commissioned ranks, 2nd being lower than 1st. 2nd Lieutenant is indicated by 1 star, 1st Lieutenant, or more usually just Lieutenant, by 2 stars.
Lieutenant Colonel/Lt.Col: The officer commanding a Battalion, the rank between major and colonel, indicated by a crown and 1 star.
Lieutenant General/Lt.Gen: Typically the officer commanding a corps. The rank between Major General and full General, indicated by a crown with crossed sword and baton.
London Gazette: The official journal of the British Government.
Loophole: A steel plate big enough to cover the sniper’s head, with a small hole through which he could fire, so that he did not expose himself when firing. However, their positions became known, and a watcher could detect movement through the hole, and a good sniper could put a bullet through it.
Major: The rank between Captain and Lieutenant Colonel, indicated by a crown.
Major General/Maj.Gen: Typically the officer commanding a Division. The rank between Brigadier General and Lieutenant General, indicated by a star and crossed sword and baton.
MDS: Main Dressing Station, the third stage in the evacuation chain, after the RAP and ADS.
Military Cross (MC): A gallantry award given initially to NCOs and junior officers for service in action. It is a plain Greek cross, with a ribbon of white with a wide central stripe of purple.
Military Honours (buried with full): A military funeral in which the coffin is draped in the Union flag and bearing the soldier’s cap and medals. It is accompanied by a firing party, to fire a salute over the grave, and a bugler to sound Last Post. On occasions some of these features may be omitted.
Military Medal (MM): Introduced in 1916 to be the equivalent of the Military Cross for other ranks. It has a dark blue ribbon with three white and two crimson stripes.
Mills Bomb: A fragmentation grenade designed by William Mills in 1915. It had a grooved, cast-iron casing filled with explosive, and was fitted with a seven second fuse, ignited by releasing a sprung lever. It proved very reliable and was still in use up to the early years of the present century.
Mungo: Cloth made from reclaimed wool rags. It was the primary industry in Ossett. Also shoddy, depending on the original source of the rags.
NCO: Non-commissioned officer. Any rank above private but lower than a Commissioned Officer.
NF: Northumberland Fusiliers
1914-15 Star, also Mons Star: The 1914 Star was awarded ‘to those serving on the strength of a unit’ between 4th August and 22nd November 1914. It used to be known, erroneously, as the Mons Star. The 1914-15 Star was awared to those who served after 22nd November 1914 and before 31st December 1915. Both medals were star-shaped, the only difference being the year in the centre of the star, with a watered ribbon of red, white and blue. It is ‘Pip’ in the trio Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.
Oak Leaf Emblem: A decoration added to the Victory Medal of those mentioned in Dispatches.
Officer: Any soldier holding the monarch’s commission. The lowest rank is 2nd Lieutenant, the highest Field-Marshal.
Other Ranks, O/Rs: Members of the armed forces other than officers. Also Rank and File.
Pals’ Battalion: A battalion composed of men from the same background, even the same job, and particularly the same area. First proposed by Lord Derby in Liverpool, although the earlier London Stockbrokers’ Battalion was a Pals’ unit in all but name. He said that men who worked together should be able to join together and fight together. What no-one foresaw was that they would also die together.
Parapet: A low protective wall along the front edge of the trench, facing the enemy. A similar wall along the rear edge was called a Parados.
Parchim: A prison camp in NE Germany, not far from the Danish border, built to hold 25,000 men. Many of the Pals captured in 1918 were held there.
Penal Servitude: Sentence to be served in a military prison or ‘glasshouse’. During the war such sentences were frequently deferred until the end of hostilities, so as not to provide an easy way out of the trenches, etc. At that time it could sometimes be remitted, particularly if the soldier had behaved well in the interim.
Pioneer: An engineer employed to do engineering or construction tasks.
Pip, Squeak and Wilfred: The names given to the most commonly awarded Great War medals, the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. They took their name from characters in a long-running and very popular strip cartoon in the Daily Mirror.
Platoon: A formation of 2 or more sections, normally 15-30 soldiers under the command of a Lieutenant, with a Platoon Sergeant as second in command. The smallest formation to be commanded by a Commissioned Officer.
POW: Prisoner of War, a soldier captured by the enemy. German translation: Kriegsgefangener.
Private or Pte: The basic rank for a soldier, essentially no rank at all. Some formations had their own equivalent names, such as Gunner in the artillery, or Sapper in the engineers.
Protection Certificate: A certificate issued to soldiers on leave, convalescing or otherwise legitimately away from their battalion, so they would not be arrested on suspicion of deserting.
RA: Royal Artillery, in full the Royal Regiment of Artillery. In 1899 it was divided into 3 parts, as follows:-
- RFA: Royal Field Artillery. A force of medium calibre guns, fairly mobile.
- RGA: Royal Garrison Artillery. A force of heavy guns, not very mobile and therefore traditionally sited in static positions.
- RHA: Royal Horse Artillery. A force of light guns, very mobile.
RAF: The Royal Air Force, formed on 1st April 1918 by an amalgamation of the RFC and the RNAS. It is the oldest independent air force in the world.
RAMC: Royal Army Medical Corps
RAOC: Royal Army Ordnance Corps, responsible for the supply and repair of technical equipment, in particular weapons and amunition. Renamed as a Royal Corps in 1918, so for most of WWI it was the Army Ordnance Corps.
RAP: Regimental Aid Post, the first stage in the casualty evacuation chain, followed by the ADS, the MDS and the CCS.
