Book Review – Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier (London: Cassell, 1999)

Guy Sajer’s Second World War memoir of his service in the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front during the Second World War has been seen as an important work since it was translated into an English edition in 1971.[1]

Sajer was born in 1927 in Lorraine to a French father and German mother, whose maiden name was Sajer.

He was conscripted into the Wehrmacht in 1942 aged 16 and posted to a logistics unit, delivering supplies to frontline troops.

In Spring 1943, he enlisted to fight as a frontline combatant, joining the elite Großdeutschland Division (GD) with whom he served as an infantryman and machine gunner until the end of the war. It is one of three accounts in English by former members of the GD.[2]

Guy Sajer is the psydonem of Guy Mouminoux, who became a writer and cartoonist after the Second World War. He lived in France after the war, illustrating and writing under pen names Dimitri, and Dimitri Lahache. At the time of writing (August 2021) he is still alive.[3]

The veracity of his account has been questioned. Edwin J. Kennedy criticised the accuracy and authenticity of the book and has described it as a Roman à clef, a romanticised novel rather a completely factual account.[4] However, Douglas Nash examined Kennedy’s claims and produced a reasonably solid rebuttal. Nash suggested that Sajer’s account was genuine but some details were incorrect such as where the regimental insignia was worn and that verifying the existence and names of other people are impossible to verify due to the lack of surviving witnesses or official documents, most of which were destroyed during or after the war.[5]

Ever since The Forgotten Soldier was published, many other memoirs of German combatants who fought on the Eastern Front have become available, Sajer’s still remains one of the best accounts available. To date (August 2021), I have read 41 accounts of Germans soldiers who fought the Red Army, and Sajer’s narrative remains one of the most compelling for three reasons.

Firstly, Sajer paints the conflict on the Eastern Front as visceral, brutal and harsh. He documents the murder of partisans, civilians and Russian POWs.[6] He admits himself to shooting one partisan and killing prisoners.[7] This is very different from other post-war accounts by German soldiers to present the Wehrmacht as a professional army fighting a ‘clean’ war and attributing war crimes, German military blunders and the destruction in the East as the fault of Hitler and the Nazi party.[8]

Secondly, Sajer shows how he develops from a naive youth to a hardened combat veteran through his experience in uniform. over the war. During his first few weeks, Sajer found the experience of army life difficult to cope with. He recalled that ‘my knees trembled, and I dissolved in tears. I could no longer grasp anything that was happening to me. I could see clearly in my minds eye France, and my family…I can remember crying out between bursts of sobs: I’m too young to be a soldier.’[9] At the end of the war, he was a disillusioned veteran focused on survival. Of his situation in late 1944, he said ‘faced with the Russian hurricane, we ran…But often we had no choice…We no longer fought for Hitler, or for National Socialism, or for the Third Reich – or even for our fiancées or mothers or families…We fought from simple fear, which was our motivating power. The idea of death…made us howl with powerless rage. We fought for reason which are perhaps shameful, but are, in the end, stronger than any doctrine. We fought for ourselves.’[10]

Finally, Sajer relates the physical elements of service that shows how his environment shaped his experience, in particular the extreme cold, hunger, fatigue and dirt of the battlefield could make his life nearly unbearable. He recalled that ‘the punishment we suffered, not at the hands of the Russian Army…but from the cold, is almost beyond the powers of description.’[11] The supply of food was a constant problem. He recalled that in late 1944 that ‘food was our most difficult problem. For a long time now we had received no supplies…We became hunters and trappers and nest robbers.’[12] Extreme hunger produced ‘a curious frame of mind. It is impossible to imagine dying of hunger. Our stomachs digested substances which would kill a comfortable bourgeoisie…in a few weeks.’[13] He said that the situation got so bad that ‘men… no longer distinguished between enemies and friends…[and] were ready to commit murder for less than a quarter of a meal…These martyrs to hunger massacred two villages to carry off their supplies of food.’[14] Where soldier was properly fed the found that when they were given a ‘large hot meal’, it produced ‘an almost unbelievable sense of well-being, and raised our spirits to a remarkable degree.’[15]

This book is amongst the best narratives of the German experience on the Eastern Front. It is not without its faults but it is well worth the read.



[1] Birmingham Daily Post, 21 August 1971, p.11; Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, 25 February 1977, p.28; Reading Evening Post, 27 August 1971, p.5.

[2] See Alfred Novonty, The Good Soldier (Bedford, Penn: Aberjona, 2003); Hans Heinz Rehfeldt, Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume 1 & Volume 2 (Barnsley: Greenhill, 2019).

[3] Accessed 13.8.21.

[4] Edwin L. Kennedy, ‘The Forgotten Soldier: Authentic Fiction by a Real Guy’, Army History , Summer 1997, No. 42 (Summer 1997), pp.20-22.

[5] Douglas Nash, ‘The Forgotten Soldier: Unmasked’, Army History, Summer 1997, No. 42 (Summer 1997), pp. 12-20.

[6] Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier (London: Cassell, 1999), pp.49, 365, 461, 229.

[7] Ibid., pp.363, 149.

[8] See Gottlob Bidermann, In Deadly Combat: A German Soldier’s Memoir of the Eastern Front (Kansas: University of Kansas, 2000).

[9] Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier (London: Cassell, 1999), p.51.

[10] Ibid., p.382.

[11] Ibid., p.37.

[12] Ibid., p.452.

[13] Ibid., p.453.

[14] Ibid., p.461.

[15] Ibid., p.56.