Le Langage des Tranchées, 9 juillet 1916



It would be good to know what Lucien thought of the slang as presented in the image. He uses the slang word ‘copains’, which Dèchelette defines as ‘camarade[s]’, coming from the old word ‘compain’ (compagnon). Leroy translates it as ‘friend, pal, chum’.


Comparative commentary on the vocabulary shows how variable slang can be. Partridge in Words! Words! Words! (1933) has an extensive essay on the slang of the French soldier, which in place of bricheton has ‘Briffeton, perhaps related to the Poilu briffer, to eat, … much less used than brigeton.’ Leroy gives both of these, with briffer and brichetonner, to feed; Dauzat also, but without brichetonner; Dèchelette has only bricheton. Sainéan gives Bricheton, pain. Mot de caserne tire des patois: c’est le diminutive du normand, brichet, pain d’une ou deux livres, de forms variées, qu’on fait expressément pour les bergers.


Probably all of the words shown would produce rich etymologies; those that stand out for us are godasses and singe. For Sainéan godasse and grolle are both ‘soulier’, grolle  being a ‘provincialisme’ and godasse a ‘soulier large … semblable à un godet (bucket)’. Leroy points out that ‘godasse’ was a ‘popular pronunciation of gothas, German aeroplanes’. Dauzat and Dèchelette give ‘soulier’, Dèchelette adding ‘Ce mot a complètement détrôné les anciens vocables; croquenots, godillots, pompes, tatannes. Le soldat est rarement satisfait de ses godasses, mais il marche quand même.’ Dauzat has ‘grole’ rather than ‘grolle’ (Dèchelette, Leroy, Sainéan).


It is not surprising that tinned meat, being of major importance to front-line soldiers, should have a strong slang identity, nor that there should be a range of etymologies: Partridge proposes an origin from the French military experience in Africa:


For Dèchelette there is the possibility of a commercial origin:


And Dauzat notes the development from singe to gorille, a good example of how slang grows.


Sainéan, describing singe as ‘Mot de caserne’ (barracks), quotes a French trench journal article, a mock ethnographic report on ‘Une France Inconnue’, in which Becquetance (‘food, grub’, Leroy) is described as ‘brouet (brew) don’t la composition varie par l’alternance de ces deux éléments : Ex., le matin, riz et singe; le soir, singe et riz,’ showing that the French soldier’s sense of irony was easily as developed as the British soldier’s.


Lazare Sainéan, L’Argot des Tranchées (1915)

Albert Dauzat, L’Argot de la Guerre (1917)

Francois Dèchelette, L’Argot des Polius (1918)

Oliver Leroy, A Glossary of French Slang (1922)

Eric Partridge, Words! Words! Words! (1933)




Russian-German & German-Russian phrasebooks in the First World War

This week’s blog is from Iaroslav Golubinov, Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, Samara State Medical University. Dr Golubinov’s ORCID is http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2274-4989  He is a contributor to the “International Encyclopedia of the First World War”: https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/food_and_nutrition_russian_empire

Hello, dear readers!

My name is Iaroslav Golubinov, I’m a historian from Russia. The little text below was written because of the gentle request of Julian Walker and Christophe Declercq who asked me to share some observations on the German-Russian phrasebook.

Indeed, not long ago the authors of this blog shared a beautiful German-Russian phrasebook published for German soldiers. This book was written by Gustav Werkhaupt and printed in 1914 in Leipzig “Helios-Verlag”[1].


Front cover


Unfortunately, I don’t have the information about the author of the phrasebook. All I know is that he was a teacher of Russian language in “Handelshochschule Leipzig” in 1912[2] and, probably, he worked in Russia some decades before the Great War. The Journal of the Ministry of Education of Russia contained the review on a reader (chrestomathy) of Latin and Greek texts made by Густав Веркгаупт (lit. “Gustav Verkgaupt”, the spelling might be changed because of the rules of the Russian language)[3].

Nevertheless, I want to note that Werkhaupt’s phrasebook had very similar analogues in Russia. So, in 1913 Captain Plekhanov and Lieutenant German compiled and printed “Russian-German questionnaire: For the officers, NCO and scouts: With a brief military technician dictionary and a description of the battle dress of German and Austro-Hungarian armies”[4]; in 1914 warrant officer Wulfius made “A brief Russian-German military interpreter for scouts”[5]. Also, in 1915 and 1916 one Petrograd publisher printed several issues of “A new Russian-German military translation book for officers and warrant officers”[6]. It has to be mentioned that some books were written for people who didn’t speak German and even didn’t know the Latin alphabet (e.g., “Russian-German pocket military dictionary: Contains the necessary words and ready-made German phrases, written in Russian letters: Available for those who do not know the German language”[7]).

The Russian army widely used also pocket dictionaries and phrasebooks for three or even four languages at once (e.g., Russian-French-German[8] or Russian-Bulgarian-Rumanian-Turkish[9]) due to the territories where the battles they were involved in happened. So, a Russian-French-German version could be useful for the Russian Expeditionary Corps in France[10].

