I would be very grateful if someone in the community could provide me with a definition of a rum cutter. The term appears in Thomas Frederick Littler's diary entry on June, 7th 1916.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

June 7th 1916

We left our billets and went to the edge of the village, moving undercover of the broken walls, then entered a communication trench called 'Yale Street' (of y sector y29) moved along this trench in daylight for 300yds and then we were only 100yds from our own front line, and 400yds from the enemy front line, this 'com' trench was in places only 3ft deep, and we were exposed to the enemy fire, and our own work was to deepen this trench to 7ft, also make it wide enough for two men to pass, no earth could be thrown on top, but had to be put in sandbags and passed down the trench.

Everything went well 'till 3o'clock in the afternoon when 'Jerry' started to strafe, and strafed us away from the work, and managed it without any casualties, during the time we were working we had to keep our equipment on, also rifles at hand, and leaving the trench we looked 'rum cutters' being covered with mud and clay, all around the place were 'gas alarms'. This day was the first time I had been close to the enemy lines, and the first time I had got as far as a Support trench.

  • Context would also help. A "cutter" may be a knife, or it may be a boat. In cricket it is a fastball. In N. America it is a horse-drawn sleigh.
    – GEdgar
    Jun 15, 2019 at 0:18
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    "Rum" is slightly old-fashioned BrE slang for "odd" or "peculiar". Jun 15, 2019 at 0:52
  • 1
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiring_party: "Wiring parties, (or wiring sappers, cutters), were used during World War I on the Western Front as an offensive countermeasure against the enemy’s barbed wire obstacles." Jun 15, 2019 at 0:54
  • 1
    Yes. I think I've got it now. Should I make it an answer? Jun 15, 2019 at 0:59
  • 1
    @OldBrixtonian: Yes, please do.
    – Robusto
    Jun 15, 2019 at 1:23

1 Answer 1


It seems from his diaries that Littler was doing the work of a sapper throughout the war: preparing field defenses, building bridges, making roads and clearing barbed wire. According to Wikipedia, "Wiring parties, (or wiring sappers, cutters), were used during World War I on the Western Front as an offensive countermeasure against the enemy’s barbed wire obstacles." . . . "Work was done at night to repair, improve, and rebuild their own wire defences, while also sabotaging and cutting the enemy's." That is exactly what Littler was doing. I think the word cutters, for wiring sappers, is a slang term which has completely fallen from use during the last hundred years.

The adjective rum is BrE slang for odd or peculiar. It's a rather old-fashioned word now, but Littler would probably have heard it when he was growing up and it would certainly have been used in the trenches.

So he is saying, "We looked like very odd sappers, all covered in mud." And he puts it in quotes - "rum cutters" - because both words are slang. Or rather, to show that he knows they're slang. He does the same thing a few lines before with 'Jerry', meaning 'the Germans' and 'com' meaning 'communications'.

  • Many thanks! Thanks to Hot Licks for amending my question, making it easier to understand. And Many thanks to Old Brixtonian for the wonderful answer! Jun 17, 2019 at 5:22

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