The Great War from the German Trenches

The Great War from the German Trenches

A Sapper’s Memoir, 1914–1918

Artur H. Boer, translated and edited by Bertil van Boer and Margaret L. Fast

McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2016, 200 pages

Book Review published on: August 25, 2017

This World War I memoir opens with a foreword by the author’s son, Hans Boer. In it, Hans makes a curious assertion about his father’s experience: “Of course, the methods of waging were not as consciously grim [in World War I] as in the wars of later times.” This remark is curious, as one can hardly imagine a war that was more terrible and demanding for its front-line participants than World War I. This was history’s first mechanized “total war,” and because the front lines rarely moved, no battlefields in history were more pounded by lethal artillery fire. In addition, thanks to the fruits of modern chemical engineering, no battlefields were as drenched by poison gas. Beyond that, Hans’s father, Artur Boer, faced strafing by enemy aircraft, attacks by enemy tanks, and the decimation of his unit in bitter trench battles, all while slowly withering away from malnutrition. Could war be much more “grim” than this?

Indeed, given what he endured, Artur was fortunate to survive the war. He was mustered into service in 1914 and served on Germany’s eastern front until wounded in the summer of 1915. After an extended convalescence, Artur and his unit were redeployed to the western front. There he served in the Verdun battles, the Ludendorff offensives, and the defense of the Argonne Forest in the last stages of the war. Throughout his time on the western front, his unit performed an impressive array of engineer missions. At various times, Artur and his comrades repaired bunkers, laid communications wire, provided pontoon support for river crossings, installed barbed wire forward of the German trench line, and, when needed, augmented the infantry as grenade-wielding Sturmpioniere, or assault engineers.

All these harrowing experiences would lead to Artur’s growing disillusionment with the war. Artur would grow increasingly resentful of those who served behind the lines risking little danger while enjoying better rations than the hard-pressed “front-hogs.” Thus, when the armistice came in November 1918, the young sapper felt no grief over Germany’s defeat, only relief that peace arrived. Yet, when Artur returned to his homeland, he found it riven by hunger and revolution. Bitter and disenchanted, he would eventually immigrate to Sweden in 1921, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Army officers are encouraged to read up on foreign relations, strategy, and campaign accounts. However, occasionally it serves a military professional well to read an account like this in order to be reminded of what war looks like for those at the “sharp end.” Unfortunately, the editors have been unable to piece Artur’s journal entries into an exact chronological account. So, for example, the events of June 1918 appear before those in March. Nevertheless, this is a small flaw in an otherwise compelling account of an impressionable young man’s experience of total war. This book is recommended.

Book Review written by: Scott Stephenson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas