This World War I glossary contains significant words, terms and concepts relating to the 1914-18 conflict, its causes and consequences. Contains words from E to O. It has been written by Alpha History authors. If there’s a word or term you believe should be here, please let us know.
In World War I, the Eastern Front was the main line of combat between German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian forces. The Eastern Front was longer, more changeable and less well defended than the Western Front. At various times it ran through East Prussia, Poland, Galicia (Austria) and western Russia.
An emperor is a monarch who rules or governs an empire.
An empire is two or more nations, colonies and ethnicities who are under the political and economic control of a single, powerful nation (see imperialism).
In a military force, enlisted men are soldiers who are not of commissioned officer rank, such as privates, corporals and sergeants.
A fire-step is an elevated step or platform alongside a parapet wall. It allows soldiers to look out of, fire from or climb out of a trench.
A fire-trench is the line of a trench network closest to ‘no man’s land’, and therefore closest to the enemy.
funk hole (see dug-out)
The Great Powers is a colloquial term for the major nations of Europe prior to World War I. The Great Powers are usually considered to have been Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.
Great Push (or Big Push)
The ‘great push’, ‘big push’ or simply ‘the push’ refers to major offensive or advance, particularly on the Western Front. A push often involved a mass infantry charge across ‘no man’s land’ toward the enemy.
A grenade is a small hand-held bomb with a short fuse, able to be primed and then thrown at the enemy.
‘Gunboat diplomacy’ refers to any action that seeks to force another country into compliance. It usually involves some measure of hinted aggression or a show of military force.
The Hague conventions were a series of agreements about the rules of war, drafted in 1899 and 1907 and signed by most major nations. The conventions set down rules about warfare, outlawing the targeting of civilian populations, the use of chemical and other prohibited weapons and the mistreatment of prisoners. Many of the Hague conventions were ignored or neglected by combatant nations.
The Hindenburg Line was a defensive section of the Western Front, constructed by the Germans in 1916-17. It ran through northern France and was intended to block an anticipated Allied offensive. Named after the German commander in chief, the Hindenburg Line comprised concrete fortifications, machine-gun posts, trenches and barbed wire.
The home front refers to the civilian population during wartime, particularly in relation to their supply and support of the war effort.
A Howitzer is a type of short barreled artillery gun that fires shells to great heights, dropping them onto enemy targets. The term ‘Howitzer’ was sometimes used to describe any artillery piece.
‘Hun’ is a derogatory term for Germans or German soldiers, a cultural reference to barbaric warriors of the early Middle Ages.
Imperialism is a political and economic system where powerful nations seek to conquer and rule smaller regions, transferring them into colonies and exploiting their land, resources and people for profit. Imperialism was practised by most European powers in the decades prior to World War I. Imperial rivalry, or the ‘scramble for colonies’, is often considered an important cause of the war.
The infantry are foot-soldiers, the sections of an army that move about, advance and fight on foot. The vast majority of soldiers who fought on the Western Front belonged to the infantry.
Isolationism is a foreign policy approach where a nation does not commit to alliances or ‘take sides’ in international disputes. Isolationism was the declared foreign policy of the United States before World War I, though it was not fully isolationist.
The July Crisis refers to the diplomatic exchanges, ultimatums and political tensions in Europe that led to the outbreak of World War I. The crisis began with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (late June 1914).
A Junker is a member of Prussia’s landed nobility. Junkers were not only wealthy landowners, they also filled important positions in the government and military command of both Prussia and Germany.
The Kaiser was the king or emperor of Germany. The word is derived from the Latin ‘Caesar’.
Kriegschuldlüge (see war guilt clause)
Marxism is a political ideology, economic system and theory of history, developed in the 1800s by German-Jewish philosopher Karl Marx. Marxism contributed to organised socialism and trade unionism prior to World War I. Marxist ideas later inspired the Russian Revolution (1917) which resulted in Russia withdrawing from World War I.
Militarism is a condition where the military occupies a privileged and influential position in society and government. Military needs are prioritised and military commanders exert excessive influence on government decision making. Militarism can lead to aggressive foreign policy, an arms race or buildup, and other conditions conducive to war. German militarism is often cited as a significant cause of World War I.
The Mills bomb was an early British grenade. It was constructed in the now familiar pineapple shape, with a lever and ring pull for priming.
A minister is a politician who is appointed to oversee and improve government in a particular area, such as defence, industry or foreign affairs. In Westminster political systems, ministers are usually members of the executive government.
Mobilisation is the process of preparing for war. Mobilisation involves enlisting, equipping, training and moving large numbers of troops. It also involves the acquisition and supply of weapons, transport, uniforms and the other needs of war.
A monarchy is a political system where at least some executive power is vested in a hereditary monarch, who is also the head of state.
A morganatic marriage is a marriage between a royal and a commoner, where the commoner and/or their children are not entitled to royal power or titles. The marriage between Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie was morganatic.
A mortar is a small artillery piece, operated by one or two soldiers and capable of firing grenade-like bombs. Mortars were used for close quarter fighting or trench warfare, where the combatants were relatively close. Most mortars made distinctive sounds: a ‘froomp’ when fired and a high pitched whistling sound when in flight.
Mustard gas is a chemical weapon that causes burning and blisters on the exposed skin, internal bleeding and excruciating pain. Mustard gas was less deadly than other chemical weapons but caused considerable suffering, particularly if it landed on exposed skin or was ingested into the lungs.
A mutiny is an uprising or rebellion in a military unit, such as the army or navy.
Nationalism is an intense and often short-sighted form of patriotism. It involves a belief in the moral authority and superiority of one’s own country. It also implies that the interests of one’s country are paramount and should always come before the interests of other nations. Pre-war nationalism fuelled rivalry, suspicion and xenophobia and was a significant cause of the outbreak of war.
no man’s land
‘No man’s land’ was the area of land between two hostile trenches, across which artillery and gunfire and ground assaults were launched. As the name suggests, ‘no man’s land’ was extremely dangerous. It was usually scarred with cratering and mud, and littered with mines, barbed wire, bodies and debris.
non-commissioned officer (or NCO)
A non-commissioned officer, or NCO, is a soldier of senior enlisted rank, such as a corporal or sergeant. Non-commissioned officers were responsible for training, organising and disciplining enlisted men, and implementing the orders given by commissioned officers.
officer (or commissioned officer)
A commissioned officer is a higher ranking member of the military. Officers are responsible for leadership and tactical and strategic decision making. In the army lower officer ranks include subalterns, lieutenants and captains, while higher officer ranks include majors, colonels and generals.
over the top
Going ‘over the top’ was a colloquial term for an infantry charge requiring soldiers to leave the trenches and advance toward the enemy.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “World War I glossary” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/world-war-i-glossary/, 2017, accessed [date of last access].