Sunday, July 20, 2014

IEDs, Jam and Trench Warfare – the Bombastic History and Etymology of “How do you Like Them Apples?”

IEDs, Jam and Trench Warfare – 
the Bombastic History and Etymology of 
“How do you Like Them Apples?”

In the 1997 Academy Award-winning, Mirax film, Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character, Will Hunting, a rough-edged genius from Southie, gets into a fight with a polished Harvard swell, the rival for the apple of his eye’s attention.  When Will gets her phone number, he gloats, “I got her number; how do you like them apples?”

What Will Hunting probably knew (being a voracious reader with an eidetic memory), and the conventionally smart Harvard student probably did not know, is that the phrase, “how do you like them apples,” originated in the trench warfare of World War I. 

The phrase dates to at least July, 1918 [It's even older - see Updates Below]:

Railway Mail Man from Ogden is in France. 

. . . This interesting letter on the U. S. mail service in France was received by W. H. Taylor, chief clerk of the railway mail service, with headquarters in Ogden, from Joseph H. McCullam, formerly a clerk on the Ogden branch of the railway mail service, but now in France in the same service. . . . 

“As to the war, you probably know more about it over there than we do – and besides,we are not allowed to write very much about it.  It is par bon.  How do you like that French – or, as they say over here, ‘How do you like them apples?

The Ogden Standard (Ogden, Utah), July 8, 1918, 3:30 pm City Edition, page 3. 

The use of, “as they say over here,” suggests that the phrase was in use among the soldiers in France, and that the writer believed the phrase to be novel and unfamiliar to readers back home.  Although the origin the phrase is not apparent from the context of this letter, other sources suggest that the word “apple” was associated with grenades and mortars used in trench warfare during World War I.

“Apple” seems to have been a euphemism for a variety of grenades and mortar shells.  For example, the “toffee apple”[i] was one of the nicknames for the British two-inch medium trench mortar.   The “toffee apple” resembled a toffee apple (or caramel apple) on a stick; a 9inch spherical shell (the apple) sat on top of a 2-inch mortar barrel (the stick).  Another nickname for the “toffee apple” was the more cryptic “plum pudding.”[ii]  

The “toffee apple” allusion is obvious, given the appearance of the weapon, but the meaning of the “plum pudding” nickname is more opaque.  But plums and apples were closely linked to improvised explosive devices used earlier in the war, before the development and distribution of more and better grenades and mortars.  Perhaps the names “toffee apple” and “plum pudding,” as applied to the large mortar shell introduced in 1915, were derived from improvised explosive devices used during the early days of the war.

During the early days of the war, British, Canadian and Anzac soldiers fashioned explosive devices, grenades and mortars from tin cans:

Formerly, in the first stages of the war, the British grenades were a hand-made affair, fabricated out of a jam tin and some explosive, wired on to a stick.

Arthur James Mack (late of the 23d Battalion, London Regiment, H. M. Imperial Army), Shellproof Mack, an American’s Fighting Story, Boston, Small, Maynard & Company, 1918, page 211. 

The most common, and reviled, jam in the trenches was Tickler’s Plum and Apple Jam.

Plum and Apple Jam

Plum and Apple
Humbly dedicated to Mr. Tickler.
The A.S.C have strawberry,
Or sometimes marmalade;
For us, it always seems to me,
No other jam is made –
But Plum and Apple, Plum and Apple;
Oh, the times I’ve had to grapple
With my tin of Plum and Apple!

When wounded in a recent “spree,”
To hospital I went;
They said a little jam for tea
Is splendid nourishment –
‘Twas Plum and Apple, Plum and Apple,
Once again I had to grapple
With some Tickler’s Plum and Apple.

Eric Thirkell Cooper, Soliloquies of a Subaltern Somewhere in France, London, Burns & Oates Ltd., 1915, second impression (1915) page 30 (to the 2nd Battalion London Regiment Royal Fusiliers T. F.).

Plum and apple jam was so ubiquitous (and other types of jam so rare), that numerous soldiers mentioned it disparagingly in their memoirs; for example:
Until one has been in the trenches he cannot realize what a useful article of diet jam is.  It is undoubtedly nutritious and one doesn’t tire of it, even though there seem to be but two varieties now existing in any considerable quantities – plum and apple.  Once upon a time a hero of the “ditches” discovered that his tin contained strawberry jam, but there was such a rush when he announced it that he didn’t get any of it.

