World War I on the High Seas: “The Wolf”

6810289The Wolf: How One German Raider Terrorized the Allies in the Most Epic Voyage of WWI by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen
Free Press, April 20, 2010 (Nonfiction; History)

My Rating: Beach Vacation (3/5)

Once again I’ve departed from my usual fiction reading for something for the nonfiction book club that I mediate at work. Due to this year’s WWI Centennial, I decided to pick something WWI related to discuss, and let me tell you, this was an arduous undertaking. It was extremely difficult to find a history book that was under 500 pages long and not dry as dust. Ultimately, I do think that The Wolf was a good choice for book club; not only was this book informative, it also offered some food for thought and discussion.

The Wolf concerns a lesser known aspect of the First World War: war on the high seas. Typically, when you think of the WWI you do not think of oceanic battles or countries like Australia and New Zealand; usually it’s the trenches that come to mind. The Wolf was eye-opening in the fact that it reminds you that WWI had a far reaching impact. This book explores one specific German freighter’s year-long voyage that terrorized the Allies in the hopes that they could help starve the enemy by compromising their supply lines.

Captain Karl Nerger was charged with this mission and he carried it out to the letter, strictly adhering to wartime laws, which meant taking on over 700 prisoners over the course of his long voyage. And it’s the story of those prisoners that make this book fascinating. The lines between enemies become blurred for some and heightened for others. Some prisoners were able to overcome the propaganda that they were fed by the government and the newspapers and able to live alongside their German captors. The anecdotes of the prisoners and captors stories is what kept me interested in this book, which started off a bit dull. While the background information at the beginning is essential to understanding the context for The Wolf‘s journey, you couldn’t help but wish it would move along a little more quickly.

What struck me most when reading The Wolf was the prisoners reported reactions when their ship was accosted by The Wolf. Most were absolutely terrified and some contemplated suicide rather than being taken by the Germans, only to be completely shocked by the attitude of their German captors. These were the vilified Huns that they were told to expect, they weren’t going to be brutally murdered. Rather, the majority of prisoners were taken aboard, and many of them were well taken care of by the Germans, especially the top deck prisoners (ie. women, children, families). But it was the cause of this fear that I found so interesting and compelling.

The reason that some prisoners contemplated suicide rather than being taken by the Germans was mainly due to what they had been told to expect from their governments and the newspapers. Of course, the Germans were also executing similar propaganda, but it was amazing to learn how much of an impact information that sounds so clearly questionable today was taken with complete faith. And then this gets you thinking about how this trusting mentality hasn’t necessarily changed. Ultimately, what I took away from The Wolf is a new appreciation for my own consumption of news media; you always need to remember that someone has created that story and packaged it in a certain way that encourages you to take a certain perspective.

The Wolf was a fascinating look at an aspect of WWI that doesn’t immediately come to mind. This one was informative and full of high adventure and I’d recommend it to any history buffs out there.

Of further interest to some, the author’s website also has some great original video footage on The Wolf as well the pictures that were published inside the book.

Similar Reads

Not a WWI book but one that also takes a look at how newspapers can dramatically influence public opinion, see The Beautiful Cigar Girl. This historical true crime book takes re-examines the cold case murder of Mary Rogers, the inspiration to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget, through a careful exploration of the newspaper articles published at the time. This was another title that my nonfiction book club discussed.

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder

If you were, like me, intrigued by the lesser known theatre of war, I also suggest The Daughters of Mars, which follows two Australian nurses to exotic locales and eventually to the front lines in Europe.

The Daughters of Mars

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