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

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

On the Eastern Front 1914: Meine Kriegserinnerungen

The Author Martin Riess (Center) as a Young Man with
His Father and Brother

by Werner N. Riess. Edited by Warren C. Riess.
1797 House, 2020
Michael P. Kihntopf, Reviewer

When I finished On the Easter Front 1914 I thought of the motion picture Rollerball (1975) and a particular scene (I'm paraphrasing here) in which the protagonist asks the futuristic library computer to tell him about events in the 13th century. The computer answers by saying nothing of note happened during that time. In short, the entire 13th century was deleted because no one had seen any need for it. Many historians these days often overlook or ignore memoirs that are not done by notable people or that do not contain heroic battle scenes. I beg to differ with that viewpoint and this work shows how important daily life is.

On the Easter Front 1914 was written by Werner Riess while he was convalescing from gall bladder surgery in 1915. He had just spent six months as an artillery corporal in charge of the 6th battery supply team, with the 36th Reserve Artillery Regiment, 1st Reserve Corps, Eighth Army in East Prussia. He tells us he wrote the memoir while the experience of war was still fresh in his mind. It probably was never meant for publication. Werner Riess had his manuscript typed out in two copies. (Interestingly, Warren Riess later had the book's type mimic typewritten letters, a nice touch.) These copies-the original handwritten manuscript no longer exists-remained with the family after Werner's death and were passed down to his grandson Werner whose wife encouraged him to translate them into English and publish them.

A Battery Similar to Riess's in a Prewar Exercise

In these pages the reader will find a war of movement very unlike the image we all have about most of the war being a stalemate of trench warfare. Riess was extremely descriptive in explaining what life was like in an active battery during some of the most harrowing months of the war. His battery was involved in the battles of Gumbinnen, Tannenberg, and the First Masurian Lakes, but there is little bravado in his words. He's not in the thick of things although he comes under fire a number of times and has near death experiences. Rather, he spends more time talking about non-stop movement to reach positions where the cannons opened fire. The reader experiences the road and weather conditions, the fatigue of countless hours of marching, and the wonder that a single soldier has about what all the movement and haste is about. Luckily, we have the editor to give us a more detailed picture of what was occurring.

Warren Riess has added a section in each chapter of the memoir which explains the strategic events that his ancestor was going through. These sections are brief and very well written and include portions of letters to and from the author's wife which go into more detail than the memoir. At times I was amazed that there was so much detail in the letters, which included place names, unit designations, and command structure names. At times, the information that the pages contain is overwhelming, a cornucopia of battle information. There are no heroics to applaud although the mention of near misses is frequent. I wondered about this. Wouldn't this have caused his wife severe stress knowing that death could occur at any time? However, Riess and the people around him did their job to the best of their abilities and rarely looked for praise beyond the satisfaction that they had contributed to a victory or a successful retreat. He does not state that he was lucky or fated for something better.

Every so often the author hints at the horrors of the war through tacit remarks such as a comment about the youthfulness of a corpse lying on the side of the road, or about maiming injuries sustained by friends or the destruction of homes due to artillery fire. He tactfully talks about the futility of the war—not easily done considering that he wrote the memoir during its first year when hopes were still high for a timely German victory. Riess never returned to the fray after his surgery and died (the circumstances of his death are unknown) sometime in 1918 probably before the war ended.

To counter the library computer material of Rollerball and sensationalist historians, the personal experience of a few months of war is worth knowing about. Riess did the job for which he was trained and duly documented it. The drudgery of the times is just as important as the moments of action. As a bonus, the editor has included a copy of the untranslated memoir for those who can read German and want to explore the innuendos that exist in the language. On the Eastern Front 1914 is a work that is a priceless reference guide for understanding the Great War on a personal level.

Michael P. Kihntopf


  1. Michael, thank you for this review. It sounds like a very useful glimpse into that neglected theater.

  2. Very nice account of the book--and a useful interpretation. Thank you, Michael.