Alexander McClintock (D. C. M. Late Sergeant, 87th Battalion, Canadian Grenadier Guards, now member of U.S.A. Reserve Corps.), Best o’Luck: How a Fighting Kentuckian Won the Thanks of Britain’s King, George H. Doran Company, 1917, page 56. 

Plum and Apple Jam Tins as Improvised Explosive Devices

But although they may have tired of the jam, the empty tins provided raw material to fashion grenades and mortar shells that were otherwise hard to come by in the trenches during the early days of the war:

[In describing an improvised mortar shell – ]The whole thing was too rubbishy and cheaply and roughly made to have been fit for use as a “kid’s toy,” as the subaltern called it.  To imagine it being used as a weapon of precision in a war distinguished above all others as one of scientifically perfect weapons and implements was ridiculous beyond words. . . .”Is it possible to – er – hit anything with that?” he asked. “Well, more or less,” said the youthful subaltern doubtfully.  “There’s a certain amount of luck about it, I believe.” . . . 

. . . the Engineers collecting the empty jam-pots and converting them to bombs.  They’ve only had four or five months, y’see, to evolve a – look out, sir! Here’s one of theirs!” . . . .

[the mortar operators make a rough estimation of the enemy’s location; fire; and hear an unusually loud explosion] “I’ll swear,” he said, “that our old plum and apple pot never made a burst that big.  I do believe it must have flopped down on the other fellow and blown up one or two of his bombs same time.  I say, isn’t that the most gorgeous good luck?

Boyd Cable, Between the Lines, New York, E. P. Dutton & Company, page, 104,fifth edition, February 1917 (first edition October 1915), beginning on page 102

Plum and apple tins were also used to make grenades.  The following account of the devices explains how they were made, illustrates the dangers of the devices, and provides a gruesom account of trench warfare; all while also lamenting the lack of strawberry jam:

Then there’s that other sort of bomb, there is, which they’re after making from the ration jam tins.  You mind them ration jam tins, sir; ‘tis about six inches high they are and three across, and ‘tis always ‘plum and apple’ they have inside.  Sure one of the lads the other day got one of strawberry, and it was killed in the rush that he was.  You fill them with bits of iron and the like, and put a bit of gun-cotton inside, and a detonator, and a bit of safety fuse.  About two inches you use, which should take two or three seconds to bur[n].  You lights the fuse and waits a second, and then you throws it.  ‘Tis a dangerous affair, for it will not explode till the fuse is burnt, and, as you know, that fuse is queer stuff in the burning.  If you throw it too soon they throw it back, and if you leave it too late it’s after bursting in your hand, so it’s in the soup you are anyway with those things.  ‘Twas one of our own officers, it was, who went up one night to throw them for the lads in the trenches.  ‘Twas well for a time, and then one of them ‘ad the fuse too long.  They threw it back, and, by the saints, it burst right in his face.  Plastered he was with bits of iron and nails and things that he had put in himself.

“Sapper” [pseudo.] (Herman Cyril McNeile), Michael Cassidy, Sergeant, New York, George H. Doran Company, 1916, pages 59-60.

The term, “apple,” was also used as a generic term for grenades or mortar shells, not specifically limited to specific types of bombs, such as the plum-and-apple tin bombs or “toffee apple” mortar shell.  A wounded American soldier, for example, referred to a German grenade as a “trench apple”:

“Doc did some prospectin’ in th’r region of my knee and dug this out,” he said, grinning.  “Come from a trench apple – some fruit, them trench apples, when they bust right ‘long side of a feller.  A Prussian guard handed me this here little souvenir just before he learned all about how a bayonet feels when it’s run plumb through a feller. . . .

A Prussian, twelve feet from me, threw a hand grenade. “’Look out,’ yelled one of our boys.  But I was a thick-head and instead of falling flat I stood up.  I also sat down again, for that trench apple sure did scatter a little hell all around and I got this hunk in my leg.

Hamilton M. Wright, Our Doughboys’ Own Story, The Forum, volume 60, October 1918, pages 408-409.

