Familiar French, 1915

The 4d edition of H Delépine’s What a British Soldier wants to say in French carries on its back page an advertisement for Familiar French, which claims to open the door to ‘the proper use of the Frenchman’s own everyday expressions.



What the booklet claims for itself is that it is an ‘indispensable pocket guide’ to ‘idioms, colloquial expressions and apt proverbs commonly used in French conversation’ and ‘the slang of the French and British Armies, etc.’ It offers access to language ‘in common use by the French, but never to be found in the books’, suggesting the idea of slang or idioms as the kind of expression that is spoken rather than written. The first page suggests the kind of language familiar from French lessons at school some decades ago, not formal, but probably way out of date or place. Schoolboy French, of glorious memory, includes ‘comment ça va?’ rather than ‘comment allez-vous?’, the first French phrase on offer – further down the page we see ‘Ça va?’ and ‘Ça roule?’, which raises the question, not addressed by Delépine, that there is a big difference, and a minefield of potential offence, between recognising and using colloquial expressions – in the introduction he states that the purpose of the booklet is to help the British soldier ‘introduce Colloquialisms or Slang into your conversation’, while not acknowledging that copying the pronunciation ‘Com-mon(g) t’ahlayvoo’ would mark the speaker as from the other side of the Channel.


The selection of phrases in English mark this view of the colloquial as wide-ranging – from common phrases like ‘talk of the devil’ (‘quand on parle du loup, on ne voit la queue’) and ‘to dress up a bit’ (‘faire u bout de toilette’), standard spoken expressions, to ‘to have an old grudge against one’ (‘avoir un dent contre quelq’un’) or ‘take my advice’ (‘suivez mon avis’), neither of which use metaphor or any kind of indirectness; while ‘I am going to have my grub’ (je vais boulotter’) and ‘Chronic’ (‘terrible’) would definitely meet Green’s Dictionary of Slang’s qualifications – and incidentally ‘boulotter’ appears in Déchelette’s L’Argot des Poilus of 1918. Comparison with Déchelette is helpful – both texts have ‘casser la croûte’ for eating, ‘pépin’ for ‘umbrella’, and ‘filon’ for a cushy job.


On the other hand Delépine has ‘une chope’ for a glass of beer, which appears in neither Dechélette nor Sainéan (L’Argot des Tranchées, 1915); Delépine has ‘chiper’ for ‘scrounge’ – which may be related to Dechélette’s ‘choper’ for ‘steal’. Delépine has ‘il a la frousse’ for ‘he has the wind-up’, which appears in Leroy’s Glossary of French Slang, 1922; ‘frousse’ does not appear in Dechélette nor Sainéan.


Specifically presented as ‘Army slang’ is page 20, most of these appearing in Dechélette




‘Rata’ for ‘mashed potatoes’ is a very specific description – Dechélette adds a bit of beef and notes that it comes from ‘ratatouille’. ‘Singe’ was a particularly hard epithet for what passed as edible meat.


What is noticeable is Delépine’s retention throughout of the order of columns – English, French, English transcription of French pronunciation – this is clearly a book where the reader moves from English to French. However, certain sections are designated as compilations of French phrases – these are not specific to the wartime experience.




Comparisons between sources help to show that there is no definitive sense of what constitutes war slang: Delépine’s inclusion of ‘thingumy’ and thingumybob’ lead us to Leroy’s ‘chose’ and ‘machin’, and then on to Dechélette’s ‘fourbi’.




Delépine also presents class delineations of slang: following a phrasebook model of writing the war in a series of dialogues, he presents a dialogue between two privates (with stage directions)



This is followed by another, untitled, but between two soldiers, which is a curious mixture of registers. While the dialogue between two officers is viable (‘chuck it’ might be stretching a point),




the book finishes with a selection of phrases which are presented as ‘correct French’; whether this is colloquial or slang, or an addendum, is not clear. It is all, however, very proper.


26, 27

From other early wartime phrasebooks readers may recognise the optimism of ‘let me hope that when the war is over you will come to see us in England; everyone at home will give you a hearty welcome’. Such camaraderie is balanced by the phrase that ends page 16



Dictionary and flag

A brief midweek post today, a postcard in which a soldier, Len, writes to Glad thanking her for getting him a dictionary – presumably a French-English dictionary – which he says will be very useful. He writes ‘I have really been needing one for a long while & do not know why I hadn’t asked you before’. Can anyone decipher the house name where Miss Gladys Fitch lived (Southborough Drive, Westcliff on Sea [Essex])? Nembiture? Obenlisless?


