on 26 December 2003
If like me you are a little nervous picking up books about war and think that they may only glorify the great scale of battles, victories and tactics then I would recommend the Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer. This book is a first person account of life on the eastern front from the perspective of a young, naive man, which simultaneously depicts the fall of nazi Germany and the destruction of the illusions of the German people.
When, as the teenage son of a French father and a German Mother Sajer signs up to join the German army, his enthusiasm for war is unbounded. However, three years of experience in the either scorched or frozen desolation of wartime eastern Europe reveals an unremitting crushing of his idealism. From the cruel army regime and its sometimes deadly training approach, through frostbite, starvation and the slaughter of friends, enemy and innocents, this account graphically reveals the true horror of war.
Many of the scenes in the book will haunt the reader for days afterwards. The sense of futility and the suspension of reason in the mad world of war grows throughout the book and the reader is drawn in deep; to the extent that you genuinely feel like you are sharing in the experience.
This book deserves to be compulsory reading for anyone who is interested in twentieth century history. It is worth a hundred dry historical accounts and demonstartes above all the power of the individual as a witness to a world and circumstances out of his control.
on 8 January 2003
This is truly a superb book, far surpassing anything in print today. The author (Guy Sajer) portrays the hopes and fears of the average soldier of the German Wehrmacht during the most epic and hostile conflict in human history. Unfortunately our soldier joins the struggle during mid-1942, the turning point of the war. As the vision of victory slowly subsides into the realisation of defeat, the author’s interpretation of modern warfare as desensitisation separates him from the sufferings of others. The comradeship of his unit and the immense acts of bravery by fellow soldiers offer a truly inspiring scene. This piece of literature gives a clear insight into the mind of those who continued to fight regardless of knowledge that the war was already lost. The account of the battle of Memel is horrifically illustrative. For anyone with the slightest interest in the war on the Eastern Front, read this book.
on 25 October 2000
I am able to review this early as I have unearthed an old edition. This book quite literally lives with you from the moment you open it, to the moment you finish...and then a bit longer. The story of a half-french, 17 year-old from Alsace takes you from his misguided decision to volunteer for military service, with the Nazi-German army, through the bloodiest, most ruthless and savage campaigns of the Eastern-Front. The sheer brutality, wretchedness and loss of reasonable hope is bewildering. The close knit team that develops and the esprit de corps of the Grosse Deutschland Division is inspirational. The gore and carnage they endure and inflict is awe inspiring. Such is the fierce reality of the writing, the images of battle and of frozen death, that I ended up having to keep reading until Guy Sajer (this is autobiographical) was in relative safety and comfort. I could not "leave him". Read it, you will then know what I mean. Whatever political persuasion you belive in or stand for, no 17 year old should be made to endure this. I cannot recommend a book more highly. Forget Blitzkrieg, this is Blitz-education. It batters your senses. Thank God my 5 years in the Army never came to this.
on 9 January 2002
A spellbinding book in which Guy Sajer vivdly recalls his own personal fight for survival on the Eastern Front during WWII. Sajer, a half French Half German volunteered to serve in the German Army when he was still too young to understand what war was about, his book vivdly illustrates how he discovered over his three years on the Eastern Front just what he'd let himself in for.No punches are pulled in this masterpiece, every terrifying, gruesome agonising moment is included as he describes how the simple soldier clung to his own life. The inhumane existence of soldiers on both sides is described with all it's lice-ridden detail and the reader will be left with compassion for anyone brave enough to keep going in what must have been a living hell.I finished this book and turned back to page one to start reading it again, after sharing Sajer's experiences with him.......you'll come away feeling different...maybe even shell-shocked. Everyone should read this masterpiece!
I defy anyone to put this down once started!
on 27 April 2001
This account of the war on the Eastern Front from 1942-45 by the Alsatian, Guy Sajer, is quite simply one of the most powerful, disturbing and brutally honest accounts of warfare published in the 20th Century.
Charting as it does Sajer's personal journey from an enthusiastic volunteer with dreams of becoming an aviator, to his capture at the hands of British soldiers on the banks of the Elbe, his book takes us on an odyssey of despair and is a reading experience that haunts the memory long after you have finished reading. It contains far too much detail for a normal book review to do justice to it, suffice to say it is a MUST READ for all those who would like to know what the Eastern Front was really like for the soldiers who fought and died on it.
Not a Shakespeare or a Mishima, Sajer nonetheless manages to convey in great detail and with startling honesty his travails as first a member of the 'rollbahn', struggling to re-supply the German front line through the truly frightening Russian winter and then as a member of the Gross Deutschland, fighting a desperate and constant rearguard action across the plains of Russia and the Ukraine against the relentless onslaught of the numerically superior Soviet Red Army, whose cries of 'Ourrah Pobieda !' chill the bone as much as the cold.
