Phrasebooks for the Eastern Front

We have over the years considered a number of phrasebooks for use on the Western Front, but for the German army the Eastern Front also required management of language. These German-Russian and German-Polish phrasebooks were published by Helios in Leipzig, a major centre for publishing in Germany, in 1914 and 1915 respectively. Professor Gustav Werhaupt taught Russian in the commercial high school in Leipzig, and had published Lectures russes avec exercices de conversation in 1902, while Josef Damianski, a court translator in Leipzig, and a knight, was responsible also for the Helios German-Italian phrasebook. Both of these are credited as editing a text prepared for the Helios German-French phrasebook for soldiers, by Franz Wolfson/Wolfsonschen, hence the following of a model.

Front cover

01, or 03


While many of the pages are typical of the direct questions in German soldiers’ phrasebooks, immediately useful to the pursuance of a military campaign, page 5 for instance, others are more informative. Pages 8-9 concern espionage, with a disarming directness – ‘Are you a spy?’, ‘Don’t lie or you will be shot’, … ‘Take your clothes off’.

8, 09


Pages 14 and 15 carry questions relating to franktireurs, a source of worry for the German army in the early days of the war in Belgium and France, a folk memory from the Franco-Prussian war, and probably a major contributor to many of the atrocity narratives, which we see here as if scripted;

Are there franktireurs here?

If the village has franktireurs it will be destroyed.

The village will be spared if it shows goodwill.

Houses where franktireurs shoot from will be burnt down.

This is your responsibility.

They will answer for it with their heads.

They are answerable for it.


I will have them shot and the place destroyed.


The idea that this script of invasion derives from the experience of the Franco-Prussian War indicates that there may be here some phrases, questions, statements, which are entirely irrelevant to operations and the experience of the war on the Eastern Front. Russian- and Polish-speakers may be able to help here.


Pages 24 and 25 give an intriguing glimpse, beyond the ubiquitous exclamation marks – this was a phrasebook to be shouted it seems – of the common medicines of the time: Baldriantinktur (valerian), opium as a treatment for diarrhoea, Essigsaure Thonerde (acetic acid powder), Englisches Plaster (presumably a mustard plaster).



Page 32 is perhaps friendlier, offering the possibility of conversation.




The back covers differ, the German-Polish booklet showing adverts for the German-French phrasebook and the German-Russian phrasebook, while the German-Russian phrasebook carries an advert for a booklet carrying the soldier’s last will and testament (‘reminder and advice for my family in the case of my death’).

back covers


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