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Translating soldiers letters - help with bits and bobs


Dindiridin
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Hello everyone,

My wife and myself are translating parts of a book called "30-odd feet below Belgium" into French. This book is a collection of letters between a young mining officer and a woman correspondant/pen-girlfriend.

Sorry if some of the questions below are a bit obvious, but I want to be sure/double-check I am getting the right meaning accross. Also, one may belong to another forum section (weapons) I prefer to have only one thread if that's possible.

  1. In one letter from 7/02/1915, Geoffrey (the officer) writes his address as follows:

    "6th South Staffords

    Bovington Camp

    Wool

    Dorset

    7/2/15" => "6th south Staffords" means that he is part of the 6th batallion within the South Staffordshire regiment, doesn't it?

  2. In one letter from 27/09/1915, we have: "But you see we have had our first officer killed the other night, when I was up, one of the best officers in the regiment. My God! I’d have loved to have had one of the above mentioned swine for just ten minutes, when I saw the stretcher going down! Couldn’t feel sorry for the chap, because he finished the sporting way & died without pain, smashed by a trench mortar bomb." => is the "trench mortar" anything specific, or just a plain mortar? From my research, it could be a minenwerfer. Basically, I am puzzled by the addition of the word "trench" before mortar. Is a "trench mortar" a recognized category of weapon? From the first paragraph here: http://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/mortars.htm, it seems that it was just a common way of referring to a mortar, nothing technically specific. Do you agree?
  3. We also found sometimes the appelation "other ranks", as in The entry in the Company diary for 21st August refers to “2 officers and 35 ORs [other ranks] 51st Bde. Mining section attached for instruction” => other ranks here means anyone who's not an officer/below an officer in the military hierarchy (i.e. soldiers and uncommissionned officers)?
Thank you very much for your help,

Dindiridin

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Welcome to the forum Dindiridin

1. Yes the officer was a member of the 6th South Staffords, this was a Territorial Force (TF) battalion but many TF battalions had in addition to the first line battalion a second and sometimes third line battalion, this is the case with the 6th South Staffords. The battalion appears as 1/6th Bn. 2/6th Bn. and 3/6th Bn. the latter remained in the UK and supplied drfats to the overseas battalions but the 1/6th and 2/6th both served overseas so you need to be sure which one the officer served with, that said it should be relatively easy to find which one.

2. A Trench Mortar is of the smaller type and easily placed in a trench near the front line as opposed to the heavier mortars that were towed or vehicle mounted and found further to the rear, they all have various calibres but like you say it doesn't refer to a specific type other than a Trench Mortar and was a recognised category - the Stokes Mortar being the British mainstay from 1916 onwards.

3. Yes ORs refers to everyone below a 2/Lt.

Good luck with the book

cheers, Jon

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Welcome to the forum, Dindiridin. If the whole of this book that you are translating is in the same style as the passage you quote, and you don't know what a trench mortar/mortier de tranchée is, or what ORs/sous-officiers et hommes (du rang) are, I fear you are going to have major problems, especially if you have military mining terms to contend with too.

Ernst Jünger's classic 'In Stahlgewittern' (Storm of Steel/Orages d'Acier) was re-translated a few years ago by an experienced literary translator who unfortunately did not sufficiently understand military terminology or the detail and reality of the Western Front, and the result, in my opinion (as a translator from German and French myself, specialising in WW1 military history), was little short of a disaster.

Good luck with your project, and please be sure to have your translation read/checked by a native French speaker familiar with military terminology and the Great War.

Mick

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Hello Dindiridin

To amplify a little, "trench mortar" in British terminology does equate to "minenwerfer", and there were light, medium and heavy versions. They were distinct from the heavy howitzers which were the equivalent of the German "Morser", the heavy weapons of calibre 21cm and above.

Trench mortars were also referred to sometimes as trench howitzers.

Ron

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Hi everyone,

Thanks a lot for these helpful answers and for your wishes :).

@Jon: yes, Geoffrey was fighting south of the Ypres Salient. He must have been in the 1/6th or the 2/6th. He then changed units quite a lot until his death in April 1916 (died in a German camouflet explosion) and was in the R.E. at the time he died.

