The Vault

The Rum Jar, the Flying Pig, and the Ypres Express: WWI Slang for Germany’s Terrifying Munitions

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Lingo of No Man’s Land, by Canadian Lorenzo N. Smith, was originally published in 1918 and will be reissued this summer in a new hardcover edition. Smith served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France in 1915 before receiving a medical discharge. He wrote this book as part of his duties with the British-Canadian Recruiting Mission, which sought to get Canadians and Britons living in the United States to volunteer for overseas service.

The book, as with other slang compendia published as recruitment tools, served two purposes: to inform potential soldiers about the particulars of the fight they were considering joining, and to highlight the camaraderie of military service.

Historian Julie Coleman, who wrote an introduction to the new edition, points out that although Smith was working to recruit new soldiers, the tone of his compendium was brutally honest about the toll of war. “It is hard to believe that a young man might have been induced to enlist” by Smith’s descriptions of the terrible impact of German shells, Coleman writes.

On the other hand, Smith is consistently patriotic about the abilities of the allies, which he presents as connected by a common ethnic heritage, and he deploys a dark wit throughout. “It is no wonder that new words and new terms had to express our surroundings and experiences,” Smith wrote in the book’s foreword. “That many of them are humorous is only the natural rebound from frightfulness in the mind of the Anglo-Saxon, whether he hail from the British Isles, from Canada, or from the United States.”

Smith’s glossary of German munitions:

Bertha: “The sixty-ton German gun, so called from Bertha Krupp, of the manufacturing firm. This gun has a range of ten to twelve miles, and throws a twelve hundred pound shell which the Tommies [British soldiers] also call ’Jack Johnson.’”

Black Marias: “Three hundred pound howitzer shells, which liberate a large cloud of stinging black smoke when they explode.”

Coal Box: “A Hun [German] high explosive shell similar to the ‘Jack Johnson’ which on bursting makes a terrific noise and eliminates a heavy black cloud of gas. Should it, however, burst too near you, you don’t see the cloudy effects.”

Concussion: “The passage of big shells displaces air so suddenly that a man within range will be knocked to the ground by the rush of air. A small shell falling close to a man will have a similar effect, even if it does not explode. Thus dud-shells (i.e., those that do not explode at all) will nevertheless cause concussion. The effect is a nerve shock; something seems to break in the brain, in the words of the ‘men who have come back,’ and they suffer a loss of self-control. If a man is very near a large shell, he will not only be knocked to the ground, but literally crushed to pulp by the same tremendous force that shatters buildings to kindling wood in the path of a cyclone. A man may be lifted high in the air off a hard dirt road by the concussion of a shell.”

Crump: “A high explosive shell, generally a five-nine.”

Dud shell: “A dud shell is a dead one; that is, one which does not explode after being fired. Removing these unexploded shells is one of the dangers of reclaiming the waste land over which armies have been fighting, as they sometimes explode unexpectedly when struck by a rifle.”

Eggs: “Another term for bombs or grenades. There is a German bomb resembling a goose egg. These ‘eggs’ have come out in ever increasing variety the past few years. They are sometimes filled with shrapnel and various kinds of poison gas, or bits of metal. The deadly contents are sometimes released by a time fuse, other times by concussion caps.”

Fish Tail: “A German trench mortar shell eight inches long, corrugated, with a hollow stem which slips over the gun when fired. It carries fish-tail shaped wings, hence its name. Also sometimes called Pineapple.”

Flying Pig: “The name of one of the heaviest trench mortars. It is about five feet long, weighs two hundred ninety-eight pounds, is shaped like a pig, and shoots a shell in which ninety-three pounds of amnol [sic], a high explosive, is used. The ‘flying pig’ carries a light in the tail which goes out as soon as the shell begins to descend. This is a cue to waiting soldiers to get out of the way. The mortars throw a shell one thousand one hundred forty feet away, and even though no fragments touch him the concussion is so great that a man’s insides burst like a kernel of popcorn and death is usually instantaneous. This shell is also called a ‘Sausage,’ a ‘Rum Jar’ and ‘Minnie.’”

Grenade: “A bomb or grenade was not considered a modern weapon of war-fare since the Crimean war, but with the development of trench warfare, it was revived and perfected as one of the most efficient modern weapons. It is a small iron container about the size of a lemon, or a little larger, marked off in squares, and fitted with a time fuse. It is thrown with a stiff over-arm movement, different from base-ball throwing. In exploding, the shells burst into fragments along the square marking of the container, carrying destruction in their path.”

H.E. or High Explosive Shell: “A high explosive shell contains no bullets. It does not explode until it hits the ground but on explosion, the shell bursts into fragments which are thrown in all directions.”

His-Or-Ours?: “The question a soldier asks when he hears a shell but cannot see it.”

Hissing Jennie: “A 4.1 high velocity German shell fired from a field gun. It may contain either shrapnel, high explosive, poisonous gas or ‘crying gas.’ It has a velocity of about two thousand four hundred feet per second and makes a hissing sound as it goes, hence its name. It is used to demolish troops, its velocity making it especially deadly.”

Jack Johnson: “The largest shell used by Fritz [the Germans]. It is between sixteen and seventeen inches, and when it explodes it makes a shell crater about twenty feet deep. This shell is called the ’Ypres Express,’ as it reminds one of an express train as it tears through the air emitting a dense cloud of black smoke when it explodes.”

Liquid Fire: “The chemical composition of this weapon is kept a secret, although it is sometimes referred to as burning petrol (kerosene). Early in the war when the Germans first employed this barbarous weapon, it was shot from nozzles like fire hose [sic]. Now individual soldiers may carry a cylinder of the chemicals on their backs, with a nozzle attached by which to direct the burning steam at will. It will carry about forty yards.”

Oyster Bombs: “Oyster-shaped hand grenades with projections around the edge. Unlike the ordinary grenade, it explodes by concussion—that is upon hitting something solid instead of by a time fuse.”

Rum Jar: “Not a drinking vessel but a term for the German home-made trench mortar. It looks like a piece of stove pipe on a wooden base. The rum jar is filled with all kinds of metal bits and is fitted with a time fuse.”

Sneeze Gas: “To force the removal of the protecting gas masks, the Germans have used what the soldiers call ‘Sneeze Gas,’ because its action is to cause violent desire to sneeze. It is chemically diphenulchlorarsine [sic], and shells containing it are mixed with other shells in a bombardment. On explosion, it expands to a damp gas containing arsenic, invisible, odorless, and subtle, which penetrates the filters of the gas masks, causing great irritation of the nasal passages. Removal of the mask, however, means death. The British have just now devised a means of filtering this gas just as the chlorine gases and ‘tear gases’ are neutralized in the box-respirator and P-H helmet, so that they are no longer greatly to be feared.”

Tear Shell: “One form of gas shell is called the ‘tear shell’ because on explosion it gives off an irritating gas that causes temporary blindness. The eyes smart and tears flow.”

Turtles: “German hand grenades.”

Ypres Express: “A term common earlier in the war, referring to the big gun batteries, the rumble of which sounded like an approaching train.”