Sabre-rattling in another tongue

Among the linguistic legends of the First World War is the story of the German phrasebook supposedly prepared prior to the conflict, which provided the soldiers with a model of callous belligerence. It was taken as a perfect piece of evidence to support the accusation that Germany had planned a ruthless invasion policy, applicable to Britain as well as France. Newspaper editors in Australia, as in the rest of the British empire, were amazed at such outrageously meticulous planning of an affront to the law of nations. The Observer in Adelaide, for example, stated on 20 February 1915 that ‘Phrasebooks published in Germany show that the war was contemplated by the Kaiser long before its declaration. Similar books have been found in the knapsacks of German dead and wounded, in preparation for the invasion of England. They show that should the Teutons ever reach Great Britain the country and its people would be devastated with frightfulness similar to that meted out to Belgium. The questions and answers, and other printed instructions and phrases deal largely with matters pertaining to booty, plunder, death, and incendiarism.’ Practically identical wording was used by a number of papers reporting the story at the time, taking it from sources in the London press; in terms of propaganda, it was perfect – despite the recent Christmas truces, the Germans were clearly not to be trusted at all, had both a master plan and detailed tactics, and would if given the chance carry them out.


Punch cartoonist Charles Graves took the subject further with the publication by The Echo & Evening Chronicle of The Hun’s Handbook (1915), which produced the actual phrasebook, credited with the title Törnister Wörterbuch Englisch, (‘English dictionary for the knapsack’), found on the person of a lightly wounded German prisoner, named Virskouski, with the corroboration of a companion book for French, also found in the possession of a captured German soldier. ‘Though we find no intrinsic evidence that the Wörterbuch was actually the production of the German War Staff’ reads the editorial, ‘its publication does set up a strong presumption that it was authorised for the use of a German expeditionary force destined for the invasion of England.’ Graves used a classic British weapon, satire, to hit back at such presumption, contrasting British simplicity with the inappropriately officious Uhlan reading from his phrasebook or the bespectacled Fritz scrabbling to find the correct question under the startled gaze of the lady’s outfitter.

2,7,2 Huns Handbook

All good fun, except that the legend continues; in 2013 Vendémiaire published a handsome transcription of Deutsch-Französischer Soldaten Sprachführer, the work of Lt-Col F Schulzberger, printed in Leipzig in several editions during the war. The Echo & Evening Chronicle must have thought the Törnister Wörterbuch Englisch a publisher’s dream in 1915; the choice of title in 2013 – Si vous mentez vous serez fusillé! Manuel de conversation à l’usage du soldat allemand, (If you lie you will be shot) cannot but add to the legend.

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The counterpart to the legend is the idea that British published phrasebooks were keen to stick to the fairplay aspect of British warfare, heavily influenced by phrasebooks intended for genteel foreign travel: having one’s boots cleaned please, asking politely the way to the post office, and paying a reasonable price for horses’ fodder. A recently found English-French phrasebook paints a potentially more uncomfortable picture, not as ruthless as hostage-taking or burning farms, but not as nice as might be expected. Furthermore it is an HMSO publication, crown copyright and carrying the royal crest.

GBphr cover



GBphr 17

The first page of phrases goes straight to the mark – bear in mind this is an English-French phrasebook, not English-German: ‘Take care: take the shortest road, and if you lead me wrong you will be shot’. Later on we see ‘Listen and tell me the truth, or I will take you with me’. The mayor is to be fetched, followed by the, possibly exasperated, ‘Is there anyone here who speaks English?’

GBphr 19

This is possibly hostile country ‘Can you vouch for the guide?’, and the choice of phrases in this military phrasebook are clearly for the use of troops in the field rather than looking for recreation. And while ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are remembered, and shopping is carried out with faultless manners, there is no holding back on orders – ‘go slowly’, ‘come here’, ‘hold your tongue’.

GBphr 21

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GBphr 24

And if there was presumption in the Wörterbuch, what exactly is the imagined scenario here?

GBphr train






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