French in the Trenches

Hello everyone, once again. Today I wish to share with you a work reproduced in Great Poems of the World War, edited by W.D Eaton. This book is fascinating, intriguing, pulling poems from soldiers who fought in WWI, most of who died before ever returning home. The poem I wish to share is called French in the Trenches by William J. Robinson, first published in the San Francisco Argonaut. This man tells a story of his meeting a french man in the trench whom he cannot communicate verbally with, yet the two form a brief, brilliant friendship, both also knowing deep down they will never see their wives and children again. Please note, the way “bonjour” is spelled is originally incorrect, so I left it as so, adding the “[sic]” as needed. I do hope you enjoy this heartwarming poem as much as I:

French in the Trenches

William J. Robinson

I have a conversation book; I brought it out from home.

It tells you the French for knife and fork and likewise brush and comb;

It learns you how to ask the time, the names of all the stars.

And how to order oysters and how to buy cigars.

But there ain’t no stores to buy in; there ain’t no big hotels;

When you spend your time in dugouts doing a wholesale trade in shells;

It’s nice to know the proper talk for theatres and such,

But when it comes to talking, why, it doesn’t help you much.

There’s all them friendly kind o’ things you’d naturally say

When you meet a feller casual like and pass the time o’ day.

Them little things that breaks the ice and kind of clears the air.

But when you use your French book, why, them things isn’t there.


This is what trenches were like in WWI. Image found on:


I met a chap the other day a-rootin’ in a trench.

He didn’t know a word of ours, nor me a word of French;

And how we ever managed, well, I cannot understand,

But I never used my French book though I had it in my hand.

I winked at him to start with; he grinned from ear to ear;

An he says, “Bong jour[sic], Sammy,” an’ I says “Souvenir”;

He took my only cigarette, I took his thin cigar,

Which set the ball a-rollin’, and so– well, there you are!

I showed him next my wife and kids; he up and showed me his,

Them funny little French kids with hair all in a frizz;

“Annette,” he says, “Louise,” he says, and his tears begin to fall;

We was comrades when we parted, though we’d hardly spoke at all.

He’d have kissed me if I’d let him. We never met before,

And I’ve never seen the beggar since, for that’s the way of war;

And though we scarcely spoke a word, I wonder just the same

If he’ll ever see them kids of his– I never asked his name.


Soldiers in WWI in a flooded trench. Image found on:


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