The picture side offers another conundrum: what is the disc in the middle of the Union flag?


This appears elsewhere in postcards sent in 1915, again with a similar odd arrangement of red and blue segments, proposing the question, how far from an authentic version of a flag can we go while still being able to recognise it? Particularly pertinent in the case of the Union flag, as it sometimes seems that any showing of it will provoke someone to complain that it is upside down.



American Student Soldiers

Thanks to Connie Ruzich for today’s blogpost.


For the American doughboy, military training involved more than marching, drilling, and learning to shoot a gun – there were language and learning tests to be conquered. An examination of the multi-edition military newspaper the Trench and Camp, as published at Virginia’s Camp Lee (common content for numerous military camps was produced by the National War Work Council of the Y.M.C.A.), demonstrates the challenges that both the army and its new recruits faced. Camp Lee was the U.S. training installation for soldiers of the 80th Division, which drew men from the steel mills of Western Pennsylvania and the rural counties of Virginia and West Virginia.  In December of 1917, an article appeared in the Trench and Camp titled “318th Regiment Primary School Wiping Out Illiteracy Among the Drafted Men in Camp Lee.”  It stated that over 500 men “to whom the privileges of childhood education have been denied, are meeting three nights a week in the twelve company mess halls under the direction of fifty teachers from their own regiment, learning the three Rs [reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic].”  The article went on to boast,

This interest in things educational speaks well for the spirit and character of the men of the 318th.  As was brought out in a recent meeting of the war study group, in this war more than in any previous conflict, the individual often must depend solely upon his own resources, and the man well-informed and well-educated is the man who will make good in his army life just as truly as out in the professional or business world….Germany has fallen down in the mental development of her men—they are mere machines, each a part of the whole intricate organization, which once broken, is completely demoralized.  America is not making that mistake—her men will be fitted for their tasks in mind as well as in body, and the 318th aims to lead the way.[1]


In addition to teaching men to sign their own names for payroll, other articles in the camp newspaper made it clear that literacy was viewed as a key to victory. A headline titled “Library Association Is Helping to Win the War” quoted an official at Camp Sherman who explained,

Camp Library Service has been established for just one purpose, that is to help win the war, and there are three ways in which it can help: First, by helping to maintain the morale of the men by providing them with interesting and entertaining reading matter to help tide over the moments of loneliness and depression which come to everyone; second, by helping to educate them as to the causes and purposes of the war and make them realize that they are not fighting France’s fight, England’s fight, or Italy’s fight, but America’s fight—that it is not Belgium, or France or England that Germany is seeking to destroy, but the ideals and principles which form the very foundation stones of this Republic; and third, by providing the men with special technical books along their several lines, and so making them better and more efficient soldiers.[2]

At Camp Lee, over 200 men met four nights a week in reading groups for “citizen-soldiers,” reviewing “pertinent bits of news from the daily press” and closing with “the reading of a chapter from Empey’s ‘Over the Top,’ or some other book of like character, which can give the men a true picture of conditions ‘Over There.’”[3]

In addition to combating illiteracy, the American military took on the task of teaching English to its soldiers who were not fluent in the language. As Richard S. Faulkner notes in Pershing’s Crusaders, “In 1917 one in three Americans was a first-generation immigrant, and one in five draftees was foreign born.”[4] A Russian-Polish immigrant from a steel-mill community in Western Pennsylvania wrote from Camp Lee to the Director of the night school he had attended before joining the army:

Oct 24th

2nd Caisson Co.

305th Ammun. train,

Camp Lee,

Petersburgh, Va.

Mr. E.V. Buckley,

302 Hamory Bldg,

Sharon, Penn’a.

Dear Sir:

I received your letter, and was very glad that I have some good friend which answers me on my letters, because I’ve sent many letters and still I have no answer.  I am getting along fine in Camp Lee.  We got all cloting already, and we look like a soldiers. We drill good also, although we stay here 1 month, but we expect to be a good Uncle Sam’s fighters. Two weeks ago we had 3rd ‘shot,’ and all boys have passed through the operation successfully, but we don’t know, will have three more, or not.  We have ‘chew’ three times a day, and every one is plentyfull.

We have no English school over here, although in our Company 1/3 which don’t understand English at all, but I think it would be better if we have some school.  I’ve sent one copy Camp Lee’s paper “Camp and Trench” [sic] to you, by address Miss Catherine Connair; we have other paper “Bayonet” in our camp.  Felix Loss subscribed it, for his teacher Miss Catherine Connair. We have some papers from Sharon, Pa., but we have no time to read it, because we have lots of things to learn, as “General Orders” and great many other things.

