This is a work of fiction whose central character is a Hans Volkenhorn, eighteen years old when the story begins and an officer candidate, or Fahnenjunker. In the German army, recruitment for the Officer Corps was based on commissioning young men who joined the ranks as officer candidates (Fahnenjunkers) or cadets from the Cadet Corps. After a period of service as a private soldier, though with some privileges over his fellow privates, the Fahnenjunker was sent on a course for potential officers and if successful he was commissioned as a Fahnrich (ensign) with the right to wear the coveted officer’s sword knot. This novel is unusual for a German work of fiction on the Great War in that it eschews scenes of gratuitous brutality and blood and gore and yet the descriptions of the battlefields and other scenes where our hero was involved are vivid enough, for which the translator, A. Featherstonhaugh, must take the credit. Volkenhorn is a sensitive, artistic individual, very much family-minded, scarcely an adult when his war begins (in the summer of 1917 on the Flanders coast) and not yet twenty when his war ends in blindness. He was a rifleman in an infantry battalion but soon transferred to the MG company. Back home he has a girl friend, Annaliese, to whom he is constantly writing letters and to whom his thoughts are constantly turning. He has much to say about his fellow ‘Junkers’ whose friendships were all-important to him, and yet admitting his detestation of one of them for his filthy and smutty yarns, saying there were moments when he could cheerfully shoot him. His picture of the fighting at Poelcapelle is real enough and he recounts one incident when he comes across two German soldiers cutting thick pieces of flesh from a horse that had just gone down but was not dead. In a fury he puts three bullets in the animal’s head and turns on the men yelling: “They ought to be in your skulls, you brutes!” But for me the finest piece of descriptive writing comes towards the end when he is buriied in the trench by shellfire and rescued. It is the gradual loss of his sight over a period that is told with such realism that you can almost feel it yourself. This story is a fine piece of writing,
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2005 N&M Press reprint (original pub in English1929). SB. 320pp.
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