Who am I talking to? And what is he saying?

Heimburger and Horne’s introduction to the reprint of F Sulzberger’s Deutsch-Französischer Soldaten-Sprachfuhrer (1916), excitably titled Si vous mentez vous serez fusillé after one of its more notable translated statements, gives an important reference to Eugène Plumon’s 1914 phrasebook Vade-Mecum for the use of Officers and Interpreters in the Present Campaign. The title alone should alert us to the range of its burden, immediately referencing Latin as a lingua franca, a term which itself calls up many questions. Heimburger and Horne state ‘Eugène Plumon, officier interprète français auprès du corps expéditionnaire britannique en France, a publié une liste de termes équivalents concernant les aspects militaire et technique de la guerre et le fonctionnement des deux armées alliées dès l’automne 1914. Les sujets traités touchent aux besoins quotidiens d’une armée en campagne don’t la satisfaction depend d’une population civile présumée bienveillante (lodgement, transports, ravitaillement) et à l’impératif d’une collaboration opérationelle avec une armée amie.’  [Eugène Plumon, French interpreter with the British Expeditionary Force in France, published a list of equivalent terms concerning the military and technical aspects of the war and the operation of the two allied armies in the autumn of 1914. The subjects dealt with the day-to-day operations of an army in the field in which satisfactory outcomes depend on a civil population presumed to be benevolent (accommodation, transport, supplies) and on the imperative of operational collaboration with a friendly army.]


Vade Mecum


The assumption then is that this is a book for French interpreters working with British forces, in which the French-speaker would need to be able to speak to the Anglophone, and to be able to understand what the Anglophone is saying. Thus we would expect to see a pattern of statements and questions being presented first in French and then in English, while the expected answers (rarely presented in phrasebooks at this time) would follow the reverse pattern.  By the time of the third edition (with 12,000 copies printed to date), whose prefatory note is dated 15 March 1915, the scope of the book had widened considerably. The advertising text preceding the title page is presented in French, and advertises an English-Flemish Military Guide for the Present Campaign, and Guide des Armées Alliées en Allemagne. The preface to the second edition states that the expressions given ‘follow the order in which they will be needed by the Interpreter, from the landing of the troops to which he is attached to the end of the campaign’. Interesting then that the book, targeted at the French interpreter, should have an English title. The preface to the third edition, building on the success of the first two editions, proposes that the text ‘will be useful, not only to the Interpreters, but even to the Officers of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces’.


VdMc pref

VdMc 07, 08


VdMc 10.11

On the assumption that the French Interpreter will have a very good command of English, the first pages of information, concerning badges and marks of rank in the BEF, are given in English, until the third page, when there is a heading in French, and the fourth page, concerning Indian soldiers, again with headings in French. This is followed by several pages of abbreviations, with a heading in English.

VdMc 16,17.jpg

‘Field Service Expressions’ on page 16 has a preceding heading in French, but works from English to French (the model here being to aid the French-speaker); after pages describing the structure of the British Army, entirely in English, there are pages with corresponding terms for map-reading, working from French to English – this presumably for English-speaking officers. This is followed by 70 pages of corresponding terms thematically arranged, translated from French into English: here the model is for the French-speaker to speak English, or for the English-speaker to understand French. The terms in this section are very specific, and cover such terms as ‘honneurs funèbres / funeral honours’, ‘un combat animé / a brisk fight’, ‘capoter / turn turtle’, and ‘effacer les indications à la craie / to obliterate chalk marks’. Notable here is the appearance of slang terms in English, ‘fleabag’ and ‘in mufti’, for the standard French ‘sac de couchage’ and ‘en civil’.

VdMc 58,59

This section is followed by five pages of corresponding terms in English and German, covering ‘Summons to surrender / Aufforderungen zur übergabe’ and ‘Questions to be put to prisoners or wounded’ (no German given); these are not given in French at all. Then a page of information regarding the structure of medical personnel and the logistics of treating the wounded is given in English only, followed by three pages of corresponding terms to do with medical and surgical treatment. The guide then moves on to matters of religion, wonderfully headed with the single word ‘cult’.

VdMc 116,7

VdMc 106,7


The final conversational section deals with ‘Expressions et termes divers pour l’examen d’un suspect / Various terms & expressions for the examination of a suspect’ (2.5 pages), ‘Mots utiles a connâitre pour un signalement / Words to describe a man’ (5.5 pages, so covering all eventualities, such as tattooing, dimples, a ‘full of hatred’ look, and a ‘gone through a university’ standard of education), a single page of ‘Interrogatoire d’un individu suspect / Examination of a suspect’, and a single page of a specimen report, in English only.

VdMc 126,7

VdMc 128,9

Who is being suspected here, and who is doing the suspecting and interrogating? This would function for a French-speaker suspecting and interrogating an English-speaker, but this would be unlikely, in France, to include the question ‘Where is your family, are they in this neighbourhood?’, and the structure would imply an English-speaking non-combatant, possibly working for the enemy. But the specimen report proposes that the results of such an examination might reveal the suspect to be an Alsatian with a German name.  Was the third edition rushed out without an editor standing back to ensure that the guide offered a clear methodology? Was there a sense that it had to be got out quickly and that the interpreters and officers who got their hands on a copy would work out their own best way of dipping into the material? And did it ever occur to writers of phrasebooks that the questioning part of a conversation is rather useless without some idea of what the answers might be? It is a fairly common experience while traveling in areas where we struggle with the language to learn how to word a question, but to be immediately baffled by the answer; and pre-war phrasebooks did equip travelers with answers as well as questions, this being a major benefit offered by example conversations. Pulmon’s Vade-Mecum might show you how ask a suspect (‘sanguin / full-blooded’, with a ‘strabisme divergent / right or left sqrint (sic)’, with ‘danse de St-Guy / St-Vitus dance’ – and ‘vicieux / vicious’) ‘Pourquoi cherchiez-vous à vous dissimuler à notre approche / why did you endeavor to hide on our approach?’, but offers no help in interpreting his full-blooded and vicious reply.


And, in passing, we see on the first page enabling the examination of a suspect a variation on the term ‘si vous mentez vous serez fusillé’, which supposedly typifies the belligerence of the German army of invasion: ‘Si vous essayez de fuir, je ferai usage de mes armes! / In the event of your trying to escape, I shall make use of my arms!’


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