This World War I glossary contains significant words, terms and concepts relating to the 1914-18 conflict, its causes and consequences. It has been written by Alpha History authors. If there’s a word or term you believe should be here, please let us know.
The ‘Pals battalions’ were a British recruiting scheme, devised in 1914. Men from the same village, town or workplace were placed in the same company or regiment, allowing them to serve together. The Pals battalions were initially popular, however when these battalions suffered heavy losses then the impact on their village or town was devastating. As a consequence, the British military had abandoned the scheme by 1917.
Pan-Slavism is a belief that the Slavic peoples of the Balkans and southern Europe should form their own independent, unified nation. Pan-Slavism was an aim of Serbian nationalist groups such as the Black Hand.
The parados is the rear of a trench, the side furthest away from the enemy line.
The parapet is the side of a trench closest to the enemy line. It especially refers to the top portion, from which rifle or machine gun fire and/or charges were launched.
Patriotism is affection for or loyalty to one’s country
A pillbox is a defensive post, usually in the form of an earthen bunker or small concrete shelter. It was designed to house and protect riflemen or machine gunners.
To be populist is to seek or enjoy popular support; to appeal to the people.
Propaganda is material intended to persuade or invoke an emotional response, often through distortion or misrepresentation. Propaganda was widely used by all sides during World War I. The most notable propaganda appeared as posters, art or cartoons, however, propaganda could also take the form of speeches, articles and government sanctioned news reports.
Reparations are payments of money or goods as compensation for deaths, injuries and destruction inflicted during a war. Reparations were imposed on all the defeated Central Powers in 1919, most significantly on Germany.
A reserve trench is a secondary trench line, further back from the front line or ‘fire trench’. Reserve trenches were used as a fallback position if the front line was destroyed by artillery or overrun by the enemy. They were also used to store equipment and rest soldiers.
A revolution is a historical period involving dramatic political, social and/or economic change in a particular nation or region.
A bulge or protrusion in the front line of a trench system. A salient was the point closest to the enemy, so was often used by snipers, mortar gunners or as a staging point for an assault.
The Schlieffen Plan was the name of Germany’s military strategy for winning a two-front war. Devised by Count von Schlieffen at the beginning of the 1900s, the plan aimed to defeat France quickly by invading French territory through Belgium, thus avoiding France’s strong border defences. This would allow Germany breathing space before the slow mobilising Russia could launch an attack in the east. The Schlieffen Plan failed for several reasons, including poor implementation, resolute Belgian resistance and the faster than anticipated Russian mobilisation.
Self-determination is the political principle that populations should be able to determine their own nationality, government and political status. Self-determination for European regions like Poland and Czechoslovakia was an underlying principle of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the resultant peace treaties.
The Shell Crisis was a political crisis in Britain in 1915, stemming from a shortage of artillery shells on the Western Front. It exposed poor decision making at the highest levels of government, with regard to military strategy and munitions manufacturing. The Shell Crisis contributed to a government reshuffle (May 1915), the replacement of Sir John French as commander in chief and the political rise of David Lloyd George.
‘Shell shock’ is a colloquial term for several forms of war neurosis or psychological illness, caused by noise, conclusion and exposure to combat and death. Many thousands of soldiers suffered from shell shock and both recognition of the disorder and effective treatments were slow in forthcoming. Shell shock is now known as ‘combat stress reaction’ or ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’.
Shrapnel is steel shards or fragments, released at high speed from an exploding artillery shell. Shrapnel wounds were one of the most common forms of injury and death in World War I.
Slavs (or Slavic)
The Slavs are a large ethnic group concentrated in central and southern Europe. They are the largest populations in western Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Balkan states.
‘stab in the back’ legend (or Dolchstosslegende)
The ‘stab in the back’ legend was a conspiracy theory popular among German nationalists and ex-soldiers. It was based on the belief that the German military could still have won the war, however, the military was betrayed by civilian politicians, weak liberals, socialists and Jews. Though it lacked foundation, the ‘stab in the back’ legend allowed the German military to retain its reputation and influence in post-war Germany.
suffragette (or suffragist)
A suffragette is an individual who campaigns to obtain the right to vote. The term suffragette usually refers to women’s reform groups and campaigners, active in Britain in the early 20th century.
Tommy (or Tommy Atkins)
A ‘Tommy’ or ‘Tommy Atkins’ is a slang term for a British soldier, especially a foot soldier of low rank.
‘Total war’ is a term that describes intense warfare that requires a society or nation mobilises most of its people and resources. Through both its logistic needs and outcomes, a total war directly impacts on civilian society.
Treason is a criminal act involving disloyalty or betrayal of a nation, government or leader. High treason is an act of treason during wartime and the punishment for this is usually execution.
A treaty is a formal agreement between two or more nations. Treaties may be concerned with trade, military alliance or resolving conflict and settling differences.
‘Trench foot’ is a colloquial term for a foot infection caused by constant immersion in water and inadequate changes of footwear. If not treated early trench foot could lead to gangrene, disability, amputation and even death. Numbers of trench foot cases in World War I are unclear, however, most armies developed strategies to prevent it, leading to relatively few cases by 1917-18.
tsar (see czar)
war guilt clause
(In German, Kriegschuldluge) The ‘war guilt clause’ is a colloquial term for Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. This article declared that Germany was solely responsible for causing World War I. The war guilt clause caused outrage in Germany and was used by the Allies as the legal basis for imposing heavy reparations.
war of attrition
A war of attrition is a conflict where both sides attempt to wear down or exhaust the other, without attempting a decisive assault or offensive. Many aspects of Western Front warfare were motivated by attrition rather than achieving a decisive breakthrough.
The Western Front was the most significant theatre of operations in World War I. The Western Front lasted the entirety of the war and stretched more than 450 miles (700 kilometres) – from the Belgian coast, through northern France to the Swiss border.
A Zeppelin was an early name for a German airship.
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].