Who can forget Matt Damon’s famous line in the movie Good Will Hunting as he was pounding on the pub window, taunting that rich grad student who failed to get the girl’s number? “Do you like apples?” followed with him showing the guy the girl’s phone number and saying, “How do you like them apples?” before he walked away with his friends laughing.

An exclamation of good fortune? Maybe gloating to your doubters? Well, you better drop that expression. Who would’ve thought that this seemingly innocent (although smug) phrase was stolen from the trenches of World War I, of all places, with the apple being referred to was the “toffee apple” that, although sounding like a scrumptious dessert, was actually a tool of destruction.

How do you like them apples? So much.

World War I Exchange

World War I was the largest conflict of its time, with many nations being involved and fighting in the trenches of war. Apparently, it was not only guns and explosives that were exchanged during the war but also the dialects that they picked up from different cities, countries, and continents. This “world” or war created a whole new set of phrases from the combination of these different languages and cultures. For example, the anti-aircraft gun designed to shoot upward at enemy planes was called an ack-ack gun. That goes the same for the “how do you like them apples” phrase. In particular, it was referring to the 2-inch medium mortar made by the British and was called the “toffee apple.”

The Request For Them Apples

Germans’ minenwerfer. (Deutsch: K.u.k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle – Wien, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In late 1914, as the Western Front in France and Belgium became the main stage of the trench warfare, the British troops were having problems countering the German’s trench mortars called minenwerfers. These minenwerfers lob small and large high-explosive shells into the frontline trenches at a short distance. The thing was that the British Expeditionary Force did not anticipate that they would be engaging in short-range combat and thought they would only participate in mobile warfare. Because of this unpreparedness, the British commanders requested an accurate short-range weapon that could be manually carried in the trenches. They also had to be safe enough to be used to assault enemy lines that were as close as 100 yards to their trenches and easy to conceal. At the same time, the weapon should be able to project a reasonably large explosive charge that could damage the protected enemy positions.

It sounded like a demand as well as a challenge, so the British government immediately started evaluating different designs for both light and medium mortars. It was not just coming up with a weapon as specified in the request that was the challenge, but also the fact that they had to make sure that the manufacturing capacity for guns and howitzers would not be diverted, as those weapons were the priority at that time. The solution was to design both mortar and ammunition that could be manufactured with small and simple workshops that were not fit to other war work.

Mortars in a trench
Mortars in a trench. The mortars consist of cast-iron spheres with a long solid tail unit. These appear quite large and are of the ‘toffee apple’ type, originally designed by Vickers. (National Library of Scotland, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)

The “Apples”

The finished product was a 2-inch medium trench mortar, also called the 2-inch howitzer but was affectionately referred to as “plum pudding” or “toffee apple” mortar because it was large and spherical. The spherical shape made it so that it wouldn’t slide in the firing tube fully. Aside from that, its shape also gave it a candy apple appearance (or lollipop, if you ask me.) Despite the nicknames, this mortar was far from being sweet as its primary use was to cut enemy barbed wire defenses and attack their frontline trenches. Toffee apples were used in the July 1916 attack on the Somme, used to fire with some white star gas bombs composed of 50/50 chlorine and phosgene. Their spherical shape and low velocity allowed the bomb to stay on the surface of the ground instead of penetrating it before exploding, so the shrapnel could sure devastate the enemy forces and defenses. Even though the original request asked that it could be used on short-range, it became its disadvantage as they could only be used from no man’s land, which was very risky.

Troops about to fire the British 2-inch medium mortar from the shelter of a separate trench bay in case of misfire, World War I. (British Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And so we could assume that the Britsh would ask the Germans after firing their mortar and its shrapnels exploding, “How do you like them apples, huh?”