Thanking you for good wishing to me.  I send my best wishes to you, and my regards to my classmate. My wishes to Miss E. Baker.  I sent some cotton to MR. E. Masian, my comrade.  I hope he showed it in the Night School, because I wrote to him to show to everybody.

Your cincerlly,

B Kunkiewicz[5]



While Camp Lee did not offer comprehensive English language schools, camp administrators adopted the Roberts Method for English instruction, used by the YMCA to teach “thousands of newcomers to American to speak and to read and write English.” Articles in the Trench and Camp promoted the classes:

After a course of ten lessons only, in which it is expected to teach the foreigners in camp the essentials of spoken English, ten further lessons will be given, these having been lately designed by Dr. Roberts for use in government training camps. It is the object of these to acquaint men with the A, B, C of a military vocabulary.[6]



But it wasn’t only new immigrants who needed to learn the jargon of the military. Numerous articles in the Trench and Camp defined unfamiliar terms and army slang such as bunkie, Boche, and having clicked it or being huffed,[7] as well as ammo, cootie, and zero hour.[8]  The prevalence of military jargon also provided rich material for humor— the “Camp Dictionary for Rookies” defined “Equipment” as “Something we hear a lot about but never see,” and “Red Tape” as “Signing your name nine times before you can exchange a broken shoe string.”[9]



Preparing American soldiers to learn French was taken much less seriously. Although French lessons were offered at Camp Lee, classes were small (perhaps less than fifty men seem to have attended)[10]. The newspaper printed short lessons, but these consisted of translating the words for numbers and conversational exercises on purchasing cigarettes in a shop.[11]  The American military newspaper the Stars and Stripes, offered this advice:

Throw away your ‘parley-voo’ books and forget all the French the Y.M. has been teaching you in your cantonment huts this winter.  You won’t need it.  “We have the natives so well acquainted with United States now that they understand everything we say—even when we get unduly accurate on one another’s ancestry.  Even if you do get stuck, there’s only one way to learn French—that is to talk it, and make it up as you go along.  In the course of time you’ll get at least half of what you want.”[12]

Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 08.22.26

In fact, doughboy poetry (“When Private Mugrums Parley Vous”) and popular songs of the day (such as “Oui, Oui, Marie”) suggest that American soldiers’ primary motivation for learning French was to flirt with French women – a very different type of conquest than that pursued by  General Pershing and the American top brass (a military colloquialism that may have originated in the U.S., according to the Oxford English Dictionary).


[1] “318th Regiment Primary School Wiping Out Illiteracy Among the Drafted Men in Camp Lee,” Trench and Camp, 15 Dec. 1917, p. 1.

[2]  “Library Association Is Helping to Win the War,” Trench and Camp, 24 Dec. 1917.

[3] “318th Regiment Primary School,” Trench and Camp.

[4] Richard S. Faulkner, Pershing’s Crusaders, University Press of Kansas, 2017, p. 49.

[5] B. Kunkiewicz quoted in E.V. Buckley’s “Dividends of the Melting Pot,” Business, vol. 1, no. 3, December 1919, p. 12

[6] “Learn English by Roberts Method,” Camp and Trench, 15 Oct. 1917, p. 6.

[7]  “Each Branch of U.S. Army Has a Lingo All Its Own,” Camp and Trench, 25 Feb. 1918.

[8]  “Trench Lingo,” Trench and Camp, 25 Mar. 1918, p. 3.

[9]   “Camp Dictionary for Rookies,” Trench and Camp, 25 Mar. 1918, p. 2.

[10]  “Many soldiers taking literary classes at Y 57,” Trench and Camp, 6 May 1918.

[11]  “Learn French: Lessons IX and X,” Trench and Camp, 6 May 1918.

[12]  “Earful of Suggestions for Boys Back Home,” Stars and Stripes, 22 Feb. 1918, p. 3.

For more on Connie Ruzich’s research see behindtheirlines.blogspot.co.uk and behindtheirlines.blogspot.com

Phrasebooks and social direction

Continuing with Dagelyksche Hulp Voor Belgen in Engeland published in October 1914 by Leopold B Hill, Langham Place, London.


E V Bisschop’s book is subtitled:

Eene Versameling van Woorden en Zinnen

voor dagelyksch gebruik

alsook eene korte krygskundige woordenlyst.


A little familiarity with any Dutch or German might compensate for a lack of Flemish here: a collection of words and sentences for daily use, also a short list of military terms.

