There is an endless debate in the UK about how so many people from here make little or no effort to learn a foreign language. I attempted to learn French at both primary and secondary school and came out of it with a smattering of knowledge I still use to this day when I get opportunities to murder French grammar in bars and supermarkets. I console myself with the mantra that I can understand more than I can speak and I always make use of phrasebooks to support my efforts. Some modern books have a range of pretty saucy lines in them to help the adventurous get by in nightclubs and other places where amorous hopefuls gather. I wonder what Claude Michelon would make of them?
Reading many Great War histories you will find many examples of the language difficulties met by British and imperial troops when they stepped ashore in France. While getting eggs and booze was important to the troops there was much more serious stuff to contend with and liaison officers like the famous Edward Louis Spiers would find themselves in the heat of real drama when the shooting started. By the time the American Expeditionary Force began to arrive in France more than three years after Spiers there probably hadn’t been much progress on the language front for the ordinary soldier and this is where Claude Michelon stepped in.
This superior little book is a straightforward reproduction of the phrasebook he produced for the Americans arriving in his country. It attempts to guide them through a swathe of military and mundane words and phrases they would need to get by far from home in a strange land.
How does one review this book? The short answer is you can’t.
The thing to like about it is the quality of a very faithful reproduction and it is, therefore, a little bit of history you can tuck in your pocket. Clever historians often quote from books like this to colour in the details of how armies coped on foreign soil and there is always something to learn about attitudes and standards from the language of the day.
I have no idea if a similar book was introduced in 1944 and suspect a few GIs came over with books their fathers had been issued decades earlier. I have never seen an original copy, but presume they are out there.
There have been a number of other repro manuals and guides in the sphere of languages and information for the soldiery of two world wars and I suppose they are handy things for Father’s Day gifts or Christmas stocking presents and that sort of thing. Essentially they are a bit of fun. They fulfil the role of filling in some of the blanks of the soldier’s life and if you are a living historian of the doughboy experience you will want to tuck a copy somewhere in your kit.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
TAKE ME TO FRANCE
A French Phrasebook for the American Soldier
By Claude Michelon
First published in 1917 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company