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From The Great War 1914-1918

Canary: A name for any soldier wearing a yellow brassard; an instructor at a gas school, or one of the Sanitary Corps of the RAMC; also the battalion Sanitary Orderlies attending to incinerators, latrines etc., work for which men were usually detailed for punishment.

Canaries (the birds) were used in the war by the Royal Engineer Tunnelling Companies as gas detectors, being quickly affected by the presence of gas, otherwise imperceptible, in the mine galleries. An officer tells this story of one bird: Twice a particular bird gave the necessary warning by dropping off his perch. Having recovered on both of these occasions, he evidently considered he had 'done his bit,' as on the next and future visits, he habitually fell off his perch immediately he entered the gallery, although there was no suspicion of gas. Consequently the bird had to be relieved of future duty, and took his place as the Commanding Officer's pet. [1]

References / notes

  1. Edward Fraser and John Gibbons (1925). Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases. Routledge, London p.46.

Glossary of words and phrases

The above term is listed in our glossary of words and phrases of the Armed Forces of Great Britain during the Great War. Included are trench slang, service terms, expressions in everyday use, nicknames, the titles and origins of British and Commonwealth Regiments, and warfare in general. These words and phrases are contemporary to the war, which is reflected in the language used. They have been transcribed from three primary sources (see Contents). Feel free to expand upon and improve this content.
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