A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Hooptedoodle #132 - The Third Light

Reckless behaviour
A long time ago, I worked in Edinburgh with a fierce old Aberdonian named Ken.

Ken was a heavy smoker, which killed him in the end, sadly, and once, in a pub session (during which smokers used to take a religious pride in making things as uncomfortable as possible for non-smokers in those days), he suddenly blew out a match offered to him, shouting "Third light!".

When I asked about this, he explained that it was very unlucky to be the third person lighting a cigarette from the same match, and that he always took this very seriously. He believed it dated from the First World War, when it was considered that the time taken to light a third cigarette gave an enemy sniper a chance to draw a bead on the third man. I imagine that no-one in the trenches was prepared to go to any lengths to disprove this practical guideline, so it became a law. Ken - and many others, apparently - were convinced that bad luck would still come to anyone accepting a Third Light, though WW1 was long gone, and there were very few snipers around in Rose Street on a Friday lunchtime in the late Seventies.

Putting the theory to the test
I have always been intrigued by pieces of folklore and common-use idioms which come from a military background. This probably comes from a time in my childhood (in Liverpool) when I suddenly realised that our everyday language and school slang involved many words and phrases which were, on the face of it, meaningless, but which on further investigation turned out to come from the merchant seaman's lexicon or from the British army in India.

An obvious attempt at suicide
OK - back to Ken. My interest in this subject is very casual, but I understand that it is likely that the origins of the Third Light superstition - also known as "Three on a Match" - are older than WW1, and may come from the Crimean War. Idly, I find myself wondering if they had snipers operating in the Crimea (I know they had them in the ACW), and just when it was that smoking became universal in the British army. In the Peninsular War, I believe that the widespread smoking habit of the Spanish was regarded as something rather peculiar by their British allies.

Anyone have any views on this? Just idle curiosity on my part.


  1. There's a nice article on the superstition at http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/21749921 from a 1931 Australian paper, which dates it to the Boer War.

    Wikipedia (for what it's worth), also dates it to the Boer War, and traces the first US use to 1919 (but then cites a 1890s Mexican use). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_on_a_match_(superstition)

    1. Thanks for these, sir. The Boer War story has a sort of sensible chime, and one can imagine Boer snipers working after dark. Odd that the cub reporter titled the article "The Third Match", which kind of misses the point - on the other hand, it reminds me that using three separate matches in the one spot might be even more likely to draw a bullet. Good point for debate in a smoke filled bar.

      The Wikipedia article is interesting, but even without any checking out much of it appears unlikely. The idea of a tradition from Russian funeral practice finding its way into popular Western culture as a superstition is clearly bunkum, I would say. Interesting, though.

      I did a bit of wider reading. It seems [additional citation needed] that, though tobacco smoking has been in the UK since the 1600s, the invention of cigarette making machinery in the 1880s really made it take off, and WW1 - always seen as an era of almost universal smoking - was the first time that sales of cigarettes exceeded those of pipe tobacco. Don't tell me that the popularity of smoking was driven by commercial greed, surely? Good heavens. Well, the companies and families connected with tobacco importation and blending made remarkable amounts of money from military contracts in WW1, apparently.

      In passing, it seems that in 1949 81% of British males smoked, and 39% of women - again, the habit would have been reinforced by the war years. And that, i think, is probably quite enough about that.

      Thanks again for getting in touch.

  2. Interesting topic. Of course, the 'third light' might not be so lucky for the holder of the match - and not because of an eagle eyed enemy sniper who might be watching. In fact the e.e.e.s. would probably be too busy drawing in his own gasper to seek to ruin another's enjoyment of the restorative benefits of tobacco to the harassed soul.

    But consider this scenario. The ammo detail has just dragged several crates of ammo packed in straw for the machine guns and rifles, and, wearied by the load carried over several miles, pause for a well-earned smoke. Offering the light to his mates, Pte Jno. Bloggs strtches his hand forth to the third recipient when the flame reached his fingers.

