Our Military History Bookclub is currently reading The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, first published in French as Le Soldat Oublie in 1967.
The book is the memoir of Guy Sajer who served as a young conscript (16 or 17) in Germany’s army on the Eastern Front in World War II.
This book is standard on most professional military reading lists and is regarded as a classic memoir of warfare. Nevertheless, the book’s very readable narrative combined with the occasional factual error have promoted some to regard the work as fiction. The controversy, including arguments by detractors and proponents is more-or-less explained fully in this set of articles.
An excerpt from one of the book’s descriptive scenes of intense battle takes place while Sajer is fighting along with three to four companies of his Division against 300-400 Russian partisans:
I saw more partisans pouring from their log fort, and firing point blank at our men, who were exhilarated by the success of our action. In the general confusion, I opened fire along with everyone else. A tall Russian fired at me three times without hitting me, although I made no effort to dodge him. Then he rushed at me, shouting and waving his gun, holding the butt in the air. Two of our men joined me and fired at the Russian. He fell and tried to reload his gun, but we jumped him immediately, battering him with out butts. He died under our blows.
This is not the most brutal passage in the book (not by far), but it gives the general flavour of chaos and savageness that characterized combat on the war’s Eastern Front.
Many of Sajer’s most terrifying passages don’t concern combat at all: merely surviving Russian winters with poor equipment is an epic struggle in itself.
For about the last one hundred pages of the book the author deviates away from narrative description of events and moves into a narrative description of his emotional/physical state. The feeling for the reader is much like the end of the film Apocalypse Now wherein sense and civilization break down into a more brutish existence. Sajer’s attitude is clearly revealed from this passage near the end of the book:
We were trying to snatch a short rest in a cellar, where a doctor was delivering a child. The cellar was vaulted and lit by a few hastily rigged lanterns. If the birth of a child is usually a joyful event, this particular birth only seemed to add to the general tragedy. The mother’s screams no longer had any meaning in a world made of screams, and the wailing child seemed to regret the beginning of its life.
From Sajer’s point-of-view it seems that nearly all authority and organization within the Reich of completely fallen to pieces. This isn’t likely the precise situation. But from the viewpoint of a young non-commissioned infanteer – devoid of a sense of the larger picture – it must certainly have appeared that Germany had ceased to function.
The reader is left without a satisfactory conclusion, however. Like Sajer himself the reader remain with no clear understanding of the meaning of his War and even less understanding of how Sajer is to survive in the Peace.
In short, this book reflects the emotions of a soldier at war very well. The hardships that soldiers routinely endure are vividly communicated and will be well understood by those with military experience. The narrative is engaging but bogs down in a drudgery of suffering in the end. The reader’s suffering is, of course, muted by that of the soldiers (from all sides) who slaved through a land war in Asia.