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Jackboot by John Laffin

The Story of the German Soldier, Cassell, 1965, 241 p, including xii p Index and iv p Sources, preceded by i p Acknowledgements, ii p Contents, ii p List of Illustrations, iv p quotes describing “What the Germans Think About War” and iv p Introduction.

 Jackboot cover

The subtitle of the book is somewhat misleading, this is not, quite, the story of the German soldier. At least not of the individual. Very few instances of soldierly action are described, it is more the history of the Prussian and German states’ relationship to war as a profession and a duty, a guiding principle; their highest calling.

In his Introduction Laffin says the German is a born soldier, aggression and fortitude in his blood, needing to be trained, yes, but the material is there already, not base clay but refined. He contrasts modern national aptitudes for soldiering; none equals the Australian for dash, élan and initiative, but for dogged persistence and obedience to orders no-one can touch the English and Welsh, for fighting fury the Scots, for thoroughness Americans, fanatical courage the Japanese, the capacity to suffer and still keep fighting, the Russians. He claims none of these are complete soldiers, though, they fight only because it is necessary to do so. But Germans are complete soldiers, for them war is holy. “The complete soldier fully realises that his only logical end is death, that this is a soldier’s only privilege. The German knows this.” In modern times, he says, only Napoleon’s soldiers can be compared with them – and then only when Napoleon commanded them. He states that Prussians and Germans never considered themselves beaten in any conflict up to 1918 (later in the book he says not even then.) They had to admit defeat in 1945, bludgeoned by impossible odds, but even in extremis in December 1944 they launched the Battle of the Bulge, which, Laffin claims, “will for ever remain a magnificent feat of arms.” Despite younger Germans saying, “It will never happen again,” Laffin believes a German “can never evade his destiny: he does not really want to evade it. He is a soldier. A soldier fights.”

For how this came about you have to go back to landlocked Prussia, poor and barren, no cities worth the name, little industry and less culture, and to Frederick William (and his obsession with very tall soldiers) who expanded his army by impressing and enrolling men – many of them foreign – but it was his son Frederick the Great who devoted the resources of the state to it and realised that Prussia, surrounded by larger more populous countries, had to depend on organisation and speed and manœuvre in battle.

By Napoleonic times his lessons had largely been forgotten or outmoded. In 1808 crushing defeat at Jena and Auerstadt led to change, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau instituted a war academy and seven years later their influence bore fruit with Napoleon’s defeat at Liepzig. Their adherent Clausewitz formed his principles of war whose beliefs extend down the years since. An inculcation of military virtues via the school system (extended to the whole of Germay after unification in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870) laid the foundations for the nature of the German soldier and Kaiser Wilhelm introduced badges and awards for proficiency – a system brought to its greatest peak by the Nazis. Through all these years deference to a military uniform (indeed to uniforms of any stamp) was inbuilt in the German state.

In the context of France invading Germanic territory fourteen times between 1675 and 1813 Laffin quotes General Fuller as saying, ‘Few nations have had so bad a neighbour as Germany has had in France.’ (To which I can only reply, you should try being a Scot, mate.)

A piece of information that surprised me was that in the Nineteenth Century homosexuality was apparently rife in the Prussian army and not hidden, was indeed paraded, by those of that persuasion.

The German War Book stated the employment of “uncivilised and barbarous peoples in European wars” was an unlawful instrument of war, since “these troops had no conception of European-Christian culture, of respect for property and for the honour of women.” A footnote adds that this was a source of great bitterness during the Great War, quoting a Private’s letter to his parents (sensitivity warning; use of the ‘n’ word,) “The French have sunk so low as to use niggers against us. They are heathens and quite revolting and cruel. We fight fiercely against them because we know we can expect no mercy from these savages. You can smell them in the night.” (I’d have thought a smell – if any – would more likely have been produced by day than by night, but there you go. I suspect that any such perception was psychological anyway.)

Twice, re 1918 and 1945, Laffin asserts that the Germans were not beaten but overwhelmed – which, he says, is something different. For 1918 he cites a million troops left in the east to keep the conquered territories subdued and how they might have affected things in the west. (In this regard, the undefeated Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in Africa does stand out in his four year undefeated campaign of improvisation, holding down 300,000 British and Allied troops with a maximum strength of 20,000 of his own [including bearers,] while managing to inflict 60,000 casualties. After the armistice he for a short time contemplated holding out – much as some Japanese soldiers were to in the wake of 1945 – but in the end decided to honour its terms.) Laffin suggests a suitable counter to this perception might have been that rather than negotiating armistice with the civilian Erzberger, the Allies ought to have forced Hindenburg to the table amd made him surrender his sword; the symbolism of which would have been unmistakable. In 1945 the German soldiers considered themselves brutally crushed, not militarily defeated. Laffin says, “Others,” (I count myself among that number,) “might not be able to see the difference, but this is not important. The Germans know there is a difference.”

The book was published in 1965, only twenty years after the Second World War finished, at which time there were still many Germans who had experienced the upbringing that inculcated such a mindset. Laffin quotes a former soldier telling him that, “‘We are not finished with our jackboots yet,’” and, “‘Germany must triumph. Peace is ignoble.’” It is to be hoped that with the further 55 years since then of peace (however ignoble – yet welcome to those who hope it will never happen again) and of a sustained non-military education system in Germany that that attitude has faded away for good.

Pedant’s corner:- England (at the time covered by this book England no longer existed as a separate state. It was in a United Kingdom with Scotland. Britain, then. A few pages later we have, “The English made him [Count William of Schaumburg-Lippe] Field-Marshal of Portugal, but the role of British mercenary did not suit him.” British is required in both cases, etc, etc,) cameraderie (camaraderie,) sheath (sheathe,) onle (only,) “rend thy Germans” (the Germans.) In the Sources; idealogy (ideology.)

Poppy Watching Again

I was actually thinking last night it was that time of year again, and also that if I caught sight of any of that unholy brigade of Farage, Johnson, Gove, Fox and Davies sporting a poppy this year I would be livid with rgae.

How dare they?

How dare they blazon their attempt to corral patriotism to their own ends?

How dare they coopt the sacrifice of those who died in the cause of better relations with our European neighbours rather than worse ones?

I actually saw some poppies for sale in the bank today when I was paying some bills. When I got home I got my first sighting of this year when there was a guy labelled as a historian wearing one on the news. He was commenting on the non-story of the Russian aircraft carrier which travelled through the Straits of Dover today en route to Syria, saying they normally went by the top of Scotland as it was shorter that way.

Really? Longer to go straight down the North Sea than travel across the top of Scotland and all the way round Ireland?

I suppose the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen etc made their channel dash in 1942 because that was the longer route? Pull the other one.

I found the tone of the news coverage of this perfectly unexceptional use of international waters to be verging on the hysterical. I do hope we are not being softened up for something.

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