Friday, 27 March 2009

The Forgotten Soldier

Sometimes you just gotta put things into some sense of perspective...

You may know that I'm an avid reader. Mum instilled in me from the youngest age (thanks to Dr Seuss, I'm sure!) a passion for books and reading. Whilst I readily admit I have a very eclectic taste in reading (anything from autobiographies to poetry to ancient history to philosophical theology to... sheesh!), there's often not much more satisfying than finding yourself lost in the world of a good book.

This week I found myself re-reading an autobiographical book I picked-up second-hand a few years ago that is both inspiring and gut-wrenching at human-kinds' ability to survive in the face of the worst mankind can throw at ourselves... let me say that awful sentence again. Imagine being a plain-vanilla foot soldier fighting in one of the worst and bloodiest wars in recent history, yet being on the loosing side. Writing about his own personal experiences is this guy's amazing story.

THE FORGOTTEN SOLDIER by Guy Safer. Translated from the French by Lily Emmet. 465 pages. New York: Ballantine Books, 1967; London: Sphere Books, 1986.

A 16-year old Frenchman volunteers to join the WWII German army in 1942 (he's no Nazi, just a 'grunt' soldier), and joins the fighting at the front just after the fall of Stalingrad (Russia) in the freezing winter of early 1943... he describes in some quite disturbing detail the effects of his experiences at things he sees first-hand in the nightmare that was fighting along the Russian front. How he survives is beyond comprehension. He spends the next few years on a seemingly-never-ending retreat in the face of vengeful and hostile Russian armies, all the while seeing his friends die all around him.
russian front in the snow

"This devastating first-hand story of a young German soldier trapped in the lethal machinery of total war on the Eastern Front in World War II captures the real experience of modern war in all its shattering terror.

This is one man's true story of the bitter, killing cold of the Russian winter, of vicious combat against Russian partisans, and of the carnage of battles against a desperate but merciless Red Army with its mind-numbing artillery attacks and endless waves of infantry and tanks.

Posted to the crack Grosse Deutschland division, with its savage training where sadistic instructors will shoot down those who fail to shape up, the soldier enters a violent and remorseless world that relentlessly destroys any hope and ideals and where all that matters is brute survival fighting a relentless enemy." (Source)

The aim of writing the book was, for him, "to reanimate with all the intensity I can summon those distant cries from the slaughterhouse."*

What he is finally saying is: Don't judge me, be me.*

This does not glorify war or fighting, but rather highlights the absolute futility of war. "Sajer, doomed to survival, may be as moving an argument against war as all the corpses he unflinchingly bears witness to."*
In the end, because he's on the "losing side", he's simply advised by the victorious French allies to "just forget all about it", as if it didn't happen...

How is anyone supposed to "simply forget" life-changing experiences like that?

"Shall I ever deserve pardon? . . . Can I ever forget?"*

It's... errr... obviously a pretty heavy read!!! Fascinating tho, but not in a gruesome way. It's actually a good read, despite my poor description... even some countries advise their military trainees to read it, to try to begin to appreciate the meat-grinder of face-to-face combat.

Hopefully it puts them off wanting to do it...

*Time magazine wrote an interesting article about his book when it was released in the late 60's. "He is a soul as devastated as a Russian battlefield and he knows it."

I know it's not something you'd wanna rush out and read a copy of! I just find personal warts'n'all stories absolutely fascinating...

... on another tack... I'll keep politely bugging you about visiting to simply encourage "Jordan's Journey", you know... [giggles happily].

Peas be with ewe
Mal :)

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  1. Sounds like a very heavy book...but an interesting one, especially since he was on the "losing" side. It would be intriguing to read his perspective.

  2. I have always been an avid reader too. I have instilled it in my children also.
    I just purchased a book that I took ages to find. I read it as a kid, it was my first purchase. It is called "Can I get there By Candlelight". My girls are adoring it.

  3. Try some Lyn MacDonald. She has written more books about WW1 than yI've hadhot dinners but they're wonderful historical documents. Her book Somme had me sobbing in parts. My grandpa survived those trenches but he was a miserable man for it.

  4. I love books that stay with you... this sounds like a perfect example!