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Remembered Today:

Non English speaking nationals in British Army


eltoro1960

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This question was asked of me today by the relative of a Lithuanian soldier I have been researching.

He was classified as Russian and served with Royal Scots Fusiliers and spoke little English,writing none what so ever.

He was not illiterate in Lithuanian however.

She was wondering who would censor his letters?

Would he have been forbidden from writing home if no one could read his letters?

I said I didn't think they would stop him writing home , however I couldn't answer her other question,the only solution I could think of was that Lithuanians were rarely sent to a unit on their own, perhaps there was an English writer in thier midst who obliged with letters home. Having said that how would they read them at the other end?

Certainly this method is not unheard of in British unit where the odd illiterate lad got a mate to write for him, very trusting and fraught with disaster if your mate is a 'bit of a wag' :blush:

Answers on a postcard (in English) please

Thanks

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Presumably there may well have been similar issues with Welsh speakers (on the assumption that the "posh lads" who made up the officer class were probably Anglophones)

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That did occur to me, Gaelic speakers of both varieties being another example, Highlanders and particulary Islanders had a far higher incidence of non English speakers than now, where most Gaelic speakers are bi-lingual.

A colleague of mine moved to Edinburgh from Barra at the age of 4, his parents spoke no English and Roddy had to translate everything that came through the letterbox for some years until they picked up English, and that was the 1950's.

John

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I seem to recall that Army Orders/ACIs allowed for Welsh letters to be specially forwarded via the War Office where there were presumably personnel who could censor them. Possibly the same facility was allowed to other language groups?

LST_164

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As well as the various flavours of Gaelic there might also be others for whom English was not the first language (Afrikaans, Canadian French etc) and even if they could write in English those to whom they wrote might not read English so they'd write in their first language. In the case of your Lithuanian if his English was so poor I'd have thought that there must have been someone in his unit who could translate any way or he would have been pretty useless as a soldier and possibly a danger (for example did he understand things like "cease fire", "take cover", "this is how a Mills bomb works" etc?).

Possibly in the case of units in Northern France and Belgium there may have been some local help available; an Afrikaner colleague of mine was amazed to find that she could be understood better in Belgium than in Holland. One of my uncles and his wife were both fluent in Gaelic and had students from France (who were going to teach in Brittany) come and stay with them in Sligo as it seems that the Irish flavour is fairly close (so Irish Gaelic speakers might have been dealt with by French liaison staff who spoke Breton?)

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She was wondering who would censor his letters?

What an interesting question. I have never thought of it before. The Russians in the CEF tended to be lumped together in platoons and sections in some cases, but I'm sure there must have also been onesies and twosies in several battalions.

I know some were very illiterate in spoken English; they must have relied on a mate to do drill and battle commands translation. Or wound up dead!

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Not directly related, but several years ago in Legion Magazine there were excerpts from the memoirs of a member of the CEF in which he states that he was assigned to specifically censor the letters of men with German ancestry. Can't remember if this had something to with his having the knowledge of the language. Not sure if I'll be able to find the magazine, so perhaps another member knows of this and can clarify.

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Thanks for all the replies, there must indeed have been some mechanism in place then to deal with these men's correspondence. Other ones for the list would be the large Indian Army contingent and the Chinese Labour Corps, a cast of thousands indeed.

In the case of this lad, Zigmar Velkitus, it possible as LST_164 suggested they were held somewhere and censored, Hamilton might have been a good call due to the close proximity of the local Lithuanian community.

Re words of command, most of the Lithuanians spoke rudimentary English so probably could 'muddle along' but no doubt would miss out on the subtleties of instructions given to them. Most of them had worked in the Coal fields or ironworks of the central belt of Scotland so were no doubt up to speed with 'artisan language' shall we say.

As an aside ,Zigmar died of wounds on 20th September ,1918 following an attack on the Canal du Nord at Moeuvres. He is being added to the war memorial in Glenboig,Lanarkshire,his adopted home town.

Thanks for the replies - John

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Lithuanian is written in the Latin alphabet, and if Velkitus was the only Lithuanian speaker whose letters needed censoring, I suspect that an officer in his unit, experienced at censoring the letters of English-speaking soldiers, would have had little difficulty in checking a letter in Lithuanian for the kind of basic 'taboo' information that a private might come into possession of — most of which would consist of readily recognisable proper names (of people, places, weapons, etc) and numbers/dates.

Mick

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Lithuanian is written in the Latin alphabet,

But at the time in question, it's just as likely that he was speaking Russian and writing with the Cyrillic alphabet. Education in Russia in the late 19th C/early 20th C was not geared towards ethnic minorities like the Lithuanians and Ukrainians. Indeed, many languages were intentionally stifled.

So, we have an officer puzzling over a document in an unrecognizable language, destined for family in Russia. As I say, interesting question.

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Here are a few sources on Lithuanians in Scotland that may be of interest, although they don't answer the original question.

http://sco-lt.com/1161/lithuanians-in-scotland/

http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:IuAm6rzqKLgJ:www.euppublishing.com/doi/abs/10.3366/inr.2000.51.2.166+Lithuanians+british+army+clergy&hl=en&gl=ca&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESh4B76RPp5PIzghfkOx07Ep-EL283VL07OhE3lOyvYxzREZkEXE8K-jh4LxCc2tmMrMq3rQoWpA2bh0p9v_8IpVv6Y61qZulcy208wGhxN3J65mhxVXXRtR3LdP8WK7Z7KhXeUw&sig=AHIEtbQOp9KUj86l2ij_5vdS-djrrfFdwA&pli=1

Both however state that the clergy encouraged members of the Lithuanian community to enlist in the British Army, and I wonder how many members of the clergy did so themselves. One of their duties would perhaps have been to censor the mail.

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But at the time in question, it's just as likely that he was speaking Russian and writing with the Cyrillic alphabet. Education in Russia in the late 19th C/early 20th C was not geared towards ethnic minorities like the Lithuanians and Ukrainians. Indeed, many languages were intentionally stifled.

So, we have an officer puzzling over a document in an unrecognizable language, destined for family in Russia. As I say, interesting question.

It's certainly a puzzle but I believe, if Mick is correct,that It would not be difficult to recognise taboo words in Cyrillic. They could only have been written phonetically anyway. An officer with a classical education including Greek, would have no difficulty in recognising say, Armentieres, in Cyrillic. As for Gaelic. Many gaelic speakers wrote in English and could read it. At the time Gaelic books were scarce. The people at the head of the glen or on a far isle were well used to dealing with letters from their seafaring sons.

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True, Tom. In fact, many of the Gaelic speakers were illiterate in Gaelic but literate in English. The great bard Domnhull Ruadh Choruna is an example. It was one of his comrades who wrote down his songs composed in the trenches. Such was the effect of the schooling system at the time. Antony

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As an aside ,Zigmar died of wounds on 20th September ,1918 following an attack on the Canal du Nord at Moeuvres.

Is that the one in which Wilfred Owen died?

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Interesting answers folks and a food for thought,I can't imagine how a man must have felt without his 'post' so gratifying that a procedure was in place.

Centurion - I think Wilfred Owen was killed a few later from memory,very near to the Armistice,but the old grey cells might be wrong.

John

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