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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.


Before the war, labor agitation had been on the rise all over Europe.  The great national coal strike in England in 1912 had seen over one million workers stop work for more than a month.   By February, 1917, industrial workers in Petrograd ( St. Petersburg) declared strikes which by the end of a week had spread to almost the entire city.  The Russian Army along the front against Germany was in a near universal state of mutiny, making the generals unable to respond to the turmoil in the cities. Czar Nicholas abdicated and the Russian Revolution was underway.  In  October large-scale naval mutinies in Petrograd and the enormous Kronstadt naval facility helped bring the Bolsheviks to power.

In France and Germany, wartime soldiers and sailors also grew restive and insubordinate.  Class-conscious graffiti is written, in the novel,  on gun-mounts and carved into the Captain’s door.

“Equal grub and equal pay
And the war’d not last a day!”

As a young working man in a restive time, Plivier himself was conversant with, and a proponent of, anarcho-syndicalist ideas.  A sailor drops firing pins overboard,  an act of sabotage.  A court-martial is a risk worth taking. Time in prison is time not at sea. Another goes so far as to visit a prostitute known to have gonorrhea, a dose of which will keep him off the ship. Early on, the high command attempts to keep sailors from avoiding work by having latrine seats placed at a forty-five degree angle, so no “necessities” would keep them away.  Later, big groups of misbehaving sailors, converted to soldiers, are sent to the Western Front.  As the war comes to an end and the novel closes,  German sailors erupt in mutiny,  in Wilhelmshaven on 28 October, 1918 and Kiel on 3 November. Plivier, himself, participated.  As in Russia, the mutinous sailors led to the end of empire.  The monarchy was finished. The Weimar Republic, after weeks of turmoil,  took its place in January, 1919, lasting 34 years until Hitler became chancellor in January, 1933

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Despite being one of the few WWI novels written about sailors, battleships and the sea,  and containing many gripping scenes, The Kaiser’s Coolies doesn’t make its way into the top list of books from which a reader can learn much about the war, or men at war.  Plivier’s great novels, about WWII — Stalingrad, 1948, Moscow, 1952 and Berlin, 1956– were still to come.  What is of more interest to the author, and to this reader, is the story of the growth of resistance to the war.  Ill treatment, insufficient food, bad command, horrific deaths at sea and losing the war contribute, as cynicism and passive resistance grow to outright rebellion.

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Unfortunately, the style adopted while built meticulously with facts of his experience and the diligent research which became a hallmark of his later work,  fails at the fundamental job of a novel, to get and retain interest.  Typically, and most easily, this is done through the joint adventure of an unfolding plot in which the reader participates.  In recent decades we have come to expect investigation of character and interior dialog if not interior turmoil.  In The Kaiser’s Coolies, however, we get a story from a narrator perched so high above the action we feel as if we are watching paper cut-outs on the decks of the great ships. Much of the activity and the action is presented in list-like sentences, perhaps intended to be rapid-fire images to match the great guns at sea.  Without the narrative sinew and flesh and emotional response, however, we remain unengaged.  When there is dialog and interior dialog very often it is of a cut-out idealized man.

Those readers who are taken by say, Master and Commander, or Two Years Before the Mast, or other stories of men at sea, or whose interest in World War I extends to uncommon theaters will be repaid.  Actual commerce raiders of the war are named and the ships they had been before.  Plivier’s friends are used.  Dates of battles, accounts of sinkings. admiral’s names and –as most war novels from WWI include– plenty of accounts of senior leadership stupidity and failure, and the appalling conditions borne by the men.  [For a companion novel, with more affecting detail, nothing surpasses The Death Ship by B.Traven.  Originally written in 1926 and translated to English in 1934 it covers the post WWI years at sea, and from a similar German anarchist perspective.]

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The novel begins in the summer of 1914.  After a fierce storm at sea dislodges deck-cargo and injures many, the crew lands to the news that the French anti-war Socialist Jean Jaures has just been assassinated (July 31, 1914, a month after Grand Duke Ferdinand, June 28, and 4 days before war was declared on August 4.) Merchant sailors in Hamburg, festive in the bars after months at sea, are picked up and “recruited” into the Imperial Navy — as was Plivier himself–  piled into a train and sent to Wilhelmshaven, the home port of the High Seas Fleet.

As with almost all stories about the beginning of the war, English, French,and Russian, the early days were heady and full of hope.

“Banners on all sides, and the boom of patriotic songs.  Infantry marching in columns, with roses in their buttonholes and the barrels of their rifles, and the smell of sweat and leather in the air.  Women in blouses and summer hats ran beside the troops marching out and distributed gifts–chocolate, cigarettes, and matches.  War reports affixed to the walls of houses…

 

The euphoria does not last.  Sailors sleeping in their sea-boots, with only two hours of sleep, are roused from their bunks; the ship is awash in a storm, its engines broken down.  By page four, they have disobeyed orders to lash down heavy oil tanks broken loose on the pitching deck.  Surviving and finally coming into port, they are paid off.

“For the over-time worked  in throwing the oil tanks overboard, by which they had saved both ship and cargo, they received nothing.

Ω

An early chapter lays out the sea-lanes and early battles with the British. The sailors are on light-cruisers, heavily out-gunned.  As the survivors straggle back into port their own battle cruisers are still at wharf-side, the Kaiser not wanting to risk them.  The sense of being uselessly expended begins and never ceases.

