Thursday, 8 November 2012

Book of the month: The Forgotten Soldier

Now and then you stumble upon a book which really just blows you away with its sheer intensity, and The Forgotten Soldier is one of these. It was written by Guy Sajer, a young man of mixed Franco-German parentage who volunteered to serve as an infantryman with the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in WW2. It is intriguing because it is his account of what it felt like to be on the ground as part of Army Group Centre during some of the biggest and bloodiest land battles of WW2.

I have not yet finished the book, and have resisted doing further research on Sajer himself, because I don't want to find out what happens to him in 1944-45 (the last section of the book). He obviously survives, as he mentions returning to live in France after the war (listening quietly to the boasts of French 'veterans' in a cafe), but the intensity of his exposition and the drama of the events he relates is so gripping that the reader literally can't put it down, which does not often happen with memoirs of this kind (although there are some good examples out there - I've raved about Robert Mason's Chickenhawk before). This has much to do with Sajer's ability as a writer, but also because of the emotional experience comes through in a way that it doesn't in some other memoirs, which can seem detached when the author is recalling events separated from them by decades.

Increasingly, WW2 accounts by German soldiers are finding their way into English, but up until recently the war in the east was not as well covered in this language, when it comes down to the accounts of individual combatants. Even Sajer occasionally gets vague about events, individuals and units that could be held to account for war crimes, as there is obviously a fear of guilt by association - e.g. when he is on a train which is attacked by Soviet partisans and takes part in a brutal follow-up operation.

It also seems to have quickly become generally accepted by both sides that prisoners only be taken when there were orders to do so. Some German units seem to have simply disarmed their prisoners and turned them loose, which given the weather conditions was probably tantamount to shooting them anyway. Others lacked the food and resources to feed prisoners, so simply shot anyone surrendering. It all contributed to a do-or-die attitude on both sides: the epic last stand of 7000 German troops caught on the wrong side of the river Dnieper during the retreat to Kiev is related in bloody detail, the last sad chapter in a Dunkirk-like evacuation operation of more than 150,000 troops across the river, under daily attack from enemy planes.

Sajer does a great job of remembering how he felt at the age of 16 when he first enlisted, and why he did it (as a French national he did not get drafted). He relates, for example, his hope - certainty even - that the French would join the fight on the Eastern Front, and his disappointment when this did not occur. It is interesting how his idealism about the mission of the Third Reich is gradually beaten out of him in the course of events, as he begins to realise the war in Russia in unwinnable. Soldiers on the ground obviously hoped that Hitler would at some point come to terms with Stalin, or that the Soviet Union would accept a frontier on the Dnieper river. There was an assumption that a higher degree of rationality prevailed in Berlin than was actually the case.

German troops in the Soviet Union, circa 1943
Information and communications were also very poor: the German high command obviously realised that morale could quickly become a problem, and managed information dissemination very carefully. Many soldiers did not realise that the Sixth Army in Stalingrad had become cut off until it was close to collapse. The shock of Stalingrad's fall in 1943 was enormous, as it transformed the entire character of the war for the Germans, and sowed the first doubt in the minds of ordinary soldiers that the USSR could be beaten.

Without radios and limited accurate maps (generally only officers had these), soldiers were often left to blunder around in the dark. Sajer and his colleagues were constantly getting lost before, during and after battles, and bumping into other units and tanks that were also lost. The Russians had similar problems.

The conditions of fighting in the east were some of the worst faced by any combat soldiers in WW2, particularly in the winter months. Casualties from cold and disease were substantial, and half the battle for Sajer was a struggle against the elements and disease, particularly in his case, dysentery. Soldiers were badly fed, often badly led, and were expected to stand and die in the face of enormous firepower from the Russian side. Sajer is caught in a number of heavy bombardments, including from katushya rocket batteries, and this more than anything else seems to have come close to unhinging him. When morale started to ebb, it seems to have drained out of the army en masse. Belief in the mission simply evaporated, and the struggle became more on of survival than anything else.

The young Guy Sajer
There are also moments of humour, and here Sajer's dry sense of wit comes across from what I assume was originally French (as German was his second language). There were funny moments amidst all the tragedy. One of my favourites is when the survivors of a random bombardment of a front line village - both Russian and German - try to figure out who should be surrendering to who, or when a Soviet T34 tank is chased off a battlefield by a lone German half track with no AT weapons to speak of. Sajer's sense of irony also comes through in his relations with the German non-coms (whom he hates) and the officers (who seem to be generally worshiped).

This has to stand as one of the classic WW2 memoirs, and anyone interested in the war on the Eastern Front from the perspective of the man on the ground should read it. Frankly, I think it ought to be compulsory reading at school, far superior to much of the tosh I had to read, and an important lesson to the iPhone generation, who have only GCSE exams to face at 16, not Russian tanks.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent summary - halfway through this book and couldn't agree more with your take on it. Never felt more fortunate to live in safety and security of peacetime.