The Forgotten Soldier – Review

The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer [Rating – 5/5. Reviewer – daikama]

The Forgotten Soldier describes the experience of Guy Sajer, a Frenchman drafted into the German Army at age 16 and ends up serving on the Eastern Front.  The book is masterfully written, drawing the reader into the “story” early on. It’s easy to imagine yourself alongside Mr. Sajer as he goes through basic training, experiences his first battle, and ultimately fights for survival as the Soviet Army begins to overwhelm the Germans. I jest only in part that I actually felt cold while reading his account of the bitter Russian winters. To my surprise, I found myself almost as interested in the outcome of Mr. Sajer’s relationship with Paula as much as his accounts of combat. It is that intense focus on Mr. Sajer “the person” as much as Mr. Sajer “the soldier” that, for me, distinguishes “The Forgotten Soldier” from other books in the same genre… and that was Mr. Sajer’s intent.

It should be noted that the book has come under sharp criticism by some for its readily apparent mistakes.  In fact, a few critics go as far to suggest that the book is actually fictional.   For example, Sajer claims to have joined an elite German infantry division, but describes putting the insignia badge on the wrong arm.  Critics find it difficult to believe that if Sajer was actually part of the division, he would make such a simple mistake.  I’ve read comments on both sides of the debate as well as Sajer’s own reply to such claims.  IMO the book is not fictional (even if it was, I would not regret buying it).  Sajer wrote the book years after WWII so it’s not all that surprising if he forgets or mixes up some of the details.  The exact same issue comes up in The GIs War – veterans either simply forgot details or were mistaken as to some data at the time.  In the chaos of war, that’s not surprising – especially for enlisted men on the front lines.  More than anything, Sajer does not care about such details.  If he made a mistake/didn’t remember things perfectly, his view is “So what?”  Such errors have no meaningful impact on the story presented.  In reply to such criticisms, Sajer says:

“You ask me questions of chronology situations dates and unimportant details. Historians and archivists (Americans as well as Canadians) have harassed me for a long time with their rude questions. All of this is unimportant. Other authors and high-ranking officers could respond to your questions better than I. I never had the intention to write a historical reference book; rather I wrote about my innermost emotional experiences as they relate to the events that happened to me in the context of the Second World War.”

Overall, Sajer does a tremendous job of putting the reader in his combat boots, and I highly recommend The Forgotten Soldier with two minor reservations. First, the book does contain errors so those who are knowledgeable enough to spot them should be prepared to overlook them. I did not find them distracting (or even noticeable at times), but to be fair, others might.  Second, this certainly is not the book for those who want tactical/strategic analysis or a “history textbook” type summary of the Eastern Front.  Books such as Antony Beevor’s “Stalingrad” are better choices for that.  Still, I encourage such readers to consider “The Forgotten Soldier” as well. Tactical/strategic analysis, historical summaries, maps and statistics present only a partial view of WWII. They alone cannot depict the “human aspect” (for lack of a better term), and for that, The Forgotten Soldier excels.

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