First World War & military vocabulary

Behind the lines

An operational unit composed of two or more Army Corps and supporting units, often numbering several hundred thousand men.

Army Corps
An operational unit composed of two or more divisions and supporting units, numbering 30-40,000 men.

A room within the wall of a fortress, with openings from which guns or projectiles can be fired.

An army’s losses due to death, wounds, illness, desertion, or capture.

Numbering over 18,000 men, in 1916 the New Zealand Division consisted of 3 infantry brigades, 4 field artillery brigades, a mounted rifles regiment and numerous smaller engineer, signals, medical, labour, logistic, trench mortar and machine gun units. Supporting the Division in a non-combat role was a large administrative and support structure composed of medical, training and administrative units.

A raised wooden platform consisting of slatted wood. Duckboards were used as paths and platforms in trenches and in muddy and wet areas where walking or riding was difficult.

Field Artillery Batteries and Brigades
New Zealand Field artillery batteries consisted of either six 18-pounder field guns or six 4.5-inch howitzers. A field artillery brigade consisted of 3 batteries of 18-pounders and 1 battery of 4.5-inch howitzers. By 1916 four such field artillery brigades were included in the New Zealand Division, in addition to 1 heavy, 3 medium and 3 light trench mortar batteries.

A common nickname given to German soldiers by the Allies. Fritz was an abbreviation of Freidrich, which was a popular German name at the time.

Gas gangrene
A deadly bacterial infection that grows in open wounds, gas gangrene is known for its large, black sores. Gas gangrene produces gas in gangrenous tissue and can be fatal. It was common during the First and Second World War among infantry suffering severe wounds from bullets or artillery shrapnel and led to many amputations and deaths.

Infantry Battalion
Infantry battalions were commanded by a lieutenant colonel and were composed of 4 companies. At full strength a battalion numbered over a thousand men, but would usually go into action with less than 800. After severe fighting battalion strengths could fall dramatically to as few as 300 or 400 men. Medical, signalling and logistics troops were also contained within a battalion.

Infantry Brigade
New Zealand Infantry brigades were composed of 4 infantry battalions and at full strength numbered over 4,000 men, commanded by a brigadier-general. Whereas British infantry brigades were reduced to only three battalions in 1918, New Zealand infantry brigades retained their 4-battalion strength throughout the war, making the New Zealand Division one of the strongest in the British and Commonwealth armies.

Infantry Company
Infantry companies were commanded by Majors or Captains and consisted of a small headquarters and 4 platoons, totalling about 227 men at full strength. 4 companies formed a battalion.

Infantry Sections and Platoons
The smallest tactical unit within an infantry battalion, the infantry section consisted of 12 men led by a non-commissioned officer. At the beginning of the war almost all infantry sections were composed exclusively of riflemen, but by 1918 they also contained specialised bombing and light-machine-gun personnel. 4 Sections were normally required to form an Infantry platoon commanded by a junior officer.

Light rail
Light rail is a transport system similar to trams, involving the transportation of lighter loads at a faster rate. Often used for transporting people in urban centres, light rail was used extensively during the First World War to transport people, supplies and ammunition both above and below ground.

Mounted Rifles Regiment
Composed of 3 squadrons, each of 4 troops of 38 NCOs and troopers, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Regiments  initially numbered 550 men each trained in scouting and reconnaissance roles and as mobile reserves that would ride to the battle but go into action on foot. Only one regiment, the Otago Mounted Rifles, accompanied the newly formed New Zealand Division to the Western front and was soon reduced to a single squadron.

An area of land, or landform, that projects out from its surroundings. In military terms, a salient was a position or series of positions that penetrated into enemy lines and was thus vulnerable to attack from several sides.

Shell shock
Also known as ‘Combat Stress Reaction’ and now referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), shell shock described the symptoms of soldiers who had been exposed to heavy artillery bombardments and combat, although some soldiers suffering from it developed it much later on and away from the battlefield. Symptoms ranged from uncontrollable shaking, sudden mood swings, muteness, deafness, and the inability to eat or sleep.

Lead bullets contained in artillery shells that, after exploding, were designed to disperse and cause injury and death to infantry.

Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707) was a Marshal of France and the most skilled engineer of his time. Vauban became famous for designing complex fortifications and was an expert in building and defending structures, as well as besieging them. Advising Louis XIV, Vauban designed and oversaw the construction of France’s border fortifications during the 17th century.