Review of “With the Kaiser’s Army”

With the Kaiser’s Army
A neutral observer in Belgium and France
by Sven Hedin
Republished under licence by Pen & Sword Military in 2014
Hardback ISBN 978 1 783463 18 3
517 pages. No index. Illustrated.

This is a reprint of a book originally published in the author’s native Sweden in 1914 and in an English translation by John Lane in London and New York in 1915.

Sven Hedin was certainly an interesting man. A geography and topographer, he was a well-travelled, well-connected professor by 1914. Internationally recognised, he had even been made an untitled member of Swedish nobility. A monarchist and political conservative, he had urged Sweden to join the arms race by building a battleship. As this book makes clear, he was also an ardent Germanophile. A “neutral observer” he was not. Hedin quite clearly disliked Britain and blamed it for the war, rather more so than France (which he seems to have quite admired) and Czarist Russia (which he feared). He was absolutely confident of Germany victory. It is in this context that his book much be viewed.

Given carte blanche and facilities to tour the rear areas of the German armies in France and Belgium, the book is a lengthy and detailed description of his travels during the first weeks of the war. Hedin travels in plush automobiles, driven by officers of the army. He stays in chateaux and other comfortable accommodation, dining with Prussian and Bavarian generals and diplomats. There is certainly much of interest, for his observations of armies on the move; of recently captured and damaged forts, towns and villages; of meeting marching men, wounded and prisoners of war; are vivid and often touching. Hedin follows the mobilisation and forward movement into France as far as Sedan, and later goes to Lille, Cambrai, Bapaume, Brussels, Antwerp and the Belgian coast. On occasions he is near enough to the fighting front to come within long range artillery fire. But this is not a story of front line experience and as such some of his assurances that German infantry going forward to the sound of the guns are cheery, singing the Kaiser’s praises and sure of success begin to ring a little hollow. Men are not hurt in this portayal of war, and if they have become casualties they are inevitably described as happy and grateful for the fine medical treatment they have received. The reader raises an eyebrow when Hedin denies that any German atrocities have taken place and blamed the burning of the priceless library at Louvain on the Belgians themselves. Ludendorff himself could scarcely have been less biassed in his observations, to the extent that I wonder whether this was actually a work of paid propaganda.

Hedin’s international reputation was greatly damaged by his stance, notably (obviously) by Britain and allies.

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Sven Hedin page at Wikipedia