A bad weather tale from Flight Lieutenant Colin Urquhart, 8 (Naval) Squadron's novice French teacher...
A journal of the Great War – By an Anonymous Aviator
After a week of flying in foul weather, seeing nothing, we were blessed with three days of sheeting rain and hammering wind. A Flight lost a hangar and the south end of our field became a lake and a Nieuport blew over and fell apart and I slept in until nine. Better this than a sojourn on a South Seas island, says I.
We set our minds to basking in idleness or otherwise amusing ourselves. Reggie Soar practised shuffling cards like a Monte Carlo dealer and Booker and Simpson, having acquired some balsa wood and glue, engaged in a contest to see who could build the oddest model aircraft that would actually fly. Booker’s aircraft looks to take the prize, it being a preposterous five-planed thing with a biplane tail. He says he will find a mouse to be test pilot and set it aloft. Simpson swears he’ll shoot it down with his Webley.
Squadron Commander Bromet surveyed us at lunch on the second washout day, the 18th, asking who could speak French. Several of the lads were proficient. The French I’d learned growing up in Montreal was likely to be unintelligible here, but I suspected that the volunteers might be dispatched to Paris on some mission of interest so I made the mistake of raising my hand. The OC had decided to put on lectures, and basic French was on the curriculum. Grange and Squadron Commander Bromet would prepare lessons for the officers. Compston and I would teach those below decks.
My first lesson was memorable. Twenty sullen Ack Emmas and assorted other ranks gathered in a spare hangar across the way in 32 Squadron territory. Folding chairs were assembled in rows.
“You may smoke,” I began. About a dozen of the men were already on their second cigarette. “Today we’re going to go on about conversational French. What would you like to learn?”
There was a great deal of interest in the proper phrasing of indecent proposals, but my own vocabulary was not up to the task. Nor was my personal experience. I began with basic foodstuffs and counting, the phrases needed for shopping. “What is the French word for beer? I asked.
“Bière,” replied twenty voices in unison. I’d clearly started with familiar terms.
“And how would one ask Madame Bossu for an egg?” I asked next, referring to mistress of Vert Galant farm
Now there was hesitation, except for one bulky, red-faced seaman, obviously from Glasgow. “Och, surr. Yon’s an easy one. Ye ask the missus fer an OOF.”
“Dalgliesh it is. The French for egg is OEUF. Now, Dalgliesh, how might one ask Madame Bossu for TWO eggs?”
The ruddy face wrinkled in thought. “It’s like at hame in Glesga, surr. I allus ask the missus fer TWA oofs.”
“Indeed,” I remarked. "And does that work for you, Dalgliesh?”
“Aye surr,” he said. “But the daft auld wumman aye gies me THREE eggs. I just hand the spare one back.”