IMPERIAL GERMANY’S “IRON REGIMENT” OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR
War Memories of Service with Infantry Regiment 169 1914-1918
John K Rieth
Badgley Publishing Company, Winchester, Ohio, USA
2014, $19.95, xx, pp321, ills, photos, 20 maps
This book has been written by a retired US army officer whose grandfather was in the Germany Army in WWI and who left a diary of his time in the army. Albert Rieth was conscripted into the army in 1912 from his home in Baden, today the federal German state of Baden-Wurttemberg. He was a jewellery maker. Fortunately, when he was invalided out in 1915 his health was still good enough for him to revert to his trade. He emigrated to Rhode Island in the 1920s with his family. His son, the author’s father, was in the US army in WWII. Such are the complexities of family history, especially in the United States.
The author has sought to put together an account of his grandfather’s regiment in WWI from his diary, the official regimental history, and the account of Otto Lais, who particularly wrote about his own experiences at Serre on the Somme in 1916. Lais’ account has a large gap after the Somme and then deals with the last days of the war. Obviously, the writings of Albert Rieth, the grandfather, and Otto Lais were in German, so much effort has been expended in deciphering hand-written accounts in old Gothic script. The end result is a book in English on the war experiences of a regiment in the army of Baden-Wurttemberg. That alone is a remarkable achievement.
The strongest aspects of the book are the personal writings of Albert Rieth and Otto Lais. However, they do not cover the whole war period. Perhaps of most relevance to a British reader is the account by Otto Lais of the fighting around Serre in 1916. Anyone who has a special interest in that aspect of the Somme will find the writings of Otto Lais fascinating. (He too survived the war and became a noted artist whose work was later banned by the Nazis for being too modernistic).
The material from the regimental history I found to be of less interest than the personal recollections. It would have benefited from more, and better, maps and diagrams to show what was happening, along the lines of Jerry Murland’s book on the retreat from Mons, as it was otherwise not easy to follow.
There is a certain amount of “carpet laying” accounts of what was happening generally in the war which are superfluous to any WFA member but perhaps are needed for an American readership whose familiarity with WWI is often minimal (in spite of the Meuse-Argonne battle in 1918 causing the greatest number of US casualties of either WWI or WWII). I would also query the use of some of the books which are quoted from, as I think there are better sources, especially on the origins of WWI.
There are some inaccuracies that grate. At Verdun, the total deaths of the French and German armies were 300,000 - not 300,000 for each side. The Russians ceasing hostilities in 1917 did not free up all the Germans troops on the Eastern front – about 1 million were kept there to administer the occupied territory and to bring in the much needed, for Germany, food supplies from the steppes, as described by Vejas Liulevicius, a US academic writer. The “rolling hills to the east of Albert” are a total mystery to me and to anyone else who has been on the Somme!
Perhaps one of the most human moments in the personal accounts is Otto Lais’ machine gun crew returning to the rear and being greeted like old friends by a group of wounded British soldiers that they had taken prisoner a few days earlier. The resulting pleasantries were in a mix of English, French and German, and they even swap souvenirs. This is in sharp contrast to events a short time before when they were all trying to kill each other. Such is the madness of war.
Altogether, this is an interesting book and a worthwhile addition to writings on the Central Powers side of WWI.