The Forgotten Soldier

Front Cover, The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer. Translated from the French by Lily Emmet, 1967/1972.

Front Cover, The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer. Translated from the French by Lily Emmet, 1967/1972. GGA Image ID # 17f9929e32

Ballantine books, 1972. First Printing, 566 pages.

Book Description

The most shattering Slaughter - Saga of our Age.

Autobiography/war book - The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer an international best seller. The greatest true story of armed combat ever written.

The forgotten soldier brings the reader closer to the actual experience of twentieth - century warfare in all its shattering terror that any other book. "This devastating first hand story of a young German soldier trapped in the lethal machinery of total war is probably the most powerful reading experience you will ever have."

The Forgotten Soldier Fiction or Fact

First published in English in 1971. The Forgotten Soldier has captured the imagination of soldiers intrigued by the war on the Eastern Front in World War II.

The book was translated from the French and written by a “Guy Sajer." nom de plume for the real author. Recently reprinted, the book has been reviewed and acclaimed by educated military reviewers who cite it as an example of "a powerful firsthand account." (1) Is it or isn’t it a "firsthand account" and, if not. what difference does it make?

In reality, Ute book is a carefully written novel that cleverly disguises as a factual account. It is a fictional work cited by a number of readers as documented fact.

It is a piece of literature; the personal ideas of what war is like from an author who is not the character in the book which is taken as reality by others who wish to validate their theories of what combat was like for a German soldier.

The Forgotten Soldier provides a useful example of how analysis of historical works can prove or disprove, lend credibility, or discredit supposed "history."

The book recounts the trials of a young soldier from Alsace-Lorraine. Enlisting in the German Army in the fall of 1942, Sajcr takes the reader through his wartime experiences as a member, first, of a Luftwaffe training unit, then a support unit, and finally, as a member of the elite Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland.

The book is accurate, but not to a "tea." Amazingly. the author takes great pains to ensure that his story parallels the actual history of the famed Grossdeutschland. however, he fails to perform the necessary work to ensure that the technical details match reality.

In short, his book, though interesting and imaginative, is a hoax with no attempt to present it as such. In fact, the book has been cited as a factual source on life in the German Army on the Eastern Front. (2)

The first page of the prologue gives some indication of the problems of veracity to follow in the book. Sajer begins his story with an account of selection for training with the Luftwaffe. He does not pick a nondescript training unit but chooses to train with a Stuka unit commanded by one of the greatest pilots of the Luftwaffe. Hans-Ulrich Rudel. (3)

It is here that the first error is found in Sajer’s work.

A fast cross-referencing with Stuka Pilot, Rudel’s autobiography, shows that Rudel was indeed with a training unit in the late summer and early fall of 1942. What it also shows is that the squadron was nowhere near Chemnitz or Dresden as stated by Sajer. In fact. Rudel's unit was located near Graz in southern Austria, a substantial distance to the south. (4)

One error is not enough to disqualify a work as totally incorrect, but Sajer does not stop at this point. The most obvious mistake by the author is the misplacement of the elite unit insignia supposedly worn himself for two years in the German Army. On p. 122. Sajer claims the insignia, a cuff title, was worn on the left sleeve of his tunic. (5) In reality, the unit insignia was always worn on the right sleeve.

Additionally, other indicators contribute to the evidence that, taken as a whole, leaves no doubt as to the authenticity of the story. For example, his cited battalion—the 17th—never existed in the Grossdeutschland. (6)

His description of the ammunition, 7.7-mm., would have fit Japanese weapons, but not German, which took 7.92-mm. rounds. Probably most convincing, his company commander. Hauptmann Wesreidau does not exist on the rolls of the division officers. (7)

Could errors have been made in editing the draft? Possibly, but not likely, at least not in the quantity made in The Forgotten Soldier. Could the author have forgotten the details or mixed them up? Again, a possibility, but very unlikely. The book was published a little over twenty years after the war. Soldiers, especially those of elite units, tend at least to recall correctly the major facts, such as locations and elite uniform insignia.

The single most discriminating "fact” is Sajer’s assertion that his distinctive unit cuff title was worn on his left sleeve. This appurtenance was not a common item issued to every soldier and was authorized only for certain units that had distinguished themselves or were considered elite.

To wear the band of cloth with the unit's designation was considered an honor. To cite the location on the wrong place is unimaginable, or is it?

The uninformed historian might look at pictures of German soldiers and find cuff bands worn on the left sleeve. A hasty examination would show a number of such pictures. A major point of fact clears up this apparent problem.

The truth is that the Waffen-SS wore their cuff titles on the left sleeve, and the majority of the army wore theirs on the right The Grossdeutschland, an army unit, always wore theirs on the right. Hence, a hasty check by the author "Sajer” might have been with pictures of the Waffen-SS, not army units, and certainly not the Grossdeutschland. (8)

While fictional works perform several functions, presenting conjectured accounts as fact is not one the professional soldier should seek to satisfy. Fictional works may be entertaining and might give a notional idea of the human dimensions of war or show how the moral and physical effects "both relate to the physical environment within which engagements and battles arc fought." (9) They do not chronicle fact. For this reason, they should be used with care in scholarly works citing "real life" examples. (10)

The use of fiction as fact becomes dangerous, since incorrect lessons can be learned, or improper analyses made regarding cause-and-effect relationships. After all, why arc professional soldiers interested in military history if not to leant from actions which can never be simulated in a peacetime environment?

The Forgotten Soldier is not a completely useless book. It portrays fairly accurately the life of the common soldier in World War II on what was one of the most vicious fronts of the war.