“Our ships are no good, the engines are too slow, the guns too short-ranged, and the command rotten. And all the time their lordships think they’re the only ones that understand anything, and that we don’t know anything about it.”

 

The descriptions of the work, and fighting at sea don’t rise to the level of exciting reading but are interesting none-the-less.

“On deck, the guns: charges rammed home, breech closed! See through the telescopes the gray phantoms approaching. When the gun lies true on its mark, fire!  Suffocating fumes from the powder. Smarting eyes. Throats burning and parched.

 

Below decks:

“…in the stoke-hold the firemen bent in front of the furnace doors and emptied their well-filled shovels with the wide sweep of their strong arms down the craters –several yards in-depth–or stirred the red-hot glow with heavy pokers.  Their bodies gleamed red in the fire-light.  The sweat made white channels in the coal-dust that powdered their skin.”
And the wounded:
“…on her deck lay the gathered-up corpses, covered with an ensign. In her cabins the wounded men who had been picked up out of the sea writhing in pain, wrapped up in woolen blankets.  From all the cabins you could hear the cries and groans of men burned and scalded with steam and mutilated. “

 

As in all war novels, from this war onward — British, German, French, American– those in command have lost their ancient hold of authority over subordinates.

“The commander, the gunnery officer, the division officer, the turret-commander, and the sub-lieutenant who had just joined the ship, all had to grow accustomed to playing their instruments.  They were perpetually struggling for promotions in the careers, were promoted, and joined some other ship appropriate to their rank.  Only the coolies remained in the same place, grasping the breech-handle, the spokes of the steering-wheel, or the coal-shovel.”

 

War is a necessity for a career. One of the Admirals writes in his journal:

 “The worst of it is my own burning eagerness.  I am filled with a terrible longing for success.  We must not  make peace too soon, much as I long for it.  I must take the fleet into action first. I cannot say good-bye to the war till I have made my mark.”

 

As the narrator says:

“A generation of admirals and officers of high rank had sprung up like mushrooms after warm rain.  A spirit of miserable intrigue and of the pettiest egotism–often combined with inefficiency– was asserting itself.”

 

The famous battle of Jutland of May-June, 1916 –over 6,000 men from both sides lost as great ships went down– occupies one of the chapters. The narrator, not exclusively a German partisan, notes the sinking of the British HMS Indefatigable — with the loss of 1,017 men. Harrowing descriptions of battle get our attention, one of which I have never read previously: men are sent into a gun turret to retrieve the corpses of their shipmates.  They find them, as if alive, at their posts, standing, sitting, kneeling, but when touched they disintegrate into ash from the high heat of the previous explosion.

Hunger haunts both sailors and civilians.  In-port duty includes gathering nettles in empty fields to add to the menu.  On a brief visit home a man finds the women standing, freezing, in long lines for small portions of bread, their flesh yellow from working in the ammunition and steel-plating factories.

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Though this was Plivier’s first novel, in which he was transforming himself from a seaman into a writer, some of the responsibility for the less than gripping story, in English,  has to fall to the translator, Margaret Green and a few too many infelicities.

“When the howling of the wind ceased for a moment, you heard the stokers below in the stoke-hold.”
or,
The water lost its green transparency and became dull and milky.  That was because they were near land, and dirt was carried out from the wide river mouths.

 

She wrestles, as all translators do with the representation of dialect and non-standard language, the portrayal of which, and tolerance for, shifts over time. This seems awkward to us today.

 “There ain’t nothing worse’n cleverness.  That’s extra true in the I.N.  If you’ve bitten the apple, don’t let ’em know. It’s the stupidest farmers has the biggest ‘taters.  And in the I.N. they decorate stupidity with orders and distinctions, quick promotions, and home leave.  But if you’ve got anything in your noodle, you’re an old wiseacre and one that sets up to know everything.  And you really are a silly ass, for you’re looking for trouble when there ain’t no need.”

 

I don’t know if The Kaiser’s Coolies, in a fresh, twenty-first century translation would be worth the effort but as an historic, and unusual document, it seems worth a German to English translator taking a look at a chapter to see what the original language might become today.

Ω

After Hitler came to power, Plivier’s books were banned, and burned. The narrator’s cynicism about the military and athority along with the characters’ anti-war sentiment — “War is a swindle!”– were more than enough to get the attention of the rising Nazis.  He fled, via other short stops, eventually to the Soviet Union in 1934 where he wrote travel articles and political commentary.  With the implementation of Operation Barbarossa — the Nazi invasion of the USSR, 22 June, 1941, he was moved, along with other writers and intelligentsia, far from the front, to Tashkent .  At the end of the war he was tasked by the Soviet government with interviewing German POWs,  from which came his widely praised and read, Stalingrad in which, far more than in The Kaiser’s Coolies he assigns blame for the war and suffering.

For more about Plivier,  see here and the biographical details at the end of another of his war-time novels The Kaiser Goes: The Generals Remain, available on-line.

Jennifer E Michaels has a useful introduction to Plievier’s trilogyStalingrad, Moscow, Berlin, in Visions of War: WWII in Popular Literature and Culture edited by  M. Paul Holsinger and Mary Anne Schofield