Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a fascinating and occasionally hilarious guide written for GIs headed to Britain—then half-ruined by war—in 1942. Subjects range from common-sense basics ("instead of railroads, automobiles, and radios, the British will talk about railways, motor-cars, and wireless") to subtle social pitfalls regarding race, sex and income. You can read it online for free; following are some choice excerpts.

The British don't know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don't know how to make a good cup of tea. It's an even swap.

The British are often more reserved in conduct than we. On a small crowded island where forty-five million people live, each man learns to guard his privacy carefully-and is equally careful not to invade another man's privacy.

If you are invited to eat with a family don't eat too much. Otherwise you may eat up their weekly rations.

The British are used to this [monetary] system and they like it, and all your arguments that the American decimal system is better won't convince them.

A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can and often does give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this war. They have died at the gun posts ... When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic--remember she didn't get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.

The British have seen a good many Americans and they like Americans. They will like your frankness as long as it is friendly. They will expect you to be generous.

Don't be misled by the British tendency to be soft-spoken and polite. If they need to be, they can be plenty tough. The English language didn't spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the world because these people were panty-waists.

The British have theaters and movies (which they call "cinemas") as we do. But the great place of recreation is the "pub."

30

  1. “The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the world because these people were panty-waists.”  I can almost see some John Cleese-esque lieutenant screaming at the troops in some god-forsaken African fort in the mid-19th century.  “Right you lot!  These heathen savages need t’ know how to conjugate a verb, an’ the fastest way for them to learn is by shooting them!  Now prepare to stand and defend literacy with every drop of blood in your body!”

        1. “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” — James Nicoll

  2. There’s a film for GIs about living in the UK too. In it, a British woman invites both a white and black GI round together for dinner. The American commentator (Edit – it was Burgess Meredith) advises the white GIs not to be shocked by this, and implies the British don’t know any better.

    Edit – It was called “A Welcome to Britain” http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/17625?view=synopsis

    1.  I believe that many black GIs were genuinely astonished by how warmly welcomed and well-treated they were by the British. (So much so that quite a few stayed on and married here.)
      It has been claimed that impetus for the civil rights movement was partly born out of the experience of black GIs questioning why they could be well treated abroad but not at home.

  3. What better reason to bring back pounds, shillings and pence. People forget the advantages for division of a base twelve and base twenty system. Why would we want a decimal sytem just ‘cos everybody else has one?

  4. “A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can and often does give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this war. They have died at the gun posts … When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic–remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.”

    Wow. Just …wow.

    What a shame us Brits forgot all that after the war.

    1. That was one of my favourite quotes; the author(s) knew wxactly how to communicate succinctly and colourfully: 

      “The beer is now below peacetime strength, but can still make a man’s tongue wag at both ends.”

  5. It’s funny to learn that Americans tried to convince the British that a decimal system was better than an arbitrary unit system back in the 40s.  A shame they didn’t take their own advice back then where it comes to the metric system. It’s one of the most irritating things about having grown up in the US that despite my wishes, my brain does and probably always will think in terms of inches and ounces and a shoe-sizing system based on the lengths of barley corns (really).

    1. So what? The other shoe sizing systems are just as inscrutable – and a rational one based on, say, the length of the foot in cm, would not actually work any better. 

    2. Canadians strode ahead in the switch to metric, and then stopped half way! As a result generations have grown up without any common understanding of weights and measures. Don’t know what an inch is. Don’t know what a centimetre is. England is not much different. We buy our petrol in litres and drive in miles. 

  6. Picked up a copy of the manual they printed for troops on the ground in France at Shakespeare & Co.  Equal number of gems: whoever wrote that was writing for their audience, and not some general or political hack.

  7. I’m reminded of the old joke: God invented war to teach Americans geography.  A joke that’s no longer quite as funny as it used to be, now that I wish I could forget where Afghanistan is.

    1. There are still plenty of Americans who think that Afghanistan is somewhere between The Eye Rack and Eh-Raybeeyah.

Comments are closed.