Looking through Russian Internet libraries, the closest available analogue of Werkhaupt’s book I found was “Military phrasebook in Russian, German and Polish” (1915, 2nd issue) by a colonel of the General Staff Andrianov[11]. This book was written for those ranks who didn’t know any language except Russian, thus, all parts but one were written in the Cyrillic alphabet[12].

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Interesting, the chapters in the German phrasebook are small and their content is directly related to the place or situation of conversation (patrol, railway station, billets, transport with POW, hospital etc.) The Russian book has two big parts: the first is devoted to so-called “military talks” (военные разговоры) and the second — “civilian talks” (житейские разговоры); the big chapters are divided into small parts (“chasing the enemy”, “scouting” etc. or “hotel, restaurant”, “laundry” and so on). After a brief comparison of both books, I assume that the tone of talking is equal. Maybe, the German book is a little bit rougher and the Russian a little bit more polite (especially with civilians). But when the soldiers and officers need to speak with a spy or POWs or deserters all questions and manners are quite similar.

I need to mention that Werkhaupt sometimes made mistakes in Russian (e.g., he translated “Draisinen”, meaning rail vehicles, as “велосипеды”/bicycles/, but it’s incorrect) and used old or rare words. I believe that nobody could understand a German officer asking Russian POWs or civilians about “franc-tireurs”. Instead of this most rare word (it’s absent in many Russian dictionaries of the 1900s), Werkhaupt needed to write “partisan” (партизан), of course.

The Russian book is bigger than the German version and contains the templates of military orders for the civilian population of occupied territories, a small dictionary of military terms and (the most interesting!) the part with the answers expected of a German POW. Surprisingly, the German book lacks it. It’s unclear, did Werkhaupt expect that Russian could say something in answer?

This chapter in Russian book begins with such words:

“To get an exact answer or to allow a German [soldier] to ask Russians a question that is completely understandable to Russians, the reader submits a book to the German in order that the German finds, among the answers and questions written in his native language, a suitable answer or question and points it out. Then, due to a nearby Russian translation, the reader will understand what the German [soldier] wants to say. When you give a book to a German, you should add: “Nim das bookh, efne nekhste Zaite und tsaige mir daine Antvorten und Fragen”.

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The last phrase is in German but written in Russian Cyrillic. “Take the book, look onto the next page and show me your answers and question”.

What answers and questions of Germans did Russians expect to hear?

  • Ich ergebe mich
  • Ich werde mich setzen


  • Unser Stab ist geschlage
  • Unsere Generale sind getote etc.

This looks like the answers of completely defeated enemies.

IG Ad056 war answersIG Ad057 war answers

But the voices of German wounded men and POWs are also presented:

  • Ich habe grosse Schmerzen
  • Herr Doktor, mir ist besser
  • Ich sehne mich nach der Frau

…and so on.

Some places are also taken for the civilians (they were presented as very obedient people). Interesting, this book has no answers of Poles, they remained in silence. But the Germans are made very loquacious:

  • Wollen Sie nicht zu Mittag bei uns bleiben?
  • Haben Sie schon gefruhstuckt?
  • Wir essen immer warm zu
  • Abend
  • Wir haben Kalten Kalbsbraten, Schinken, Kase

And, finally,

  • Hier ist die Rechnung
  • Bitte zahlen Sie
  • Adieu!

IG Ad060 answers by woundedIG Ad063 simple statementsIG Ad067 3 langs sentencesIG Ad068 3 langs sentencesIG Ad074 3 langs sentences


Thus, these two phrasebooks are very interesting examples of the very complicated process of understanding and negotiating between two sides of the Eastern front.


[1] Full digital copy you may find here: https://www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/item/7JNU7YL7D6IGM2GXNCFYMY2PCVYGD3YI

[2] Vorlesungs-verzeichnisse der universitäten, technischen und fach-hochschulen von Deutschland, Deutsch-Oesterreich und der Schweiz. Munchen: Academischer Verlag, 1912. P. 114. https://archive.org/details/vorlesungsverzei00unse

[3] Zhurnal Ministerstva narodnogo prosveshcheniya. Chast’ CCII. Mart 1879. S. 95 and passim.

[4] Plekhanov, S. N. Russko-nemetskiy voprosnik : Dlya g. g. ofitserov, unter-ofitserov i razvedchikov : S krat. voyen.-tekhn. slovarem i s opisaniyem form pokhod. obmundirovaniya germ. i avstro-veng. armiy / Sost. kap. Plekhanov i poruchik German. Varshava : tip. Okr. shtaba, 1913. 67 s.

[5] Vul’fius. Kratkiy russko-nemetskiy voyennyy perevodchik dlya razvedchikov / Sost. 14 Grenader. Gruz. polka praporshchik Vul’fius. Petrograd : tip. Trenke i Fyusno, 1914. 40 s.

