In his 1873 journal, a Third Cavalry army officer stationed at Fort McPherson, Nebraska, described the colorful language of one of the civilian teamsters: “He could swear more in the same breath than any living man west of the Missouri . . . ‘Our Army in Flanders’ were innocent sucklings when compared to our ‘Boss’ teamster.”
Who was “Our Army in Flanders” and how did this figure of speech come about? To find out, I googled the phrase and came up with numerous examples from historic books online, including the original quotation.
In 1759, English writer Laurence Sterne coined a phrase “Our armies swore terribly in Flanders,” in his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Originating here, the phrase referred to bad language understandably used by men in war. Although over the ensuing years the phrase was diluted to the verbiage used by the officer, it still meant the use of profanity in the extreme. Numerous examples can be cited:
An 1854 ad in the New England Farmer states: “A good many persons who milk cows, swear worse than ‘our army did in Flanders.’”
An 1861 article in Harper’s Weekly described a Richmond saloon where southern officers congregated: “The swearing done there beats the performance of ‘Our Army in Flanders’ all to nothing.”
And as late as 1916 an editorial titled “Tommy Atkin’s Reputation” published in an American journal observed: “It was at one time whispered about in England that ‘our army swore terribly in Flanders.’ The army is in Flanders again.” It was—and they were probably swearing worse then than back in the 1750s.
—Tom Buecker, curator, Fort Robinson Museum, Crawford, Nebraska