Like many of the older officers of the German Army I met, Von Heeringen spoke no English, in which regard he was excessively unlike ninety per cent of the younger officers. Among them it was an uncommon thing in my experience to find one who did not know at least a smattering of English and considerably more than a smattering of understandable French. Even that marvelous organism, the German private soldier, was apt to astonish you at unexpected moments by answering in fair-enough English the questions you put to him in fractured and dislocated German.
Not once or twice, but a hundred times during my cruising about in Belgium and Germany and France, I laboriously unloaded a string of crippled German nouns and broken-legged adjectives and unsocketed verbs on a hickory-looking sentry, only to have him reply to me in my own tongue. It would come out then that he had been a waiter at a British seaside resort or a steward on a Hamburg-American liner; or, oftener still, that he had studied English at the public schools in his native town of Kiel, or Coblenz, or Dresden, or somewhere.
The officers’ English, as I said before, was nearly always ready and lubricant. To one who spoke no French and not enough German to hurt him, this proficiency in language on the part of the German standing army was a precious boon. The ordinary double-barreled dictionary of phrases had already disclosed itself as a most unsatisfying volume in which to put one’s trust. It was wearing on the disposition to turn the leaves trying to find out how to ask somebody to pass the butter and find instead whole pages of parallel columns of translated sentences given over to such questions as “Where is the aunt of my stepfather’s second cousin?”
As a rule a man does not go to Europe in time of war to look up his relatives by marriage. He may even have gone there to avoid them. War is terrible enough without lugging in all the remote kinsfolk a fellow has. How much easier, then, to throw oneself on the superior educational qualifications of the German military machine. Somebody was sure to have a linguistic life net there, rigged and ready for you to drop into.
It was so in this instance, as it has been so in many instances before and since. The courteous gentlemen who sat at my right side and at my left spoke in German or French or English as the occasion suited, while old Von Heeringen boomed away in rumbling German phrases. As I ate I studied him.