A young Englishman is banished to Germany in 1912 and becomes a cavalry officer, but his love for his newly adopted homeland puts him on the losing side of World War I.
The first volume of Alexander’s already-published Schellendorf quartet (The Versailles Legacy, The English General and The Ghosts of War continue the story through the end of World War II) follows the transformation of 18-year-old Eric Foster, son of an unyielding English judge and a German woman, into Erich von Schellendorf, officer in the German army during World War I. Eric’s father will countenance no career for his son except law, and when Eric fails his classes at Cambridge and puts himself at risk of a social scandal, the young man is sent off to Heidelberg to complete his studies. There, Eric is befriended by Gerdt von Wittingen, son of a minor Prussian baron and colonel of a cavalry regiment, who introduces him to the military cadre at the university. Soon, Eric has fallen in love with both the military life and Gerdt’s sister Brigitte, whom he nicknames Britt. The elder von Wittingens smile on the match and assist Eric, both overtly and behind the scenes, to defy his father and remain in Germany. He takes his mother’s name of von Schellendorf—a prized military connection—and changes his given name to the Germanic “Erich.” But just as life seems about to blossom for Erich, the onslaught of war destroys everything he has come to love: The gentle baroness finally succumbs to tuberculosis, the baron descends into dementia, Gerdt is killed in battle, and Erich is trapped in a desk job while Britt is left on her own to deal with the intolerable burdens of hospital work, the administration of a large estate and her father’s madness. This is an often difficult novel to read since readers will have the distinct feeling things won’t end well. However, there’s also a problem with the story itself in that virtually every conflict takes place off-stage. Not only does Erich, the potentially brilliant soldier, see very little action, but the real story seems to be the rotting from within of the von Wittingen family—an apt metaphor for the collapse of their society. But Erich is rarely there to see it happen; he is only told about things after the fact. He labors to make his own way in the world only to inevitably discover that there are forces manipulating him behind the scenes, from family and friends to generals he has never met. Readers might hope that in subsequent installments, Erich can take charge of at least some aspects of his life.
An interesting, if painful, depiction of World War I from the losing side.