The introduction states that:

Het doel dezer korte versameling van alledaagsche woorden en zinnen is, Belgen te helpen gedurende de eerste dagen van hun verblyf in Engeland. Elk woord hier inbregepen werd gekozen omday het te pas viel in de gevallen die den reiziger in een vreemd land byna onfeilbaar ontmoet. De laatste bladzyden bevatten de vertaling van eenige krygskundige woorden die nu in dagelyksch gebruik zyn.


Bisschop’s selection of terms does not fall from the sky, but is selected for the use of Flemish speakers, ‘from the first days of their stay in England’. Though the word ‘refugee’ does not appear, the use of the word ‘verblyf’ indicates staying temporarily – there was no reticence generally about the use of ‘refugee’ for the plight of the Belgians in Britain, but there was a widespread tasteful use of ‘guest/host’ phrasology. But ‘verblyf’ equally proposes optimistically that the situation is temporary, and will be ultimately resolved by a return home. The book ends with a list of military terms ‘now in daily use’, to allow an up-to-date discussion of the war.


Bisschop’s selection appears at first neutral, a list of numbers, days of the week, salutations, but closer observation proposes a developing situation of need. Included in the section on money, the suggested questions and sentence with their close attention to money indicate the need to economise:


How much have I to pay? Hoeveel heb ik te betalen?

How much remains? Wat schiet er over?

Is this correct? Is dit juist?

This doesn’t seem correct. Dit schynt niet juist te zyn.


‘Requests and Thanks’ immediately proposes a situation of need and obligation:


With your leave. Met uw verlof.

May I trouble you? Mag ik U lasyig vallen?

Will you render me a servive? Wilt gy my een dienst bewyzen?

Will you do me a favour? Wilt U my een genoegen doen?

I am much obliged to you. Ik ben U zeer verplicht.


‘Travel’ includes sentences indicating a situation of impotence:

Where am I? Waar ben ik hier?

Which is this station? Welke is deze statie?

Is this London? Is dit London?

Where is the station? Waar is de statie?


The distressed traveler, even the implication of the refugee, is seen in:


Where is my luggage? Waar is myn reisgoed?

I have no luggage. Ik heb geen reisgoed.


A mood approaching desperation appears in the finale of the ‘Arrival and Departure’ section:




‘Engaging Apartments’ sees the phrasebook-user again worried about money:




As the phrase-book progresses from ‘Usual Expressions’ to ‘Hospitals, Church, Etc’ the phrases provided indicate repeated disadvantage:


Do you understand me? Verstaat gie my?

How is it possible? Hoe is het mogelyk?

We have lost our way. Wy zyn verloren geloopen.

Will you show me the way? Wilt gy my den weg wyzen?


And finally:


Will you help me? Wilt gy my helpen?

May I get up soon? Mag ik weldra opstaan?


We have seen through looking at many phrasebooks published in 1914-15 that the use of the model of the invented conversation proposes that the reader might find themself in something similar to the portrayed situation, whether it be asking for help with directions, finding out the disposition of enemy troops, or trying to get fodder for horses. This model derives directly from phrasebook conversations which imagine buying a train ticket, ordering a meal, or buying a shirt. Bisschop’s phrasebook for Belgian refugees imagines by its selection of phrases that the user might address an English-speaker frequently from a position of disadvantage. It is in this sense usefully pragmatic, more so than the many phrasebooks for soldiers that tried to paste military campaign terminology onto a model designed for a holiday in France.


Comparing Bisschop’s book with the phrase-books published for the use of soldiers, these latter seem much less pragmatic. Generally their development from travellers’ phrase-books is seen in indicators of the social structure of foreign travel: ‘when will my laundry be ready? Porter, get my luggage and take it to a cab. Show me a gold watch’ (from The Briton in France, 1906 and still in print in 1918). French Conversation by G F Harnden (‘including military and hospital phrases’), published in 1914, retained the French for silk handkerchief, soup-tureen and morocco-leather.


Which raises the question: do phrasebooks direct as much as reflect social milieus (milieux?). Do they say ‘this is for our sort, but not for for you over there’? And particularly, how does this relate to the relationship between the French language and the English language? French adopted into English has mostly retained connotations of higher social status, but how did this impact on the class differentials within the BEF? Upper-middle class young men with commissions may have not blinked at the appearance of the cousin of a marchioness in a lesson 7 of a French language learning book published in 1909, but how would this have looked to the clerks, farm labourers and factory-workers who enlisted, attested or were conscripted?