[6] Novyy russko-nemetskiy voyennyy tolmach dlya g. g. ofitserov i praporshchikov. 4-ye izd. Petrograd : Berezovskiy, tsenz. 1916. XI, 112 s.

[7] Russko-nemetskiy karmannyy voyennyy slovar’ : Soderzhit neobkhodimyye sl. i gotovyye nem. frazy, napis. rus. bukvami : Dostupen dlya neznayushchikh nem. yaz. Moskva : K.L. Kovzan, 1916. 32 s.

[8] Krit M.N. Kratkiy russko-frantsuzsko-nemetskiy perevodchik dlya ofitserov i nizhnikh chinov, sovershenno ne vladeyushchikh frantsuzskim i nemetskim yazykami. Petrograd: Glavnoye upravleniye general’nogo shtaba, 1916. 108 s. https://www.prlib.ru/item/341381

[9] Musiyenko I.V. Voyennyy perevodchik na russko-bolgarsko-rumyno-turetskom yazykakh. Odessa: tip. Akts. yuzh.-rus. obshch. pech. dela, 1917. 32 s. https://www.prlib.ru/item/324740

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Expeditionary_Force_in_France

[11] Andrianov P.M. Voyennyy perevodchik na russko-pol’sko-nemetskom yazyke. 2nd ed. Odessa: Ye.I. Fesenko, 1915. https://www.prlib.ru/item/324741

[12] Unfortunately, I can’t esteem the level of translation skill in Russian book because I don’t speak German and Polish.




Humour from Home


Blighty was a compilation magazine enterprisingly put together in 1916 and 1917 and delivered free to BEF soldiers and members of the Royal Navy. It was subsidised by corporate and private sponsors and carried cartoons from Punch, Bystander and national newspapers, and was published by the mysterious-sounding ‘The Committee of “Blighty”’. Its masthead showed a drawing of the dome of St Pauls Cathedral and a country cottage in front of a village church, a proclamation of the ideal, the nostalgic, and the church-as-state, behind the title and subtitle, ‘a budget of humour from home’. Affirming the idea of home that the forces were defending, this magazine was proposed as a reaching out of home humour, though often drawing from the experience of the troops, even at the Front; its humour was self-feeding and circular.


Humour based on words featured heavily, as might be expected. We offer here three examples from a fragile copy of issue No 2, 7 June 1916.


The first is from The Bystander, an excruciating page of examples of how metaphors look when taken literally. Schoolboy humour, but as has been said so often, many of the readers were little more than schoolboys; the much referred to Comic Cuts contains very similar wordplay, as do a lot of the trench journals. The combination of the naivety of this material and the circumstances that it was read in is difficult to grasp. Perhaps the extremity of terror, even though rarely experienced, and the constant anxiety provoked a retreat into childhood: Michael Roper in The Secret Battle (2009) states that in Kleinian terms here ‘what extreme anxiety did to these young men was to throw them back to the position of the small child’.


The second is a good example of irony, a wry look at the cliché of the Bible/pack of letters/lighter/cigarette case/diary/penny that saved a soldier’s life. The same cartoon would have remained relevant, though mostly with pennies being shot at, for long after the war, if ebay is anything to go by. Again, it is about the mind seeking refuge.



Countering these examples of the fragility of the human mental frame is the image of the flapper. Partridge recorded subalterns being called ‘the flapper’s delight’, though sexual relations were a refuge in themselves – see the scene towards the end of Helen Z Smith’s Not So Quiet.

Here ‘Efemera’ a regular columnist in The Bystander in 1916 describes the rise of the flapper. The term ‘flapper’, for a young woman or teenager, usually with immoral connotations, dates from the 1880s, about the same time as the German term ‘backfisch’ (a fish for baking), which was introduced into English as ‘backfish’ in the early 1890s, when The Pall-Mall Gazette described the backfish as ‘[one who] ranges from fifteen to eighteen years of age, keeps a diary, climbs trees secretly, blushes on the smallest provocation, and has no conversation’.


Noteworthy is ‘Efemera’s interpretation of the German term as passive, compared to the active Anglo-Saxon flapper, a kind of folk etymology. Further exploration, into the OED particularly, muddies the water: in the definition of ‘flapper’, the word ‘backfisch’ is ‘perch, fish for frying’, while the earliest citation for ‘flapper’ gives an alternative, ‘flipper’.

EP flapper

Before the war flappers were supposed generally to wear their hair in pigtails. Eric Partridge (above), always good for obscure usages and enlightening details, offers the idea that between 1905 and the end of the war the meaning became established that a flapper was ‘any young girl with her hair not yet put up (or, in the late 1920’s and the 30’s, not yet cut short).’ Many would take issue with this, though ‘Efemera’s flappers do have long hair (but hardly look Anglo-Saxon).

Bl EF1

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’?