RASC: Royal Army Service Corps, like the AOC above, awarded the ‘Royal’ title in 1918, to mark its service in the war. Previously the ASC.
Regiment/Regt.: The essential unit of the British Army, with its specific name, regimental Colours, history and traditions. All soldiers think of belonging to a regiment, whatever other formations they may be part of.
Regimental Number: See Army Number.
Register of Voters: Now called the Electoral Register it lists the names and addresses of everyone who is registered to vote in Parliamentary and local elections.
RFC: The Royal Flying Corps, from May 1912 the air arm of the British Army, until its incorporation into the RAF in 1918.
RNAS: The Royal Naval Air Service, the air arm of the Royal Navy from July 1914 to April 1918. In 1937 the Navy regained its air arm when the Fleet Air Arm was returned to Admiralty control.
Sapper: The equivalent of ‘private‘ in the Royal Engineers.
Section, aka Squad: The smallest formation in the army, comprising about 9-10 men under the command of a Corporal.
Separation Allowance: The money payable to a soldier’s wife or other dependant to support them while the soldier was away on active service. It was a proportion of the soldier’s pay, generally matched by the government.
Sergeant or Sgt. (Also Serjeant/Sjt.): The third step on the promotion ladder, indicated by 3 stripes on each arm. Also Colour Sergeant or Staff Sergeant.
Shell Shock: A term coined to describe the reaction of some soldiers to the stress of battle. It was generally poorly defined and diagnosed, and treatment was in its very early stages. Thought initially to be caused by soldiers being too close to an exploding shell.
Shrapnel: Fragments, small lead balls etc. thrown out by an explosion. Specifically a shell designed to explode above your enemy and shower him with such material. Invented by Henry Shrapnel, a British artillery officer, and first demonstrated by him in 1787.
Silver War Badge: aka Wound, Discharge or Services Rendered Badge. A small silver lapel badge issued to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness. The idea was to prevent overzealous women presenting them with white feathers because they were not in uniform.
Squadron: A military unit, of cavalry, where it would be a number of troops, or of warships, where it could be 3 to 10 ships, later adopted by the RFC as a number of aircraft, 12 to 24 in 3 or 4 flights, and the tank corps, which kept the cavalry concept of troops.
Stand Down: Favourite times for an attack were just as dawn was breaking or as the sun was setting, both times when the light was poor. It was therefore the custom, on both sides, for the soldiers to ‘stand to’ on the fire-step ready in case of an attack, just before dawn until full daylight, and at dusk, until it was properly dark. Once these critical times had passed the soldiers would then ‘stand down’, and get on with their normal occupations, leaving only the sentries to watch for trouble.
Substantive Rank: The actual rank held by a soldier, as opposed to an acting rank. It was not unknown for a Lieutenant to find himself in command of his Battalion, with the acting rank of Colonel.
TB: Tuberculosis. A frequently fatal disease, initially of the lungs, but sometimes spreading to other parts of the body. Very infectious, spread through coughs and sneezes, it was very common in the Britain until brought under control by vaccination. One of its symptoms was weight loss, and it was commonly referred to as consumption.
Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme: A memorial to over 72,000 British and South African soldiers who have no known grave. Designed by Sir Edward Lutyens and built next to Thiepval Wood, it was unveiled by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, in 1932. It is the largest British battle memorial in the world.
Troop: A military sub-unit originally of cavalry, where the lowest ranks were called troopers, later adopted by the Tank Corps, since the majority of the cavalry had been modernised to armoured units. It was also used by the Royal Horse Artillery in the same sense. In the plural, troops, it is used to mean soldiers in general, as in ‘call out the troops’.
VAD: Voluntary Aid Detachment. Comprising volunteer nurses supervised by the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance, essentially untrained, though they trained on the job. Intially unwanted by the army, they proved their worth in the field. Their numbers included Vera Brittain, Agatha Christie, Amelia Earhart and Hattie Jacques.
Victoria Cross (also VC): The highest military decoration for valour ‘in the face of the enemy’ awarded to British forces. The ribbon is crimson. It was originally dark blue for naval recipients, but this distinction was abolished in 1918, after the formation of the RAF.
Victory Medal: Awarded to all those who had ‘entered a theatre of war’. It was never awarded on its own, and frequently appeared with the 1914-15 Star and the British War Medal. Its ribbon is a ‘double rainbow’, and it is ‘Wilfred’ in the trio Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.
War Diary: Each unit in the British Army, from battalion up to division, was required by army law to keep a diary of events and activities, written up at the end of each day that the unit was on active service by a specifically appointed officer. At the beginning of the war they did tend to be hand-written, but later were more likely to be typed. Amongst other things it would record the part played by the unit in a battle, the number of men who took part, and the number of casualties resulting from it. The Pals’ War Diary begins in December 1915 when the battalion landed in Egypt. Training in England did not count as active service.
Warrant Officer: Higher than an NCO but lower than a Commissioned Officer. There are two levels, WO2 and WO1, and they hold a warrant, signed by the Secretary of State. They also have an appointment rank, by which they are normally addressed. These can include Company Sergeant Major (CSM), Company Quarter Master Sergeant (CQMS), Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant (RQMS), all WO2s, Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), a WO1. A WO1 wore the Royal Coat of Arms on his sleeve, a WO2 a crown surrounded by a wreath.
White Feather: Some women took it upon themselves to patrol the streets and present a white feather, the symbol of cowardice, to any man they saw not in uniform. The idea was to shame them into joining up. It was effective in some cases, but also greatly embarrassed men who had joined up but were, for a variety of reasons, not able to wear their uniform. See Silver War Badge.