The Corps of Interpreters: Not the Intelligence Corps in 1914
Dr Jim Beach of the University of Northampton corrects a historical error regarding the Corps of Interpreters’ relationship with the Intelligence Corps during the First World War.
In the late summer and early autumn of 1914, lots of men with language skills volunteered their services to the War Office. Many were accepted, commissioned, and told to obtain uniforms with General Service insignia before departing for the Western Front. Some worked in intelligence, some were employed as interpreters, and some started off interpreting before transferring to intelligence duties during the war’s first winter.
After the war their entitlement to the 1914 Star was collated into a single medal roll and, unsurprisingly, a succession of military intelligence historians (myself included) have treated them collectively as the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) Intelligence Corps. Which was understandable given that pre-war doctrine envisaged those functions being carried out by a single organisation.
But we all got it wrong. There were actually two separate organisations. The Intelligence Corps, yes, but also a smaller, short-lived, and rather unloved Corps of Interpreters.
Ongoing research into the First World War Intelligence Corps carried out by the Secret Soldiers project bumped into the interpreters early on and we also assumed that the two organisations were synonymous. But a perennial question was why some men became interpreters and others did not? There were no obvious sorting criteria. Further digging ensued.
Although it was a collective effort that caused the ‘a-ha moment’, there should be special mentions for Antony Baxter’s Stakhanovite work on the Gazettes and Jock Bruce’s brute force attack on the interpreters’ personnel files. It eventually dawned on us that while the organisations had some chronological coincidence and shared what today would be called the same career management office, they were completely separate entities.
The Corps of Interpreters eventually numbered around two hundred and was hastily formed in September 1914. The French army had provided interpreters to the BEF’s original divisions. But, because some of the next wave of reinforcements were earmarked for operations in Belgium, the War Office decided to deploy language volunteers to fulfil that function in the 3rd Cavalry, 7th and 8th Divisions. Furthermore, the Indian Corps was setting sail and it was felt that men who spoke both French and Hindustani would make good interpreters for that formation.
Unfortunately, in the hurry and scurry no-one thought to tell the BEF about the policy decision. Later, in November, the Adjutant-General (AG) of the BEF intervened to dissolve the Corps of Interpreters. Primarily, he took this step to resolve the duplication with the French army’s provision. Especially as native-speaking NCOs were better conduits to the local population than middle-class British officers. The AG was also not amused by the collective disciplinary record of the interpreters.
For more information about the scrapes that some of them got into, as well as additional detail on their backgrounds, recruitment, work, and subsequent military employment, please follow this link
It will take you to an open-access version of an article that Jock and I wrote about the interpreters. Although it banishes them from the history of the Intelligence Corps, it’s still an interesting story.
Alan d'Egville's Army Book 439, ASFIC 6410, MIM
Second Lieutenant Charles Kendall (family photo)