A proposal then: the reference in a phrasebook, published in 1912, to evening gloves, Russian lace, suggests that in using this phrasebook, and by implication travelling to France at all, the reader should be of a social class that would feel comfortable moving in a world of such stuff. For the phrase-book-writer working at this time, the model of travel to France was less the trip to Boulogne than the world of opera and dressing for dinner. Early nineteenth-century phrase-books, such as Elements of Conversation by C Gros, published in several editions, suggest no doubt of the social class of the traveller to France, and this background to travel to France continued up to 1914, and arguably later.


the picture dealer



What would the appearance of references to soup-tureens and silk handkerchiefs in a phrasebook have meant to a soldier of Kitchener’s army brought up in a Birmingham back-to-back? Would it be ‘not for the likes of me’, or a taste of high living? For many soldiers in the BEF, serving in France or Flanders would be their only visit abroad; did phrase-books perhaps add to the sense of this being ‘the Great Adventure’?

Watering down and bucking them up

Popular memory of the First World War – if Wikipedia is anything to go by – in relation to an important aspect of wartime domestic life concerns pub opening hours and the watering down of beer.[1] With a first mention of ‘water down’ in the English language in 1811 (according to Merrian-Webster), only a slight increase in usage in the 1910s, a substantial share of its occurrence aligns with post Second World War rationing (according to the Google n-Gram search results). The OED, however, has the origin of water alone much earlier, inherited from Germanic and cognate with Old Frisian, and water down dating dating back to the 1830s, which is in line with the n-Gram mentioned earlier. Indicating that something is made more moderate so as to weaken in quality and/or impact, the phrase had been known also as milk-and-water, which is now obsolete, accompanied by down or not, but stems from the same 1830s: The Bill is to be milk-and-watered down to suit the taste of an obstinate faction (The Times 2 Feb 1831).

In the First World War, both beer and milk were watered down, their habitual quality lessened for a variety of reasons, mainly supply issues but also – in terms of beer at least– because of lesser alcohol consumption at the home front. Admittedly, milk was available in the form of powder and one pound of it made for one gallon of milk (‘watered up’?) (The Family Herald 1916: 532). However, there was no complaining about milk as both baby and man crave for it.


Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 13.24.52

A chubby baby is one thing – but what of the man or woman it is going to become!
(The Family Herald 1916: 581).


In Germany as well watering down became part of daily life. Food supply, not least all grains and staple goods, was suffering really badly from both the war and the subsequent blockade. Whereas any grain harvest dropped substantially from the start of the war onwards, potato production only diminished greatly after a disastrous harvest in 1916, from which it never recovered. The key reason for the decline was the shortage of fertilizer, most of which was imported from South America. Livestock manure, seemingly a solution to the issue, became problematic in its turn as animals increasingly became malnourished. Because of barley shortage beer production declined dramatically. If Germany produced nearly 70m hectoliters of beer before the war, this dropped to about 24m (Karau 2015: 172). In Britain the acreage of barley also decreased but most of it was used for feeding stock (Hansard, 4 March 1915). A question was raised in Parliament about the advisability of increasing the barrelage of beer from 10m to 15m in order to counter increasing discontent “in all the large towns”. Bonar Law, the then Chancellor, did not budge and was resolved not to amend the law in place (Hansard, 3 July 1917).

In Baghdad beer supply had to be catered for and this was not without difficulty. In October 1918, Ian Macpherson, the Under-Secretary of State for War, was asked whether he was aware that “the hospitals in Bagdad are entirely without a supply of beer, so that the patients when ordered such by the medical officer are quite unable to obtain it, whereas the messes of the officers of regiments stationed there have beer, wine, and spirits on their tables in abundance; and, if so, will he see that orders are sent out for more equal distribution?” (Hansard 30 October 1918). Clearly access to food and beverages in places had become one of privilege. The world of hospitals where beers were in short supply (admittedly when no beer is available, every single cry for one pint constitutes a lack of supply), were a world apart from the front. Although Belgians in unoccupied Belgium produced quite some beer (see below), the imagery of beverage intake by soldiers resonating at the home front was one of bravery and how Oxo “bucks them up”, even if it is only ‘a basin’ of the drink.


Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 13.25.14

“My husband, who is a member of a Field Ambulance at the Front, tells me that every patient on admittance who is able to drink is at once given a basin of OXO, and he says it is wonderful how it bucks them up.” (The Family Herald 1916: 561).


