Terms used in the Great War


This is an ongoing project to include descriptions of some of the terms used in the study of the Great War. This may include names, places, equipment or phrases.

Bear with me. It will be sparse for quite a while! If there is something that you think should be included, please let me know.


Big Smoke

What the soldiers called the city of London. If you saw it from a distance there was an ever-present fog over the city, leading to the name.



A soldiers name for England, specifically when referring to a wound and not used otherwise. The word was brought back from India where 'billayat' = kingdom, and in the Indian context 'kingdom' meant England



This was a light trench morter used by the Germans that fired a grenade like bomb up to 350 yards. The bomb was attached to a finned shaft to give it stability during flight and was designed to bounce up after impact and explode 1 second later. Because it was a fragmentation type bomb, it could do devestating damage.


Lewis Gun

This was a light (12kg) machine gun designed in 1911 by U.S. Army Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis. It was widely adopted by the Canadian and British from 1915 onwards.The air-cooled 1914 model Lewis Gun used a 47 cartridge circular magazine and could fire up to 600 rounds per minute, and was accurate up to 600 yards (with tripod mount).  The Lewis gun was later fitted with a 97 cartridge magazine and adopted for use in airplanes, tanks and armoured cars.


Mustard Gas

Mustard gas (HD) is a chemical compound that was first used as a chemical weapon in World War I. In pure form, it is a colourless, odourless, viscous liquid at room temperature and causes blistering of the skin. The name comes from impure mustard gas, which is usually yellow-brown in colour and has an odour resembling mustard, garlic or horseradish. It is otherwise not related to mustard in any way.

Mustard gas is a strong vesicant (a compound that causes blisters). Those exposed usually suffer no immediate symptoms. The exposure develops (in 4 to 24 hours) into deep, itching or burning blisters wherever the mustard contacted the skin; the eyes (if exposed) become sore and the eyelids swollen, possibly leading to conjunctivitis and blindness. At very high concentrations, if inhaled, it causes bleeding and blistering within the respiratory system, damaging the mucous membrane and leading to pulmonary edema. Blister agent exposure over more than 50% body surface area is usually fatal.

It was first used by the German army against Canadian soldiers in 1917 and later also against the French – the name Yperite comes from its usage by the German army near the Belgium city of Ypres. It was dispersed as an aerosol in a mixture with other chemicals, giving it a yellow-brown colour and a distinctive odour. Mustard gas was lethal in only about 1% of cases. Its effectiveness was as an incapacitating agent: a wounded soldier slows an advancing army much more than a dead one. The countermeasures against the gas were quite ineffective, since a soldier wearing a gas mask was not protected against absorbing it through the skin, although the mask did protect against inhalation and blistering of the lungs.

Furthermore, mustard gas was a persistent agent which would remain in the environment for days and continue to cause sickness. If mustard gas contaminated a soldier's clothing and equipment, then other soldiers he came into contact with would also be poisoned. Towards the end of the war it was even used in high concentrations as an area-denial weapon, which often forced soldiers to abandon heavily contaminated positions.