Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Wars Without End, Battles Without Winners
Reviewed by David Beer

Wars Without End, Battles Without Winners: France to Petrograd March 1918-December 1920

by Michael Kihntopf
Outskirts Press, Inc., 2017

Not long ago I was leafing through a list of books and noticed that one title was followed by this subtitle: A Novel/History. It seems the author wanted to make sure prospective readers were in no doubt they would be reading historical fiction. No such specification is needed for Michael Kihntopf's latest novel. His book is unambiguous in its title and provides in considerable detail the ongoing politics and fighting in the Baltic states and Russia in the years preceding and immediately following the Armistice. If you're unsure, as I was, about these tragic years in Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Russia and in towns such as Bialystok, Liegnitz, Libau, Mitau, Riga, and Narva, you will certainly gain some insights as you read this book. You'll also appreciate why Winston Churchill, in his noted history The World Crisis, titled the volume on this theater of combat "The Unknown War."

Freikorps Unit Support by a Captured British Mark-Series Tank

Four main German characters tie the novel together. One is Max von Kemper, a lieutenant in the Kaiser's infantry who has already survived some three years of fighting on the Eastern and Western Fronts. Kemper is a penniless remnant of a once aristocratic Junker family from East Prussia. Two machine gunners, Michael Boehm and his chum Otto Faltz, are hard-bitten "front line hogs" who easily become soldiers of fortune in the evolving Baltic wars once the Great War ends. The fourth person is Teresa Strumpf, an orphan from Essen who was a waitress in a beer hall before taking to nursing the wounded as a Sister of Mercy. Her one hope is to find a slightly wounded but wealthy patient who will fall in love and marry her.

We meet these four early in the novel as they awake in quite different places. Kemper has found "There is no place that is more comfortable than the bed of a professional prostitute." The two pals Boehm and Faltz painfully regain consciousness after an uproariously drunken night, Boehm finding himself sprawled over a table and Faltz "in the middle of the billiard table curled into a fetal ball." Only Teresa Strumpf awakens to a flickering candle and the cold reality of war as she prepares to go on her shift at two in the morning. Surprisingly, she has become an efficient—if disappointed—Sister of Mercy. The story hinges on the chance ways the four come together during varied peregrinations and crises, and their encounters are surrounded by considerable description of the military movements, brutal weather and murderous nature of the civil wars in northern Europe from 1918 to 1920.

The author is well versed in the complicated political and military involvements of the Baltic lands during these years. It's hard to remember that many of the combatants were volunteers, fighting more for rewards than convictions. Military units were fairly arbitrary and often changing. The Freikorps were part of the Bischoff Iron Brigade and were aided by the Hanoverians in fighting the Red Army, among whom is "the dreaded Latvian Corps." The men fighting in these units and sub-units form a motley band, dressed in various garb from various armies and quite prepared to plunder and kill wounded enemies. The conditions they tolerate, especially subfreezing cold and absence of food and supplies, are awful. If they do get paid, it might be in any one of numerous questionable currencies that seem to be available.

We learn all this and much more from Michael Kihntopf's novel, which in some ways is a chronicle of "The Unknown War." Sometimes I felt history trumped fiction in the plot, but our characters stayed true. Faltz is killed, "dying an inch at a time from gangrene and cold," but Kemper and Boehm, like Strumpf, in the end decide to move on in their mercenary ways to Constantinople, where they hope to get jobs in the ongoing war between the Whites and the Reds. As the final words of the book state, "The wandering continues."

David Beer


  1. Thanks for this fine review--a little known (to me at least) area of WWI.

  2. Great review. I'm looking forward to the novel.
    -Bryan, your favorite Eastern Front enthusiast