In Belgium the beer situation was an ambiguous one. Behind the front breweries were having a whale of a time. The population of the unoccupied part of Belgium grew considerably during the war years: not only soldiers from many countries stayed behind the front, but also many thousands of Belgian refugees found temporary accommodation there. They generated a significant demand for beer, which the breweries could hardly accommodate. Despite their limited capacity, the breweries sometimes had to give up their infrastructure temporarily as the yeast tanks were extremely suitable for soldiers for washing and bathing. In occupied Belgium, however, most economic matters suffered, as did food supply and beer production. The German army claimed horses and brewers’ copper. Most of the ingredients for beer production were in short supply, not least barley. Anyone who wanted to brew beer had to be creative. One recipe for ‘war beer’ listed all kinds of produce that wouldn’t normally belong in a pint: syrup, corn, spelt and even beans typically used to feed pigeons.[2] Not only beer was ‘watered down’. Virtually all dishes had to go through such substantial recipe alterations that they contributed to a real change in dietary habits. The change in quality of food was triggered by necessity and affected many.

The London-based The Family Herald, which aptly labelled its subheading as A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information & Amusement had been established in 1843 by George Biggs and arguably was well beyond its heyday – it had been the first journal in which the process of typesetting, printing and binding had been fully mechanised. The Family Herald (FH) established the fiction-based penny weekly formula and by 1855 was credited with a circulation of 300,000. (Cox and Mowatt 2014:8). The April 1916 issue of the journal – the Battle of the Somme started less than two months later – left no imagination as to how much dishes and supply had been watered down because of the war, or how one signified term, the mental concept, assumed a new material form, i.e. a different material form: “Most of the so-called chicory now being used in Italy is made of dried figs. It is claimed that dried figs are at least as good as chicory, and they are now in great demand.” (FH 1916: 502). Whether one should read into the claim a strong volition and preference or just wartime propaganda persuading people to accept figs for chicory, is not altogether clear. Similar confusion arose from the fact on how the recipe for ‘cold meat hash’ stipulated the dish was best served hot.

Each month the FH listed recipes on several pages. The sheer scarcity of the main ingredients literally dries up the columns: stewed mutton with turnip and rice for one single family included one pound of neck of mutton – fair enough – and one turnip “or part of a large one” and half a pound of rice. Matching the dish with today’s Sainsbury’s ready meals – such as the Indian lamb rogan josh  with pilau rice – the wartime recipe would serve two people, not a family. As a sidedish the barley needed for steamed barley fitted one teacup (FH 1916: 532).

Interestingly, the family journal printed a story about “artificial honey”, which “has been manufactured in Germany for many years and large quantities have been sent over here” (FH 1916: 556). Although the artificial honey could be replicated using half a pound of pure honey, the main other ingredients were a pound of sugar, half a pound of glucose, one gill and a half [pint] of water”. Honey colouring could be obtained from any chemist. Such was, according to The Family Herald, the most luxurious replacement recipe, based on a related German production. The cheaper the variants of the main recipe, the fewer ingredients (colouring had to go, obviously) and the quicker the production cycle, involving as few resources as possible. This can be seen in a recommendation concerning vinegar. Readers were told not to throw away any left over from pickles as the leftover vinegar “is better than ordinary vinegar for salad dressing” (FH 1916: 582). Economisation was also turned into a business model.


Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 13.25.40

Economise your cooking, only with Paisley Flour (The Family Herald 1916: 556).


Economisation certainly was on for the tens of thousands of refugees in Britain, most of whom were Belgian. In 1915 a Belgian cookbook was published by William Heinemann. The amalgamation of Belgian recipes served two purposes: it provided an image that anything Belgian in Britain was still relatively lush – quite some rich ingredients such as butter and cream feature – and that refugees had all the space in Britain to emanate their home cooking, and it provided a platform from which British cooks, hosts and hostesses alike could draw inspiration, even though the preface mentioned that the aim was to catch the attention of the ‘workaday and inexperienced mistress and maid’. Yet, the brief introduction by Mrs. Brian Luck did include a few reservations, not least of which was “And if on Wednesday you find that you have to eat the same part of the very same animal that you had on Monday, do not, pray, become exasperated; treat it affectionately” and that “lastly, the good cook must learn about food what every sensible woman learns about love—how best to utilize the cold remains”. The cauliflower soup recipe underwent some production changes when in exile. Typically boiled first and then turned into a soup using another or cleaned pan, the recommendation now was that “After you have boiled a cauliflower, it is a great extravagance to throw away the liquor; it is delicately flavored and forms the basis of a good soup.” Similarly, for a fish soup bones and trimmings that were leftovers from filleting, should be used too. The most stricking recipe, however, was labelled ‘starvation soup’, a recipe unknown to Belgians by that name, but fair enough: a pork bone should be boiled for an hour, then two pounds of Brussels sprouts should be added, leeks and the hearts of cabbage. With pepper and salt added, this may sound like some soup but the point was to rub it through a sieve until a thin purée was left. Surely ‘starvation purée’ then, no? One ponders whether this was the one recipe Mrs. Luck thought about when she wrote in her preface to the second part of the book, dishes that can be made in a haste, that “We do not wish a meal to owe its relish solely to the influence of extreme hunger”.