How Do You Like Them Apples

The phrase “how do you like them apples” entered the language of American soldiers at least as early as 1918.  The letter from the Ogden mail carrier, set out above, suggests that the phrase came into common use among soldiers in Europe during World War I.  A published history of a company of American soldiers who fought in that war supports that conclusion.  The phrase is included, without explanation, in a list of “Company reminiscences:

“I’ll fool the cooties this time,” said Corporal Thomas, as he turned his underwear inside out.

* * *
“Hey Joe, how are de boids?”

* * *
“How do you like them apples?”

History of Company A, 307th Engineer Regiment, 82d Division, United States Army, Baltimore, Lord Baltimore Press, 1919, page 148.

By 1920, the phrase could also be found in non-military publications:

How do you like them apples?

Baltimore and Ohio Magazine, volume 8, number 4, August, 1920, page 57:

Tailspin Tommy cartoon panel,The Baltimore Evening Sun, June 16, 1939, page 38.


“How do you like them apples” appears to have its origins in World War I; and seems to relate to the use of various grenades and mortar shells.  Although there is no smoking gun to prove that origin, numerous references suggest an association between the word, “apple,” and various grenades and mortar shells.  The early improvised devices were made from plum and apple jam tins.  At least one of the later mortars looked like a “toffee apple” and was referred to, alternately, as a “toffee apple” or “plum pudding.”  At least one soldier referred to a German grenade as a “trench apple.”   

The German army used at least three general types of hand-grenades during World War I, one of which had about the size and shape of an apple.[iii]  It is possible that the American soldier referred to a German grenade as a “trench apple” as much for its size and shape as for any historical connection with jam and apple tins from early in the war, before the Americans joined the war effort.  However, it is also possible, that the multiple suggestions of apple, from the “plum and apple” jam tins, to the shape of the “toffee apple” mortar shell and the size and shape of German spherical hand grenades, all reinforced one another.


It is also possible, I suppose, that the phrase was a nonsense phrase that just happened to catch on.  Perhaps they always received some shipments of bad fruit?  We may never know for sure. 

But without more direct evidence of the specific origin, it is least believable, if not likely, that the phrase, “how do you like them apples,” relates to the use of grenades and mortars against enemy positions; perhaps as a mocking, rhetorical question shouted after launching or tossing grenades at the enemy.  

Sikeston Standard (Sikeston, Missouri), July 31, 1923, page 1.

UPDATE No. 2: August 7, 2019

A possible precursor expression, "how's them for apples," appeared in a humor piece in the Chicago Inter-Ocean in 1893.  In the story, a man from Washington meets a man from Indiana near the flag pole in front of the Washington Building at the World's Columbian Exposition, the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Rossiter Johnson, A History of the World's Columbian Exposition, New York, D. Appleton and Company, Volume 2, 1897, page 486.

Standing beneath what was believed to be the largest American flag ever made, the Indianan makes a comment that many people have made about Washington before and since; "It rains potty nigh all the time in Washington, don't it?"

Taking offense, the Washingtonian invites the Hoosier into the Washington Building to show him a large diorama or model illustrating many of the advantages of living in Washington.

"Come out," he continued, "and fetch the folks.  We'll show you a country to live in; more big timber, more rich land, the finest fruit, the ablest-bodied watermelons, the grandest mountains and the greatest country under the sun.  In the Palouse region where there are wheat farms by the mile, like this [(the diorama)] is supposed to represent, I've seen wheat piled in sacks in such a blockade that the railroads couldn't haul it away in months. . . . 

"Look at that chunk of coal - 25 tons.  How's them for apples? Say did you ever see such potatoes? Bushel in a hill" - and the two strolled out of earshot.

Chicago Inter-Ocean, June 17, 1893, page 6; Yakima Herald, June 22, 1893, page 2.

In context, it appears that the comment may merely be a separate boast about Washington apples.  But to twenty-first century readers familiar with the now-well known expression, "how do you like them apples," it also reads as though it could be a comment referring back to the large chunk of coal - "how's them for apples?"

It might also have seemed familiar to early/mid-twentieth century readers.  From as early as the 1920s, "how's them for apples?" was an occasional, if less frequent, variant of "how do you like them apples?"

 In 1926, a working singer, wife and mother responded to an earlier letter from a woman having difficulty maintaining her career after marriage.

At night, when I go home after dinner, I cook my roast for the next night's dinner.  Saturday I take off and clean house, do my baking for the next week. "How's them fer apples?"  