Sajer describes with great clarity the Battle of Belgorod, when his group experience for the first time the full horror of war. They try to shut their minds to what they see; mangled bodies, rotting corpses, a devastated town and the sheer terror of a Soviet artillery bombardment during which they accept that they will die. Sajer doesn't die, but survives, to continue his terrifying journey and to experience the side of war not normally found in the history books.
We become familiar with Sajer's self-confessed fears and his personal trials and tribulations. Everything from his dysentric diarrhoea, to his failure when given command is described in refreshing honesty. This soldier doesn't want to be known as a hero, he just wants to let people know what it was like on the Ost Front.
We get to know his friends and comrades, among them Hals, an ever-present through thick and thin, Lensen the courageous Prussian and August Wiener aka The Veteran, whose cynicism, humour and eventual self-sacrifice make him a truly unforgettable figure. We also get to know Sajer's commander, the correct and honourable Hauptmann Wesreidau, a soldiers soldier, who holds Sajer's group together through so much until he is killed by a partisan landmine. His death leaves Sajer's group feeling 'abandoned', such was the loyalty he engendered.
Towards the end of his myriad experiences, experiences which include everything from vicious hand to hand fighting with Soviet partisans to the misery of an endless hunger fuelled retreat across the Ukrainian plain, Sajer is unfortunate enough to see at first hand the fall of Memel in East Prussia. He paints a truly harrowing picture of the fall of this town, as his group try to hold together a rapidly diminishing front to allow hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians to escape from the tightening grip of the Soviet forces. It was an experience so mind numbing that even Sajer finds it hard to describe what he saw: 'Cruelty has never been more fully realised, nor can the word 'horror' ever adequately express what happened.'
For me, brought up on a diet of anti-German war films 'The Forgotten Soldier' comes as quite a jolt, describing as it does German soldiers as human beings, not as uncaring automatons, as Sajer himself says, 'For the rest of the world, there are German soldiers with no distinction between them......but beyond the uniform and the formula,we were individuals.' One cannot help but feel a sense of sadness at the deaths of some of these men, many of whom displayed astonishing courage in a merciless environment, against a relentless (and equally brave) foe, and who now lie unmourned and unremembered under the Russian plain. A truly tragic figure was young Frosch, who Sajer says he would recognise in any crowd. Frosch, was the butt of so many jokes and abuse, but manages to keep smiling and survives the Soviet army, only to be hung by his own MP's for pilfering some rations from a crashed lorry when he was starving.
Eventually Sajer, and the remnants of his group, escape from the clutches of the Ost Front by boat from the under siege ruins of Gotenhafen, and end their war in the West, surrendering to a British force after being attacked by mortars and pursued by half-tracks. The act of surrender was something never countenanced in the war against the Soviets by Sajer, no matter how bad things got it was a case of fight or die, but by now the realisation that victory was impossible had long since sunk in.
As Sajer himself says: 'Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves'. After reading this book you'll find yourself questioning whether it is worth getting worked up over lifes little irritations again.
'Guy Sajer...who are you ?' asks the preface to 'The Forgotten Soldier', the answer is, just an ordinary man who lived through extraordinary events and who did todays generation a service by letting us peer into these events.
on 27 September 2003
Sajers book of his experiences in the German Army in Russia is one of the most moving personal accounts I have read on the subject. His book begins with the almost happy, optimistic days of his basic training in Poland in 1942 and moves to the complete terror, horror and desperation of the retreating Wehrmacht in Russia. His account of the crossing of the Dniper river and the seige of Memel in East Prussia made a particular impact on me.
Sajer was first posted as a Rohlbann solider guarding trains supplying front line troops. Later he volunteered for the infantry and was trained for the elite Gross Deutchland division. His experiences in this division, which saw some of the most brutal and merciless fighting of the war were, as the author himself often aludes to, almost beyond description.
The book is a personal account written by a common soldier and does not offer any overview of the strategy or general objectives of the German command. Rather it describes in great detail and with much empathy, the suffering, depravation and above all terror and fear which Sajer and his comrades felt throughtout the war.
The book is best appreciated if read in conjunction with a historical account of the the German-Soviet war (Barbarossa by Alan Clark is an excellent introduction to the subject). In this way Sajer experiences can be placed in an overall context.
The book is well written and extremely readable. I read the soft back edition, however there is a recently released hardback version with extensive photographs. Sajers account is an excellent example of this genre of book and in my opinion compulsory reading for anyone who is interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the experiences of frontline German troops during this titanic and brutal conflict.