The Belgian Cook Book (2013) British Library online. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/belgian-cook-book

Cox, Howard and Simon Mowatt (2014) Revolutions from Grub Street: a history of magazine publishing in Britain. Oxford: OUP.

Een pint van stroop en duivenbonen (2017) https://hetarchief.be/nl/blog/een-pint-van-stroop-en-duivenbonen?search=bier

The Family Herald, April 1916.

History of the United Kingdom during the First World War (no date) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_United_Kingdom_during_the_First_World_War

Karau, Mark (2015) Germany’s Defeat in the First World War: The Lost Battles and Reckless Gambles That Brought Down the Second Reich: The Lost Battles and Reckless Gambles That Brought Down the Second Reich. ABC-CLIO.

Luck, Brian Mrs. (1915) The Belgian Cookbook. London: William Heinemann. Also online https://archive.org/details/cu31924003585985.

Sainsbury’s Indian Lamb Rogan Josh with Pilau Rice 450g (Serves 1) (no date) https://www.sainsburys.co.uk/shop/gb/groceries/sainsburys-lamb-rogan-josh—rice-450g


Reading suggestion

There is a really good post on Farming in the First World War by Julie Moore for Everyday Lives in War (https://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk/2015/03/farming-in-the-first-world-war/). The post includes many pathways into research of specific aspects of everyday life relating to farming and food supply.



Two ‘comic cuts’, and a bonus

Two quick catch-up Comic Cuts (the BEF name for staff memos), and apologies for the absence of regular postings over the past few weeks. We will be posting guest contributions through August as we lead up to the conference (details are now on another page for easy access, after a bi).

The first is the formal use of ‘diggers’ in this snapshot of veterans’ cottages in Mossman, Queensland, Australia. Any thoughts as regards the names of the cottages – ‘Badilla’ and ‘Pindar’?



The second is a quote from Sassoon’s Sherston’s Progress published in 1936, using the term ‘pillar-box’, the earlier, and explanatory, form of ‘pill-box’ – see Peter Oldham’s article on 26 February this year.


As an apology bonus we offer a French postcard sent in October 1918; the contrast between the sentiments (and the lady’s expression) and the silhouette scenario below could hardly be greater.


Phrasebooks and dictionaries in public awareness

The appearance of soldiers’ letters in newspapers discussing the difficulties of conversing with the local people, as they travelled through northern France, no doubt added to both the speculations surrounding the value of phrasebooks, and to their frequent appearance in a range of articles. Performance entertainment was an environment in which the phrasebook was a generous prop for sketches involving a soldier and a French girl: in the ‘Moulin Rouge Revue’ at the King’s Theatre Edinburgh, reported in the Edinburgh Evening News 7 December 1915, ‘a particularly amusing item is the endeavour of a Highland soldier with an English accent, and a little French milliner, to express through the medium of an inadequate phrase-book, the thoughts that burned within them’. The trope continued through the war: in November 1916 the Western Daily Press reported on a public lecture given in Bristol by Ada Ward, which contained a ‘very funny … description of Tommy with his French phrase-book in his hand, which he rarely referred to, and of his rough-and-ready methods, by pantomime action, etc, to make himself understood by the natives., and especially when making himself “agreeable” to a pretty French girl’. Gaby Deslys, at the New Palace Theatre, as reported in The Manchester Guardian on 24 August 1915, presented a ‘pretty and witty flirtation with the aid of a phrase-book between an English soldier and a Belgian peasant girl’; a curiosity this, as Belgian phrasebooks were rare. They did appear early in the war, as seen in an advertisement in The Manchester Guardian on 12 December 1914, for a Flemish-English & English-Flemish Vest-pocket Dictionary with ‘conversations and idioms’. But communication, especially between young man and young woman, might have to be non-verbal, as laid out in a poem by ‘Bogey’ in London Life 2 January 1915:


In her presence I was overwhelmed with glee:

But perhaps it seems absurd

I could not express a word

In the language of that little refugee.


And she couldn’t speak a line

Of the language that was mine,

Which was very hard on both, you must agree;

But when hearts are fond and young,

Then love doesn’t need a tongue,

As I found out in my little refugee.