@Mick: all in all, the letters aren't very technical :) I am looking up things when I'm unsure of them (like army slang of the time or more technical things). For now, we're only translating extracts of the book to show a potential publisher. If we get to translate everything, I'm thinking of getting this book http://www.crid1418.org/bibli/?p=36 to help me with mining terminology. Although it's not about the Ypres region itself, it is about another section of the front where mining warfare was widely used; it does seem to be solid reference material.

And the idea of having the translation proofread by someone with a technical approach certainly makes sense. :)

@Ron & Jon: about trench mortar, then, it seems to be as I thought, a generic term, so I'll have to be generic in French as well, and I may even drop "trench", depending on what I find.

And, while I'm at it, I may have another question; I'm puzzled with the "tie up" in the following extract:

"I’ve made two attempts to write to you from the trenches, whence I have come this very evening, but I was interrupted both times. The first was a wire to go & listen to suspected mining noises, & the second was to tie up a wounded officer, who was brought into my dug-out. Fortunately he wasn’t seriously smashed, though he bled like Old Harry. I tried to console him by telling him he’d be in England in no time, but, would you believe it, he didn’t want to go back, as it was only his second experience of trenches. Some people don’t know when they’re on a good thing."

Do you think he could be talking about "dressing a wound"? "Tie up" is normally pretty straightforward, I would expect him to use a rope to maintain the wounded officer rather than dressing a wound, but it doesn't really make sense - unless it would be for transportation purposes...

Thanks again for your help,

Dindiridin

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'Tie up', here, would probably refer to the act of tying up a bandage.

For another poor translation into English, I could cite Dieter Storz's M98 Rifle & Carbine - an impressive piece of work, but the English translation varies from irritatingly unnatural to unintelligible in places.

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about trench mortar, then, it seems to be as I thought, a generic term, so I'll have to be generic in French as well, and I may even drop "trench", depending on what I find.

Don't drop 'de tranchée' because a 'mortier' tout court is something else, namely a howitzer. For a German trench mortar, you can use 'Minenwerfer'. French trench mortars were known colloquially as 'crapouillots'.

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Hello again everyone,

Thanks to Mick and Mk VII for their answers.

I have one more question about units and formations.

A friend of Geoffrey, who served in Mesopotamia/Turkey as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, recalls his arrival at the camp where he was to be trained:

"I arrived at the 12th Warwick huts and had dinner, the mess being about half way through. This Camp, called Bovington Camp, is an immense camp, having been a camp before the war." This is the camp mentionned in the address at the begining of the thread (in which Geoffrey also got his military training in 1914).

I suppose that, like the 6th Staffordshire, the "12th Warwick" is also a battalion, within the Warwick regiment?

Again, thanks!

Dindiridin

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Hello again Dindiridin

Yes, 12th Battalion The Royal Warwickshire Regiment is meant.

Bovington Camp still exists and is now the site of the Tank Museum.

Ron

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Din, I feel your pain, as I do a lot of war era translating of German letters, with dear old Suetterlin and it's variants.

Hello everyone,

My wife and myself are translating parts of a book called "30-odd feet below Belgium" into French. This book is a collection of letters between a young mining officer and a woman correspondant/pen-girlfriend.

Sorry if some of the questions below are a bit obvious, but I want to be sure/double-check I am getting the right meaning accross. Also, one may belong to another forum section (weapons) I prefer to have only one thread if that's possible.

  1. In one letter from 7/02/1915, Geoffrey (the officer) writes his address as follows:

    "6th South Staffords

    Bovington Camp

    Wool

    Dorset

    7/2/15" => "6th south Staffords" means that he is part of the 6th batallion within the South Staffordshire regiment, doesn't it?

  2. In one letter from 27/09/1915, we have: "But you see we have had our first officer killed the other night, when I was up, one of the best officers in the regiment. My God! I?d have loved to have had one of the above mentioned swine for just ten minutes, when I saw the stretcher going down! Couldn?t feel sorry for the chap, because he finished the sporting way & died without pain, smashed by a trench mortar bomb." => is the "trench mortar" anything specific, or just a plain mortar? From my research, it could be a minenwerfer. Basically, I am puzzled by the addition of the word "trench" before mortar. Is a "trench mortar" a recognized category of weapon? From the first paragraph here: http://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/mortars.htm, it seems that it was just a common way of referring to a mortar, nothing technically specific. Do you agree?
  3. We also found sometimes the appelation "other ranks", as in The entry in the Company diary for 21st August refers to ?2 officers and 35 ORs [other ranks] 51st Bde. Mining section attached for instruction? => other ranks here means anyone who's not an officer/below an officer in the military hierarchy (i.e. soldiers and uncommissionned officers)?
Thank you very much for your help,

Dindiridin

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Thanks Ron and Jesse.

