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Frederick the Great and a Wendish Soldier

Saturday 08 October 2016 at 4:42 pm.

Dr. Charles Wukasch shares some memories.


As I've pointed out several times, the Miertschins were one of the Serbin families which kept up Wendish for a number of years. If my memory serves me correctly, Carl Miertschin (the father of TWHS member Monroe) told me that his grandfather came over on the Ben Nevis. He passed the language on to Carl's dad, who passed it on to him. Carl wasn't as fluent as was his brother Martin (died around 1970) because Martin married a Bigon (I believe his wife was Herman Bigon's sister), another family which kept up Wendish. Carl's wife didn't speak Wendish.

It's interesting how different families had different attitudes toward Wendish. My great-uncle Hugo Hannusch told me once that his dad (Paul Hannusch, Grandma Wukasch's brother) didn't allow them to learn German and Wendish, saying "you're in America now - we speak English here." In other words, Paul equated language use with patriotism.

Here we're getting off the subject of Wendish, but knowing more than one language can sometimes save lives. Remember the famous Navajo code-breakers of World War II? These were Native American soldiers in the Pacific who had learned Navajo at home as their first language. They fooled the Japanese by passing on important military messages in Navajo, a language that no Japanese knew.

Speaking of multilingualism, I wonder how the Civil War soldiers (of either side, the Blue or the Gray) of Wendish descent managed to communicate with their fellow soldiers, especially the officers. Suppose a young recruit only knew Wendish (or at most Wendish and German), but whose sergeant spoke only English? By the way, it reminds me of an old story about a young soldier and Frederick the Great, neither of whom spoke the other's language.

I told you I'd tell you the story about Frederick the Great (in German: Friedrich der Große; in Wendish: Bjedrich Wulki or Stary Fryca, "Old Fritz").

Frederick and the Wendish Soldier

Frederick was like Gen. Patton, a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian who would like to make surprise inspections of his troops. Well, some of his soldiers didn't speak German. This particular one only spoke Wendish and was worried about being spoken to by Frederick. His sergeant, who was bilingual in both German and Wendish, told him not to worry. Frederick always asked the same three questions: How old are you? How long have you been in the army? Are you satisfied with both the food and the salary? So he told him how to answer in German "18 years old," "three days," "Both!"

Fine and dandy! But Frederick for once reversed the order of the questions. He first asked "How long have you been in the army?", to which the poor soldier answered "18 years." Frederick was astonished because the soldier didn't look that old. So he asked "how old are you?" "Three days old" was the answer. Frederick became furious and asked "are you crazy or am I?" The soldier replied "Both!" 

four comments

Richard Gruetzner

While we are delving into questions of language and the military, I’ll comment on Korla’s notes about the Code Talkers. The Navajo’s were NOT the first code talkers used by the US military. They just got better press in WW2. FACT: The Texas/Oklahoma National Guard 36th Infantry Division in World War One used members of the Choctaw Tribe to do the code talker thing against the Germans. The Choctaw are one of the five major tribes in Oklahoma and members of the tribe were in the 36th Inf. Division when the division was Federalized for service in the first world war. Their use as code talkers is recognized in an exhibit in the Texas Military Forces Museum in Austin.

Secondly, to the question of German/Wendish language problems in Civil War units, most units were recruited and/or drafted and formed out of specific geographic locations. So if German/Wendish was the common language for that area, there would be officers/NCO’s elected who could speak the common language as well as English. These issues were common enough that these factors were taken into consideration when units were formed. Plus, enough English could be learned by the soldiers to follow the simple drill commands used to conduct battle. The language used to talk among themselves in camp was not important.

Richard Gruetzner - 10/9/2016 01:42
George Nielsen

One of the reasons why many Texas Wends volunteered before they were drafted is that they could choose the unit or the leader who would lead them—and who spoke German. Volunteers also got a bounty.

That is a great Frederick the Great story.

George Nielsen - 10/9/2016 01:44
Charles Wukasch

Danke, Jurjo! I know another one. I’ll pass it on, although this one doesn’t involve the Wends and is a bit “sick,” one might say. Let’s hope it’s apocryphal. (Many if not most of the anecdotes about famous people are merely folklore.)

One day Frederick was reviewing a company of his soldiers when one of them sneezed loudly. Frederick asked “who sneezed?” There was total silence, so Frederick again asked who sneezed. Again, total silence, which “Old Fritz” found insubordinate. “For the last time, who sneezed?”

Again, silence, so Frederick ordered his personal guard to mow down the first rank. Pop! Pop! Pop!, etc. went the muskets and the first row bit the dust. “Now, who sneezed?” Again silence, so he ordered his personal guard to mow down the second rank. Pop! Pop! Pop!, etc. went the muskets again and the second row bit the dust.

“Now, who sneezed?” A soldier, shaking with fear, then replied timidly “It was me, sir!” So Frederick smiled and said “Gesundheit!”

As I pointed out in my article in Rozhlad on Texas Wendish folklore, many of the stories people tell have a didactic purpose, i.e., they teach a lesson. Like in the apocryphal story of George Washington and the Cheery Tree, the lesson to be learned above is “honesty is the best policy.”

Charles Wukasch - 10/9/2016 09:14
Charles Wukasch

Earlier I sent the stories of Frederick the Great and the Wendish Soldier and the (unnamed) story of Frederick reviewing his troops. That got me interested in Frederick, and in London several weeks ago, I bought a biography of this great man.

His greatest victory was the Battle of Leuthen in 1757, when Frederick’s Prussian (and Lutheran) army defeated the Austrian (Catholic) army. Even Napoleon, who didn’t like comparisons with his own greatness, felt that Leuthen was a masterpiece of military strategy. However, aside from that, it’s interesting that the victorious Prussian soldiers, after their victory, marched with band accompaniment to the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” (German “Nun Danket Alle Gott”). Historians think how stirring it must have been to have 25,000 soldiers singing this hymn in unison.

The history of the hymn should interest Lutherans. It was written by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), a Lutheran pastor and hymn writer (sort of an early Jan Kilian, one might say). During the brutal Thirty Years War (1618-48), he was pastor in the city of Eilenburg. He sometimes conducted 40-50 burial services per day, including that of his wife. Yet he never lost his faith and wrote the famous hymn, the first verse of which is

Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms,
Hath led us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

It’s interesting that Luther visited Eilenburg seven times. Furthermore, Eilenburg is located northeast of Leipzig in Saxony. It’s easily possible that Pastor Rinkart had some Wendish blood in him.


Charles Wukasch - 11/19/2016 23:18

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