The Manchester Guardian advertisement is headlined ‘Converse with our allies the Belgians’. A second book advertised is a Shops and Shopping Phrase Book, in English, French and Flemish. Written by E V Bisschop, this last was possibly of more use to the refugee in Britain than the soldier shopping in Flanders, though the purposes of these and another title seem to be ambiguous. On 7 November 1914 the same paper had carried an advertisement for another English-Flemish Phrase-book (‘the only [English-Flemish Phrase-book] published in this country), which was headlined ‘To help the Belgian refugees you must be able to converse with them in their own language’. However, the book contained ‘a short list of Military Terms in English-Flemish and Flemish-English’, perhaps to enable discussions on the German advance through Belgium. Possibly an enterprising editor had suggested this expansion might make the book attractive to British officers about to head off to Flanders. A ‘companion volume’ is clearly aimed at refugees: Dagelyksche Hulp Voor Belgen in Engeland; the two books could be bought bound in one volume.

Bisschop cover

At least one newspaper, seeing the interest in phrasebooks and dictionaries, decided to publish their own dictionary, for the benefit of ‘many old students of [the French language who are] rubbing up their knowledge’ (Yorkshire Telegraph and Star 27 November 1914) – a comment that indicates that knowledge of some French might not be unusual. The Sheffield Weekly Telegraph in December 1914 advertised its French-English Pronouncing Dictionary, with a letter of approval from Mrs M Greene, who wrote that ‘I sent a “Dictionary” to my nephew (Lc-Corp __, King’s Liverpool Regiment) at the Front. I got a letter to-day. Here is an extract from it :-

“I think the Dictionary one of the most sensible presents that has been sent out. All the men are struck with it, and are writing home for one”.’ With a claim to be ‘the most famous [dictionary] in the army’, a new edition of the book was advertised in December 1916. But not all phrase-books were viewed with approbation at home. A review in the Manchester Courier in March 1915 of Richard Jashke’s English-French Conversational Dictionary stated that it was ‘so much superior to those phrase-books which spring up like mushrooms and as quickly disappear’.


An inevitable but certainly valuable role for a book carried in the vest-pocket of a soldier might be helping the soldier himself from ‘stopping one’; the Ormskirk Advertiser 16 March 1915 carried two such stories. In one case the chaplain of the Shoeburyness garrison told soldiers how an officer’s life had been saved by a Bible (the bullet ‘burned through to the Psalms, from which [the officer’s] father had taken and inscribed in the Bible three protecting texts’). On the same page is the story of ‘Private F Buswell, of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who was wounded at the front, [who] owes his life to a French dictionary and case of letters he was carrying in his tunic pocket. A bullet penetrated the dictionary and a portion of the letter-case, but Buswell escaped with a slightly wounded chest’. Unfortunately the story does not relate which words in the dictionary impeded the passage of the bullet.


While the environment of interest in words gave rise to observations and anecdotes, the word ‘phrase-book’ itself might be ambiguous. ‘Student’, writing to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in January 1917, pointed out that the pre-war origin of the phrase ‘fog of war’, twelve years before 1914, ‘should be of value to compilers of phrase-books’. Either the term ‘phrase-books’ here has been extended to dictionaries and books on words, of which many were published post-war, or the writer, who had been a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, and who had previously noted the pre-war use of ‘manpower’, was suggesting that ‘fog of war’ might find its way into a French-English conversation manual; stranger phrases did appear in phrase-books, usually leftovers from pre-war travel aides. Equally, confusion may have arisen from time to time by the use of the word ‘phrasebook in the sense of ‘code-book’. The Aberdeen Evening Express in August 1915 carried a short article about a mysterious inscription, easily interpreted through re-arrangement of the letters, which could be done by ‘tak[ing] a leaf from the Hun phrase-book’.


A letter quoted in the Sunderland Daily Echo 28 January 1915 is noteworthy in how it details the experience of phrasebook use for shopping behind the Front. The letter, originally published in the Daily Mail, is introduced as being about a Royal Berkshire corporal’s ‘experiences of the “dug-out,” the night operations of sniping, and “Tommy’s” efforts to speak French by the aid of a phrase-book’. The soldier talks about shopping after receiving his pay (‘we were paid out’): ‘Every shop was crowded with lads in khaki, everyone talking a mixture of English, French and Hindu. Nearly everyone carries a book or pamphlet containing English and French sentences, and it is good to see the resigned look on the shopwoman’s face while a customer, red in the face, ties his tongue in a knot and feverishly turns the pages of his book in the vain hope of finding a sentence that will help him out.’ No doubt similar exasperation attended the users of the Flemish phrasebooks.


Booking for the conference can be done for the two days separately via:



See below for the conference programme