The reader gains an appreciation for the harshness of war and the feelings of the individual soldier not usually available in regimental histories. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, it has its place in military literature.

The Forgotten Soldier is an interesting example of a fictional work taken at face value by well-read soldiers and even cited for purposes of professional study. The discriminating soldier can read the book and take it for what it is, a novel with the author's own imaginary concepts and ideas of what war is supposed to be like and how soldiers react to war. Care must be exercised not to place too much stock in its lessons without due consideration of the source of these lessons.

Maj. Edwin L. Kennedy, Jr., is an instructor at the Center for Army Tactics, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Notes

  1. Col. Harold W. Nelson, “From My Bookshelf,” Military Review (March 1990): 90. The School for Advanced Military Studies Bibliography for 1989-90, p. 10, states: “It reads like a novel...." “Varied Fare,” Army (November 1990): 63 cites Sajer’s book as “The classic WWII autobiography...The personal history of a German soldier.”
  2. Maj. Gen. Michael F. Spigelmire, “From My Bookshelf,” Military Review (May 1990): 89.
  3. Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 1.
  4. Col. Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Stuka Pilot (Costa Mesa, Calif.: The Noontide Press, 1987), p. 45. Colonel Rudel was the ace of tank killers, well known in German military circles for his exploits during World War II.
  5. Sajer, Forgotten Soldier, p. 122. See also, Brian L. Davis, German Army Uniforms and Insignia, 1933- 7945(NewYork: Arco Publishing, Inc., 1971),pp. 76- 79. Davis gives a detailed description of cuff titles and their wear.
  6. Sajer, Forgotten Solder, p. 118: "Henceforth, my identification would be Gefreiter Sajer, G., 100/1010 G4. Siebzehntes Batailion, Leichtinfantrie Gross Deutschland, Sud, G." In fact, the I7th Battalion was a nonexistent unit. There were two infantry regiments in the division, the Füsiliere and Grenadiere regiments, each consisting of only eight infantry companies--1-4 in the 1st Battalion, and 5-8 in the 2d Battalion. The term Leichtinfantrie is also inappropriate. The Grossdeutschland, far from being light, was one of the best equipped units within the German Army. Unlike the bulk of German Army units, it was completely motorized and armored. Finally, in German military terminology, the designation probably should have read "Infantrie Division(mot.) Grossdeutschland' instead of "Gross Deutschland Division"—a curious anglicizing of the name.
  7. Interview, author with Panzer Grenadier Division “Grossdeutschland' veteran and unit historian, Helmuth Spaeter, 4 Jul 88, at Hessich-Lichtenau, Germany. Spaeter, a Knight’s Cross recipient, is author of five books on the Grossdeutschland, and served on the division and later the corps staff. Spaeter claimed that “Wesreidau” never commanded a company in the Grossdeutschland, nor is he listed on any officer rolls/ records. Interestingly, neither Spaeter nor any other veterans I spoke with at the Grossdeutschland reunion at Hessich-Lichtenau had ever heard of The Forgotten Soldier or “Guy Sajer.”
  8. In 1986 the author loaned a friend his copy of The Forgotten Soldier to read for a correspondence requirement in the nonresident version of the Command and General Staff College. Subsequently, the author was amused to read the comments of the evaluator. Written in the margins of the requirement were numerous anecdotes that the evaluator probably thought demonstrated his mastery of the history of the Grossdeutschland. In reality, they revealed his complete ignorance of the division and his confusion with the history of another unit, named the Deutschland, an early-war Waffen SS formation. Brassey's has recently republished The Forgotten Soldier. The front cover of this edition shows a reasonably well-known photograph of a Waffen SS soldier. Other publications have, for example, purportedly been about the U.S. Marines, yet show West Point cadets on parade. The point is that inaccuracy is further perpetuated-sometimes by the very publishers-as time passes.
  9. Brig. Gen. John C. Bahnsen, “From My Bookshelf,” Military Review, (November 1989): 89.
  10. See Charles W. Sydnor, Jr., Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death's Head Division, 1933-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977). Cited under "Diaries and Memoirs" is Guy Sajer and The Forgotten Soldier. It is listed with other prominent Germans, colonels and general officers. Curiously among them is one lowly Grenadier. While memoirs are known to exist from lower ranks, they are hardly common-almost rare. How many private soldiers wrote well-known memoirs of their war experiences in the U.S. military during World War II? Sydnor’s book is a factual history of the SS Division Totenkopf not a novel, yet he appears to have fallen victim to the same trap others have with regard to The Forgotten Soldier.

Edwin L. Kennedy, Jr., “The Forgotten Soldier: Fiction or Fact?” in Army History, Spring 1992, No. 22, pp. 23-25. Retrieved 2021-02-16 from https://history.army.mil/armyhistory/AH22newOCR.pdf

Library of Congress Catalog Listing

  • LC Control No.: 75095981
  • Type of Material: Book (Print, Microform, Electronic, etc.)
  • Personal Name: Sajer, Guy.
  • Uniform Title: Soldat oublié. English
  • Main Title: The forgotten soldier. Translated from the French by Lily Emmet.
  • Edition Information: [1st ed.]
  • Published/Created: New York, Harper & Row [1971]
  • Description: vii, 465 p. map (on lining papers) 25 cm.
  • Notes: Translation of Le Soldat oublié.
  • Subjects: Sajer, Guy. Germany. Heer --Biography. World War, 1939-1945 --Campaigns --Eastern Front. World War, 1939-1945 --Personal narratives, French. Soldiers --Germany --Biography.
  • LC Classification: D764 .S234513
  • Dewey Class No.: 940.542/1
  • Language Code: engfre
  • Geographic Area Code: ee----- e-gx---
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