Now our translation has been sent off, we'll see... If this goes ahead, I might well come back to pester people on this forum! Good to know it's out there :)

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  • 1 month later...

Hello again, everyone

I've got three more questions, as we're continuing the translation.

1) In the following address:

"8th (Service) Battn

South Staffordshire Regt.

Wool

3/5/15"

I suspect that "service" here just means that the battalion is due to cross the Channel and go to the front shortly, doesn't it? Or does it mean that it's servicing (helping) another/other unit(s)? In case this helps, here is the address from the previous letter (it doesn't mention "service", then):

"8th Bn. S. Staffords

Bovington

Wool

29/3/15"

Doing some research, this concept of "servicing" other units seems to be widespread, but in today's Canadian army, so I would like to confirm the meaning in the WWI context.

2) In his letters, 2nd lieutenant Boothby often mentions his "platoon"

for example: "In spite of it all my cast iron constitution has survived it & I am about to take my platoon to church for the second time today." (he's in Bovington Camp, then) or "Another item of interest (to me anyway) is that we have spent fortyeight hours in trenches. Rather tiring job as we, the horficers, only got about three hours sleep the whole time. Myself and my platoon were attached to the Royal Engineers the first night."

He is a 2nd lieutenant, so I suppose that he is commanding a whole platoon (i.e. 3 sections, 27 men), just like a lieutenant? In French, the corresponding word for infantry units would be "peloton" or "section" (I've seen both used to name units commanded by lieutenants in documents from 1914-1915).

3) Finally, he ends up in the "mining section" of the 51st brigade

Here is what we learn about this mining section later, when it gets attached to the 172nd tunnelling company "2 officers and 35 ORs [other ranks] 51st Bde. Mining section attached for instruction" (172nd company's diary). This seems to mean this "mining section" has about the same number of soldiers as a platoon. Are the two terms synonyms? Is "section" rather used in mining/RE contexts whereas "platoon" is preferred for infantry?

As usual, thanks in advance!

Dindiridin

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A Service battalion means a New Army, or 'Kitchener' battalion raised for the duration of the war - as distinct from Territorial or Regular ones (though there would be little practical difference by the end of the war)

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As for Question 2, I believe platoons could be commanded by sergeants, second lieutenants or lieutenants.

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3. 'Section' here is, I believe, being used in it's loose sense of a 'group of people' rather than 'sub-division of a platoon'

2. Platoons would normally be commanded by a 2nd Lieut., who might well get promotion to Lieut. after a few months. Sergeants might be in temporary command after heavy casualties.

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Was it post-war that some platoons were commanded by sergeants (or at least permitted to be commanded by sergeants, not just as a temporary measure to account for subaltern casualties)? I'm sure I've seen Standing Orders for a particular regiment that give specific duties for sergeants in command of platoons (as opposed to 'normal' sergeants), but true to form I can't remember if they were in the SOs from just before the Great War or from the 1920s/30s.

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Barrie

For a short period from 1938 onwards there was a Warrant Officer Class III rank of "platoon sergeant-major" and these men commanded platoons, possibly with a view to further expansion in the event of war when greater numbers of "temporary officers" would be required. The WW1-era drill manuals also refer to platoons being commanded by sergeants on parade but it seems clear that this was only a temporary measure.

Dindiridin

A British WW1 platoon was normally of four sections, each of 12 men (if at full strength) under a sergeant or corporal. The 1917-18 version normall had about nine men plus the section commander, which with the officer, his batman, the platoon sergeant (2i/c) and a drummer/extra runner, made about 40-44. "3 and 27" applies more to WW2.

Ron

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Thanks Ron, thats good to know.

Barrie

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Hello everyone,

First of all, sorry it took me so long to answer. As always, thanks for these helpful answers :)

I have asked questions on a FR WW1 forum, and thanks to your answers and theirs, I now see more clearly the (lack of) correspondance between "platoon" and its would-be FR equivalent, "section". I'll got for "section" and put a translator's note the first time.

For "service" battalion, this will as well have to be explained in a translator's note.

Thanks a lot,

Dindiridin

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