by Guy Sajer published by Cassell
by Ian Langworthy, Historian and Battlefield Guide
It is the current conflict in Ukraine and all the weather and logistical problems, as well as the names of the towns being fought over that reminded me, I have heard this all before, told in graphic detail by a young Frenchman in his book ‘The Forgotten Soldier’.
Guy Sajer was brought up near Strasbourg, his mother was German and his father was French. Intermarriage in border areas was quite common and after all, the French provinces of Alsace Lorraine were part of Germany between 1870 and the end of WWI. Sajer was only 13 when WWII broke out and by the latter part of 1942, German success was at its height. Young Sajer, now nearly 17, was impressed by the smartly dressed and well-equipped soldiers he saw marching off to the front and there were rumours that French soldiers also formed part of this victorious army.
He joined up and being relatively young was assigned after initial training to a battalion protecting rail and road convoys to the eastern front. Ironically, when he joined up his German was poor and he spoke it with an appalling accent which was mocked by his new ‘Kameraden’, but they took him under their wing and some were destined to be his friends throughout the war.
By now, however, the tide of war was beginning to turn. The German 6th army was surrounded at Stalingrad, Montgomerys’ 8th army was having success in North Africa and the Americans had entered the war. Very little of this was known to Sajer and his group, and what was known about Stalingrad was spun as a temporary setback.
The book, which is billed as a true story, describes Sajer’s experiences fighting mainly in Ukraine, as the Red Army pushed the Germans back westwards. By now, the shortage of men facing the Germans meant that Sajer was now in a fighting unit as part of the GrossDeutschland Division, an elite part of the Wehrmacht (the regular army).
He describes the bitter winter of 1942/43 when temperatures plunged to 20c below and more for weeks on end. The reader will feel the cold and hunger described and witness the deaths of many of Sajers’ group of friends. After the winter, there is the mud and slush of spring followed by the hot dry dust of the vast Ukrainian steppe. All the time Sajer has no real idea of what is going on, what the big picture is or his part in it. He advances when told to and retreats when so ordered. The reality of the fighting is awful. The Red Army on one side Russian and Ukrainian partisans on the other. Names unfamiliar then but all too familiar now; Kharkiv and Kyiv (Kharkov and Kiev to the Germans) Belgorod in Russia, mentioned in the news only last month figure in the book. Very little quarter is given by either side and the fighting becomes more brutal and bitter as the Red Army pushes westwards.
Eventually, the GrossDeutschland ended up in East Prussia and were virtually destroyed in fighting in Memel (now Klaipeda in Lithuania). After weeks of defending an ever-shrinking enclave and trying to evacuate as many civilians as possible from the wrath of the advancing Russians, Sajer is evacuated by ship to face the British troops advancing from the west. He is shocked and has no idea that the front in the west has virtually collapsed. When soldiers surrender to the British they are not shot by their captors or their own officers for cowardice, as would have happened in Russia.
Sajers captors don’t know what to do with him, a Frenchman fighting with the Germans, after interrogation he is advised to join the French army to rehabilitate himself and in the meantime, he is sent home. The account of his homecoming is very moving and will bring a tear to your eye. But this is not a story of a group of rabid Nazis fighting for the Fuhrer and Fatherland, but a group of young men, who could have been in any army, just trying to stay alive.
I haven’t done the book justice in this review. I have read ‘The Forgotten Soldier’ at least 5 times over the years and if I was castaway on a desert island, I would want this book with me. If I had to save one book from the many hundreds that populate my bookshelves, it would be this. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I have.