Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book review: "The Wolf" by Richard Guilliott and Peter Hohnen

War stories are supposed to feature brave, honorable heroes facing off with vile, despicable villains. Reality, of course, is never so clear cut. Exhibit A: "The Wolf," an eye-opening account of a little-known chapter of World War I.

Authors Richard Guilliott and Peter Hohnen adroitly tell the story of the German "commerce raider" ship Wolf that prowled the world's oceans for 15 months in 1916-18, capturing and sinking 14 ships and laying mines responsible for sinking another 16 ships.

For all the damage it caused, this is hardly a story of good and evil. The German crew are shown to be humans - some are lying and cruel, others kind and gentlemanly. The hundreds of prisoners who were brought aboard after their ships are captured also show divisions, some stoically resisting their captors while others choose to cooperate. Still others engage in petty feuds.

The Wolf eventually came to imprison over 400 men, women and children from 25 different nations. In the tense and uncertain stewpot of the ship, conflicts simmered and tempers sometimes flared but there also moments of compassion. Many of the crew and prisoners intermixed and found mutual respect.

In fact, the reader can't help but have some grudging respect for the Wolf's success at sea. Guilliot and Hohnen paint a picture of a stern but efficient captain, Karl Nerger, who often outwits his counterparts. When one freighter is captured, a German officer greets the ship's captain with, "You are late - we expected you two days ago. Now where can I find your five hundred tons of Westport coal?"

The harshest assessments of the authors are reserved for the Australian and British governments, which demonstrated a remarkable head-in-the-sand incompetence during the Wolf's tour. The Australians, for example, persisted in the face of great contrary evidence in contending that the disappearance of ships near its coastline was the work of saboteurs on the ships or in the shipyards. As a result, few ship captains were warned that a pirate ship was prowling the ocean.

I didn't find this a fast read, but I don't mean that negatively. Rather, Guilliatt and Hohnen fill each page with so many interesting details that you can't skim ahead. They have dozens of good side stories, many of them looking at the anti-German paranoia and censorship that arose in Britain and Australia during the war. They tell, for example, the sad story of Carl Newman, an Australian fisherman of German descent, whom the authorities imprison for allegedly aiding the enemy based only on rumors and hearsay.

Early on, I felt like the book was hampered by the lack of a single central character. But I soon forgot about that as I got engrossed in the story. This is a bit like one of those multi-star Robert Altman movies where a lot of different stories and characters are interwoven.  In the end, it works.


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