La grande guerre, “The Great War,” the First World War, World War I, The War To End All Wars, was primarily fought in France. I can’t imagine how to talk about all of the ramifications of the effects of the First World War through French history, art, politics, even cuisine; certainly European history, and indeed, the history of much of the planet. It would be pretty fair to say that the European refugee/migrant crisis today is related to the fact that Germany is incredibly welcoming to refugees; that Germany is so incredibly welcoming to refugees today because it murdered millions of civilians during the Second World War; and that the Second World War came about in part due to the effects of the First World War. (You’ve probably heard it said that “the first shot of the Second World War was the Treaty of Versailles“–the codification of the German terms of surrender at the end of the First World War. The treaty contributed enormously to the German sense of humiliation that helped to build support for the next war in 1939.)
Military language has a very rich vocabulary of its own. It includes both technical language, and slang. The French military is one of the most highly developed in the world, and the French language has a rich military vocabulary. Here are some words that you would need to know in order to read about the First World War in French. Bear in mind that I have no idea how many of these are still in current use, or not. Can native speakers help? A couple of these are cavalry terms. France still had active cavalry units in the First World War, and Céline’s Bardamu in Voyage au bout de la nuit serves in a mounted unit.
- la tranchée: trench.
- le fourgon: ammo truck. In general French: a truck.
- le dragon: A cavalryman. From the 8th edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française: Il se dit aussi d’un Soldat d’un des corps de cavalerie de ligne. Il est dans les dragons. Régiment de dragons. Colonel, capitaine de dragons. Le casque d’un dragon.
“It is also said of a soldier of a line cavalry corps.” I found this one as early as the first edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, published in 1694: On appelle, Dragons, Des arquebuziers a cheval, qui combattent tantost à pied, tantost à cheval. Les dragons d’une armée. une compagnie de dragons. Capitaine de dragons. “We call Dragons, mounted arquebus carriers, who fight sometimes on foot, sometimes mounted.” (Don’t you love that tantost, where current French has tantôt? See here for more from various and sundry historical dictionaries.)
- le brigadier: a brigadier general. It can also indicate a corporal; I think this might be somewhat specific to the cavalry. Here’s part of the entry from the 6th edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, published in 1835: Il se dit maintenant Du militaire qui a, dans la cavalerie, le grade correspondant à celui de caporal dans l’infanterie. Brigadier de chasseurs, de dragons, etc. “It’s now said of the soldier who, in the cavalry, has the rangk corresponding to that of a corporal in the infantry.” Later, in Emile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la langue française, published between 1872 and 1877, we see this: Titre donné au soldat revêtu du grade le moins élevé dans la cavalerie. “Title given to the soldier decorated with the least elevated rank in the cavalry.” (See here for more from various and sundry historical dictionaries.)
- le convoi: convoy.
- une escuade: squad.