Forward, March! Memoirs of a German Officer, by Lieutenant Ernst Rosenhainer, translated and edited by Ilse R. Hanse, White Mane Publishing Company, Inc., Shippensburg, Pa., 2000, $24.95.
An enduring image of World War I is that of the “beastly Hun,” as the British so often called the German army soldier–a barbaric, sadistic despoiler of every city, town and human dwelling he occupied. That stigma has endured–partly because of the blame the victorious Allies heaped upon Germany for starting the war, partly due to the very real atrocities that many Germans committed during World War II, and partly because few wartime memoirs present the German side of the conflict. The memoirs of Ernst Rosenhainer, translated and edited by his daughter, Ilse R. Hanse, may leave the reader with a different impression.
Born in Eisenach in 1884, Rosenhainer taught English and French at the gymnasium (secondary school) at Neustrelitz and was spending his summer vacation in London in July 1914 while the major powers of Europe were mobilizing for war. Upon his return to Germany in August, the patriotic Rosenhainer entered the army as a lieutenant in the Thuringian 96th Infantry Regiment. He kept a diary of his observations during his service, which included the invasion of Belgium in August 1914 and subsequent battles against both the Russians and the Western Allies.
Like many soldiers of his time, Rosenhainer had seen relatively little of the world before joining the fight. Consequently, his descriptions of the people and places he encountered in Poland are as detailed and vivid as his descriptions of life in the field. He also notes the frustration and terror of enduring incessant bombardment in the trenches around Verdun and the fluid movement that still often characterized the Eastern Front as late as 1917.
Far from living up to the Allied stereotype of the arrogant Prussian, Rosenhainer was touched by the religious piety of the first Orthodox Jews he saw in Poland, and he sometimes expressed admiration for the Russians he fought. He wrote of the loss of friends and the hardships that made him more appreciative of the occasional comforts. Although the German army maintained a strict separation between commissioned and enlisted men, Rosenhainer was always concerned for the well-being of his troops. Through it all, he and his men did not mistreat the people in whose homes they sometimes stayed, and–at the time of the memoir’s end in late 1917–none of them seem to have lost their belief in their cause or their faith in Germany’s ultimate victory.
Although wounded, Rosenhainer survived the war and remained proud of his service until after World War II. Then he took down the painting of himself in uniform that once hung on the wall of his study and crushed it underfoot. “It’s no use hanging on to a symbol that no longer represents reality,” he told his daughter.
Much has been written of the individual exploits of German airmen and seamen, but relatively little has been published in English on the German foot soldier of World War I, and even less of a firsthand nature has ever appeared regarding the Eastern Front. Supplemented by maps and overviews of the battles and campaigns in which Rosenhainer participated, Forward, March! is an important document for any scholar of World War I interested in seeing that conflict through German eyes.