Sunday, July 15, 2012

A different slant on history

Ever thought about how the army of the Austrian Empire actually worked?

Last month, I visited the military museum in Vienna in the old Arsenal building.  It's well worth a visit if you're ever in Vienna and interested in history.

It also has a good website at from which you can download information sheets in English (and 9 other languages, to boot).

Among the fascinating exhibits from our period was this:

It was used by military doctors in the army of the Austrian Empire.  I hadn't thought about it before, but of course the Austrian Empire included lots of different countries and ethnic groups with their own languages.  So an Austrian army doctor might be faced with an injured soldier, from his own side, who spoke no German, just Czech, or Italian, or Serbo-Croat or one of the other minority languages.  In such a case, the doctor would turn to his trusty manual and find the appropriate question in Czech, or whatever.

An example is number 159.  The original question, in German, is "How do you feel?  Good or bad?"  If the doctor wanted to ask that, he had many languages to choose from, as shown at the bottom of each column.

I do find myself wondering what he did with the answers, though, and how much of them he could understand.  Still, sign language probably helped.

The second book was issued to field officers so that they could give orders to the troops or ask questions.

This book also, interestingly, provides both written and spoken versions of the foreign languages.  So, taking the first line as an example, the German-speaking officer could use "Hey, you!  Stand still!" in the original German, in printed or spoken Polish, printed or spoken Ruthenish (a forerunner of modern Ukrainian), or printed or spoken Russian.

Seeing these two small books totally changed my view of the Austrian army.  It hadn't occurred to me before that it was a polyglot army and that there must have been huge difficulties of communication between the troops from the various countries of the Empire.

Imagine giving orders in the middle of a battle.  Someone has to look up the translations in the book, but there's so much gunsmoke around that you can't really read the words, and the messenger is waiting to take the dispatch to the troops on the ground...  It gives the "fog of war" a totally new meaning.

Isn't history fascinating?  Can't you feel just what it would be like to be there?



Anonymous said...

I don't normally comment on my own post before anyone else!!

But I just wanted to say that I'm doing this from the RNA conference in Penrith -- fantastic conference, as ever -- and as a result I couldn't make the pix in my post as clear as I'd have liked. Sorry if you can't read those books as well as I intended.

Or maybe you've got better eyesight than I have and you can read them just fine? Hope so.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

A thought-provoking post, Joanna. I'd never thought of the consequences of having a polyglot army - perhaps it's being English and expecting everyone else to speak our language! Though I do know that some Highland regiments spoke Gaelic in World War I.

I wonder if they had Gaelic-speaking doctors? Their commanding officers must surely have spoken both languages.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. We're missing you at the conference.

Don't know about the Gaelic speakers, but I do know that there were Welsh speakers in the British army during the Cold War. Welsh had the great advantage that, when the soldiers used it over the radio, none of the enemy eavesdroppers could understand a word.

The US army used Native American speakers for the same purpose in the Second World War.

Sarah Mallory said...

Great post, Joanna, interesting and thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing your visit with us. How organised to provide those books with phrases in different languages, but I can imagine that sometimes it didn't come out quite the way it was intended.

Hope you are back safely from the conference now, as well. It was a great one!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sarah. Yes, safely back though the driving conditions north of Brum were dire. So much spray it was difficult to see so everyone driving very slowly and lots of congestion.

Wasn't it a great conference? Lovely to see everyone and catch up. As ever, Jan and Roger did a fantastic job of organising everything. Even the weather.

Going back to my post, you're dead right, I'm sure, about the answers. There is one question on the doctor book, number 155, which is "why are you scratching?" Fine to ask the question, but if you only speak German and the answer comes in Russian, what good will it do?

I remember a similar experience in Spain, though trivial in my case. We were leaving the hotel, I'd given laundry to be washed and it hadn't come back. So I got out my trusty phrase book and concocted the question about what had happened to my laundry and when would I get it back. The maid understood perfectly. But did I understand her answer? You can guess, I'm sure.

Lesson learned.

Sarah Mallory said...

A little knowledge can be dangerous, Joanna! When we were staying in a village in the Dordogne I wanted to be friendly so I tried out my schoolgirl French on an old lady queueing with me for bread.... her reply was fast voluble and left me floundering! Luckily, goodwill and sign language did the trick!

And back to your blog - perhaps the answers to "Why are you scratching" we just too embarrassing to print!

Anonymous said...

You made me laugh, Sarah. Yes, been there, done that, got the t-shirt ... and learned the lesson.

Christina Courtenay said...

Fascinating post, Joanna! I'd never thought about that either, I just assumed everyone on the continent could somehow communicate with each other. I'm guessing that new recruits very soon learned to recognise the orders in German though :-)