Non-English speakers fighting in the civil war

There were a very large number of Mexicans (at least a quarter of a million) who volunteered to serve in the United States armed forces during WWII. I’m assuming at least some of them must not have been English speakers.

Well 1 in 4 American soldiers in WW1 were not born in the US (including my grandfather).

I can easily become boring about John Biggins’s novels on the theme of WWI and before, from the Austrian point of view – but I reckon them terrific, and wish the guy had written more of them. Am wondering whether the author might have got from the Slovaks using English, as above: the idea for his episode in which the hero / first-person narrator, an officer in the Austro-Hungarian navy, “blots his copybook” career-wise a year or two before WWI, and is assigned as punishment, the post of second or third officer on a river gunboat on the Danube in Hungary. The hero, a Czech, speaks German; and English (he had Anglophile parents), but no Hungarian. The boat’s Hungarian crewmen either have no German; or as a point of nationalist stubbornness, refuse to speak it. Most of them have learnt at least some English (they’re eager to emigrate to the USA); so the hero makes English, the command language of the boat.

Later on in the novel series, the hero (interested in aeroplanes, as a hobby) is assigned for a while, to flying duties – on two-man planes in which, at that time and place, the officer is the “observer”, and an “other rank” is the pilot. More language-related fun and games when it turns out that the hero’s pilot is Hungarian – a nice guy and eager to please, but a dreadful linguist: overall, he knows not a word of anything but Hungarian. With one exception: this bod has in the past, unsuccessfully studied for the priesthood for a while – so he knows some Latin. The hero dredges up bits of Latin from school lessons in the language; and for their flying exploits, the two make shift to communicate with each other in Latin. (“Accelera, inepte !: fly faster, you idiot (this guy’s trying to shoot us down)”.

I am convinced that the notion of anybody in the Austro-Hungarian military speaking English is purely fictitious. In this part of Europe in that day and age, even the educated usually did not speak English, let alone the common, enlisted man. In Austria-Hungary, every man who would have even been remotely considered officer material had to speak, read and write German (and Hungarian in the Hungarian part of the country). I’ve also read that the enlisted men in the Austro-Hungarian navy usually spoke Italian.

There also is the interesting case of Camillo Ruggera (1885-1947). He was born in Predazzo, Trentino (now Italy, back then a part of Austria-Hungary). He became an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, stayed in Austria after World War I and joined Austria’s post war army. In 1938, when Austria was annexed by Germany, he became a German officer and subsequently a full general in the Luftwaffe. I would guess that Ruggera was the only (Nazi) German general in WWII whose mother tongue was Italian.

Maybe – but one feels frivolously that if this stuff never happened, it ought to have ! I’d be willing to bet that – the Empire having been mostly Catholic – Latin was resorted to now and again, in extremis. With the Empire’s short Adriatic coast being largely in Italian-speaking territory, “widespread sailors’ Italian” makes sense. The Biggins books refer to the submariners using to some extent, Italian as a lingua franca.

This “Italy = Austria = Germany” business, is altogether strange stuff. One gathers that nowadays, some inhabitants of Trentino are German-speaking reluctant Italian citizens, who would prefer to belong to Austria. This guy, though, was ethnically Italian – humans are marvellously contrary and odd.

(Both quotes snipped)
Almost certainly not in both cases

See page 2, table 2.

From the above .pdf: “many Germans who lived in Wisconsin… …did not learn English even after residing in the United States for many years.”

Of people polled 50 years after the mass German migration ended, approximately one quarter of people reported still speaking only German. We’re deep into the second generation by that point.

That was in rural Wisconsin, though. Colibri’s ancestor enlisted (and maybe lived) in New York City, the melting pot of all melting pots. If back in the 19th century, you lived in an ethnically homogeneous and remote community, you would have had little exposure to the English language. I wonder if this was typical for the United States in the second half of the 19th century?

Nonsense. As has been pointed out, that information is from rural Wisconsin, not New York, where as I said my ancestor had lived for a dozen years. He was a tailor, not a farmer. You’re certainly wrong in the case of my ancestor specifically. I believe he was naturalized before the war, and afterward he filed a lot of paperwork in English regarding his pension for disability. He certainly spoke English at the time of the War.

Nonsense. The German population in New York was as ethnically segregated as some little town in Wisconsin.

Because your ancestor has filed paperwork in English related to him is pretty poor evidence of his fluency.

Here’s a catchy song from the Civil War:

97th Regimental String Band: I Goes To Fight Mit Sigel (Youtube)

New York as a melting pot? I think you’re ignoring the well-documented auto segregation by ethnicity that began when the Dutch arrived.
A German speaker in Little Germany in 1860 would have basically no need of English.

That article says no such thing. In any case, so what? In an urban area they still would have had to interact more with English speakers than in rural areas.

I’m not sure why you think you know more about my ancestor than I do.


Oh, OK.

Thank you for fighting my ignorance!

You’re welcome.

Just because people might have spoken German day-to-day doesn’t mean they would never have learned any English. And the assumption that because some Germans in rural Wisconsin spoke German a middle-class immigrant who had been in New York for a dozen years would “almost certainly” not have acquired any knowledge in English is frankly ridiculous, especially when he was able to write it.

From here.

It doesn’t “sound” that hard. In the French Foreign Legion, the medium is of course French, and few non-native French volunteers actually speak it. Yet they learn it fast enough, without seeming disadvantaged over the French speakers.