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.