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Though   All Quiet on the Western Front,          1929, made Erich Maria Remarque far and away the best known, and most read, writer of World War I, there were others at the time who had readers not only in Germany but the wider western world.  One was Theodore Plivier  (later Plievier) who in The Kaiser’s Coolies (Des Kaisers Kulis 1930, translated in 1931 by Margaret Green) wrote one of the few WWI novels about the war at sea –which is surprising since it was the enormous size of the British war fleet and Germany’s anxious drive to match it which was one of the prime powder kegs that set off the war.

Original cover Des Kaisers Kulis. Translated version has no image.The novel tracks Plivier’s own involuntary service in the German Navy from the beginning of the war in the summer of 1914 to the massive naval mutinies in October, 1918.  Already a seasoned merchant seaman at the age of 22 he was involved in a dockside fight as war loomed.  To escape imprisonment he “enlisted” in the Imperial Navy, serving most of his time on converted cargo ships that traveled in disguise, capturing or sinking allied ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic.  One such voyage, of the SMS Wolf, on which he was in the crew, was at sea for 451 days (the standard maximum voyages were 90 days) is included in The Kaiser’s Coolies.

What catches the eye is not only that it is about WWI at sea and not in the mud of the Western Front,  but the red thread running through of the terrible conditions endured by the common sailors, the “coolies” — enjoying turnip soup and turnip coffee–  while their officers did not even suffer an absence of twenty bottles of wine a month ration.

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