By David Flin
The inspiration for so much stuff.
Available from LibriVox.
In a previous article , Eoin Mulligan gave us an overview of the language and vocabulary soldiers use. One aspect that he considered was the nicknames they gave each other.
In this article, I’ll be looking at the nicknames given to military units – usually regiments. I’ll look especially at those nicknames that are insulting and liable to start a brawl. I got the idea when I was re-reading Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads with a view to reviewing, revising, and continuing my Building Jerusalem series. Specifically, the poem Belts started this chain of thought.
“They called us Delhi Rebels, and we answered Three’s About.”
In the poem, this exchange led to a mass brawl between soldiers of the two regiments.
Also, in his McAuslan series, George MacDonald Fraser refers to an insult against his regiment, the Gordon Highlanders:
“Who shot the cheese.”
Now what, pray, I asked myself, was that all about? I did a little bit of digging and found the answers. At the time, people would have known these things, but they have lost out in public awareness over recent years, for various reasons. Amalgamation of regiments has destroyed many cultural traditions.
Who Shot The Cheese?
In the 18th Century, the regiment had been sent to British North America. One (possibly more) soldier snuck out of barracks to go on a private and unauthorised foraging expedition, and liberated a wheel of cheese from a local farm.
Returning to barracks, he was seen and challenged by a sentry.
Our cheese-liberating soldier had a problem. Looting was a serious crime, and if he was found with the cheese, he’d be in trouble. Being out of barracks was also a big problem. On the other hand, if he left the cheese, someone else would liberate it. He started to move away, but the cheese outwitted him, escaped his grasp, and started to roll towards the sentry.
The sentry panicked. He should have called the guard corporal. Or called the guard. Or something like that.
He panicked and shot at the approaching object. Amazingly, he hit the target, the cheese.
The bullets fired by the muskets of the Gordon Highlanders at the time were 0.69 calibre soft lead. In layman’s terms, that’s one big bullet, and it pretty much turned the cheese into flying canapés.
The story was repeated – sometimes with modifications – and “Who Shot the Cheese?” became an insult to hurl at the regiment.
The Dublin Fusiliers were one of several regiments that came into being on being transferred to the British Army from the East India Company’s European troops following the Indian Mutiny of 1857. These were designated as Irish regiments because so many of them were Irishmen.
When the Crown transferred these soldiers to the British Army, the soldiers disputed the legality of the action and demanded compensation. The Crown lawyers naturally denied any compensation, and feelings ran high. In 1861, the soldiers mutinied in the so-called White Mutiny, which spread until several thousand soldiers were involved.
The matter grew worse when an artilleryman was sentenced to death, and a full-blown mutiny seemed to be about to start. It was at this point that the Crown lawyers changed their mind and released the men from the service of the British Army. Most of them, after a holiday at home, re-enlisted.
14th Light Dragoons (Hussars).
This one is, without question, an insult. It derives from the Battle of Chillianwallah (1849) during the Second Sikh War (1848-49).
The British cavalry brigade under Pope was on the right of the army, and was advancing to engage the enemy. The route they took was through an area of thorns, and they were having difficulties. While the rest of the brigade continued to advance, the 14th simply turned and fled to the rear.
Regimental tradition has it that the order “Three’s Right” (which would have taken them clear of the thorn and better able to engage the enemy) was misheard as “Three’s About”, an order to withdraw.
That's them, at the top of the page, just about to turn and flee for the rear.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Withdraw they did. At some speed and they didn’t stop to join the reserve. It was like 600 Flashmans (Flashmen?) panicking in the face of danger.
Whatever the truth was, the regiment fled the battle, abandoning order, dignity, and reputation. Ever since, “Three’s About” was a mortal insult to the regiment.
Until amalgamation ended the regiment, of course.
OAPs (Overseas at Pirbright).
Pirbright is a village near Guildford in Surrey. It was also, for some time, a training depot for the Guard regiments.
For many years, dating back to the Crimean War at least, Guards regiments were well-known (some might say notorious) for only going abroad on very rare occasions, almost invariably in a major war. They gathered many names: Pall Mall warriors, Home Service Only, the Home Guard.
I made use of this in my Building Jerusalem series, with the sharp division between Home Service only regiments and Deployable regiments.
The fact that, for some reason, the ceremonial troops of the Guards regiments are considered by the public to be superior soldiers, causes a lot of resentment among the regiments that actually do the job. To the extent that, during the First World War, several variations of a song went around complaining about how Guard regiments spent a disproportionate amount of time in reserve.
Forward Joe Soap’s army, marching without fear
While the bloody Guards are safely in the rear.
They boast and play from morn till night
And say they’re very brave.
But the men who really did the job are dead and in their grave.
At this point, I have to declare an interest. Having been, for a time, a Royal Marine (and therefore part of the Navy rather than the Army), and one of those who got deployed all over the place while the Guards pretty much never left England, except when they went on leave. As a result, when the Scots and Welsh Guards were required in action (in the Falklands in 1982), they simply weren’t very good soldiers.
As close to action as the Guards generally get.
Maybe I'm biased.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Fish and Chip Battalions
It works both ways. The Guards regiment, commenting on the common origins of the officers and men of other infantry regiments, refer to them as Fish and Chip Battalions.
Personally, I like fish and chips.
This was perceived as having two meanings. It arose during the First World War, when London soldiers on the Western Front were sent chocolate from relatives back home. Seemingly considerably more chocolate than soldiers from other parts of the country received, and other regiments expressed their envy.
A London soldier in the trenches. Chocolate not included.
Picture courtesy Global Grey eBooks.
This was perceived by the ever-touchy Londoners as suggesting they were as much use as a chocolate soldier, which was rather resented. What was intended as an observation became transformed into an insult and, naturally, the insult was what was remembered.
As you can imagine, there are many, many other such insults. I’m mainly aware of those from Britain, but I’m sure there are plenty from elsewhere in the world (and I would love to hear them in the comments section).
Others that I am aware of include:
Who Broke the Square at Waterloo?
Where were you at Gheluvelt?
The Holy Christians.
What has been the point of all this (apart from those who find such things fascinating in their own right)? Simply that when I read histories and alternate histories that contain scenes with soldiers, I rarely find anything that I recognise as an authentic voice of the soldier. I would love for that to change.
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David Flin is editor of the anthology Ten Years Later, where all proceeds go to help rebuild Ukraine, the author of the AH series Building Jerusalem and Six East End Boys, and the owner of Sergeant Frosty Publications.