    With a yelp, Pte Bloggs, drops the match, which disappears unheaded, but still alight amongst the straw of one of the crates. The straw catches quickly, there's no time to douse the flame or any other remedial action, and the doughty bunch dive, run or pray for cover as the rifle and MG ammunition starts making the immediate vicinity no sane man's land.

    You can see how the superstition might begin, eh?

    1. I can see this would make an impression on Army folklore. As I mention in the previous reply, it does seem to me that using three separate matches in the one spot would be at least as dangerous from the sniper point of view, so maybe it was hanging about that was the real risk. A big factor, I picked up from my trawling of the net for scientific masterpieces, was a chronic shortage of matches in the army.

      It occurs to me that the smoker of the 3rd cigarette would have his head close to the flame, while the holder of the match might be more likely to lose the odd finger - perhaps the guys in the trenches should have been issued with long, elegant cigarette holders, in the style of the Pink Panther. Not sure if it would have improved safety, but it would certainly have changed our popular image of WW1 Tommies if it had caught on.

      Shortage of matches reminds me (I regret to say) of a story told to me by a former work colleague. He used to claim that his father was probably the meanest man in history - as an example, he quoted the morning ritual of lighting the stoves in the family's hardware store in the 1950s. It was a large store, and his father had worked out that he could save a few shillings by heating it with four free-standing paraffin stoves (using stock paraffin at wholesale prices, and possibly selling on the used stoves if opportunity arose). Early in the morning in the winter, when he arrived at work, he would get the stoves fired up. He had also worked out that if he wiped the match on his greased hair it would burn a little slower, so that he could get round all 4 stoves with a single match. He taught his son this trick as part of his education.

      Sorry - that was a digression, but I enjoyed it.

      Cheers - thanks for the comment.

  3. I received an interesting email from Prof De Vries, who suggests that British soldiers acquired the habit of cigarette smoking from their Turkish comrades in the Crimea - cigarettes could be obtained from the Turks in unprecedented numbers, and as a result the normal supply of matches was inadequate. The first cigarette making machine was invented in 1856, says the Prof, by a British Crimean War veteran, Robert Gloag.

    My gratitude and admiration are extended to the Prof, whose fund of general knowledge has, yet again, outstripped the capacity of more sensible people.

    1. I too remember reading that the cigarette as we know it came to the UK after British troops picked up the habit from the Turkish. I even remember the name Gloag because it reminded me of Gulag. My mind works in odd ways!

  4. I've never heard this one before, but like you, I'm fascinated by the unquestioned use of slang that dates back to the Great War in particular, but any naval or military slang in general.

    I had no idea until recently that the slang for wine, "plonk", is derived from Anglophones ordering vin blanc from the French estaminets during leave in WW1. Similarly, the offensive term for a young lady, or "bint", comes from the days when off duty soldiers were offered the use of said by Arab pimps in old Cairo town during the lead up to Gallipoli, "bint" apparently being the Arabic for girl.

    1. All good stuff - sometime I must try and put together a collection of such words and phrases - a lot of them are coy circumlocutions for rather indelicate matters - girls, booze, money…

      It's true all over. I understand that in parts of Germany, people use a phrase when describing someone who is talking rubbish, which means, literally translated, "he has been drinking ink", which is, of course, meaningless - even to modern Germans - until you understand that they are not really talking about Tinte (ink), but that it is an ancient reference to the old Portuguese vinho tinto, which used to addle the brains of the Brunswick and Hanoverian soldiers in the Peninsular War - the original phrase must have been "he's been at the tinto again" or similar.

      Fascinating, and an entertaining peek into informal, spoken history.

  5. A lot of interesting stuff here, thanks.

    You might want to read this - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9700432/The-trench-talk-that-is-now-entrenched-in-the-English-language.html

    1. Again, tanks - I've ordered the book reviewed in the article.