The Kaiser's Reluctant Conscript (Book) Review
by Chris Baker
Publisher: Pen and Sword Books Ltd
Author: Dominik Richert, Translated by David C Sutherland
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This is an unusual, educational and absorbing memoir of an infantryman's Great War and I recommend it. Translated from German, the writing is at times a little brusque and staccato in style but my goodness what an interesting tale. The writer Dominik Richert came from Alsace, that hotly contested region that between 1871 and 1918 was held by Germany. He spoke German and was conscripted for service in the Kaiser's army in 1913, but once war came found himself unable to return home. In 1918, exhausted by his experiences and increasingly disillusioned by the war he deserted to the French forces and found himself welcomed.
Richert served in some of the most important engagements of the war: the "Battle of the Frontiers" in Lorraine in autumn 1914 (in which he witnessed a German General ordering his men not to take French soldiers as prisoners but to kill them); in costly attacks against the British at Violaines in the Battle of La Bassee in October 1914; being raided by Indian troops in the trenches near Festubert; cold, hunger and madness as German troops are flung into suicidal frontal attacks against the Russians on the Eastern Front; the innovative and successful attack at Riga in September 1917; chaos in the Baltic states as Russia collapses after Lenin's revolution, and finally back to France where he witnesses at first hand terrific British superiority in material and firepower at Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918. He was back in Lorraine when he decided with others from Alsace to get out of the war and go across to the French, an act for which he was condemned to death by Germany. Richert describes these affairs at ground level: the weariness, hunger and loss of friends. He makes few comments about tactics or the higher conduct of the war but comes to a clear belief that it is not being conducted in the interests of the ordinary soldier or people at home. We come to see him as a serious but likeable fellow, with a great love of family and his Alsace home but no great allegiance to Germany or the army in which he is fighting.
For the technically minded, Richert served with the 112, 260 and 332 Regiments of Infantry, as a machine gunner with the latter. He mentions many comrades by name including a number who were killed in action and, no doubt, whose graves could be traced.
The book would have benefitted from the addition of an index an a few maps (particularly for British and Commonwealth readers, of the Lorraine and Eastern Front actions simply as they are less familiar) but for all that it is a most valuable addition to our understanding of the war.
Richert and his wife were deported to do forced labour in Germany in 1943.
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