The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), September 30, 1926, page 8.

In 1933, the Peoria and Keokuk baseball teams went on an impressive hitting spree (or did their defenses collapse?).

In the three game series, Peoria and Keokuk scored 89 runs on 88 hits.

How's them for apples?
Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa), June 12, 1933, page 7.

So the early (1893) example of "how's them for apples" in the Washington Building at the World's Fair might have been a literal boast about tasty Washington apples, or it may have been an early example of the idiom, "how's them for apples" and its later, better known variant.
In either case, "how do you like them apples" first appeared at least two decades before becomeing widely known during WW I.

UPDATE No 1: September 26, 2016

The expression, "How do you like them apples," dates to at least 1895.  I have found only one, isolated instance of it, from Texas, one-hundred twenty years ago, today:

Bryan is the best cotton market in this section of the state and has received more cotton than any other town in this section.  How do you like "them apples?"

The Eagle, (Bryan, Texas), September 26, 1895, page 2.

This example, standing alone, disproves the suggestion that the expression originated in the trenches of World War I, under the influence of various types of "apple" grenades, mortars and IEDs.  It does not, however, necessarily disprove the influence those factors may have had in the popularizing of the expression.

Even if the expression existed in some places and among some people for decades before the war, the co-mingling of millions of young men in training camps, barracks and trenches may have helped scatter the expression to the winds.  It is possible that the various forms of "apple"-related grenades, mortars and IEDs could have influenced the popularity of the expression during the war.

Or, it may be one big, happy coincidence.  You be the judge.

The humorously ungrammatical object of the expression -- "them apples" -- had a life of its own before and after the idiom appeared.  It was apparently (and may still be) a commonly used construction.  It was familiar to generations of students as a recurring example of what not to say in English grammar text-books for more than a century before World War I, and was frequently put into the mouths of "rustic" types in print.

Here is a representative sampling drawn from dozens, if not hundreds, of examples dating from the early 1800s through the early 1900s:

Mr. Harrison, Rudiments of English Grammar, Philadelphia, J. Bioren, 1812, Ninth American Edition.
Common Schools of Cincinnati, Part First, Forty-Fifth Annual Report for the School Year Ending August 31, 1874, page 142.
Robert John McLaughlin, Language Notes for Fifth Grade, Philadelphia, Walter Printing House, 1904, page 15.

William Templer, Some Rustic Rhymes, New York, Burr Print House, 1900, page 39.

Lexington Intelligencer (Lexington, Missouri), January 21, 1888, page 4.

Ottumwa Tri-Weekly Courier (Ottumwa, Iowa), July 26, 1910, page 6.
New York Tribune, August 1, 1915, page 48.

New York Tribune, August 29, 1915, page 47.

         How do you like them apples?

[i] Arthur James Mack (late of the 23d Battalion, London Regiment, H. M. Imperial Army), Shellproof Mack, an American’s Fighting Story, Boston, Small, Maynard & Company, 1918, page 211.
[ii] Major Donald McRae (Infantry Reserve Corps (formerly Major Canadian Infantry) Offensive Fighting, Philadelphia and London, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1918, page 39; Geoffrey H. Malins, Sir Douglas Haig’s Great Push; the Battle of the Somme,London, Hutchinson & Co., 1920, pages 46-47.
[iii] The Training and Employment of Bombers, reprinted from the Revised British Edition of September, 1916, Washington Government Printing Office, 1917; Captain Adrien Gay, 2nd Zouaves Regiment, French Army, Grenade Warfare: School of the Grenadier, A Guiode for Hand Bombers and Rifle Grenadiers, fourth French Edition, First American Translation, Revised, Atlanta, Georgia, E. W. Allen & Company, 1918.  Technical manuals referred to the three, general types of German grenades as “egg,” “spherical” and “cylindrical.”  The “egg” grenade was egg-shaped, and about 2.3 inches long by 1.8 inches wide.  The “spherical” grenade was about four inches long and about 3 inches in diameter, with a friction lighter fuse wire extending out of the top.  It is about the size of an apple.  The fuse wire might arguably resemble an apple stem.  The body of the grenade has the general appearance of a pineapple.  The "cylindrical" grenade resembled a tin can attached to a nine-inch, wooden handle.

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