BookReview: The Kaiser’s Captive by Albert Rhys Williams


This Review was posted on the Army Rumour Service Site http://www.arrse.co.uk and is reposted here with their kind consent

This book, which was first published in America in 1917, describes the experiences of a 30 year old American in the opening days of the First World War.  It has been reprinted to coincide with the centenary.

Born and educated as a minister in America, with spells at university in England and Germany, the author found himself on the German side of the front during the battles of the Meuse.  He spent much time on his feet observing the German advance through Belgium and the reactions of the locals.  Much of the book comprises vignettes, some of which are quite charming.  He is, rightly, full of admiration for the stoic resilience of Belgian peasant farmers and disgust at the destruction of a neutral country.

At one stage, unsurprising perhaps to anyone but the author, he was arrested and questioned on suspicion of being a spy.  The US Ambassador acted promptly to secure his release in a couple of days and his period as the Kaiser’s captive was over – if it had really begun.

The most striking aspect of the book is how the English Language has changed in a century.  The descriptions are, to a modern taste, overblown and verging on the melodramatic with too many adjectives and frequent literary allusions, which are hard to identify as there are neither footnotes not an index.  Nor is there a map, so place names have little relevance without resorting to an atlas or iPhone.

The other stand out feature is the author’s views on the necessity of providing pictures that tell a story, and his opinion on the difference between recreation and fabrication.  He and, apparently, other journalists spent a lot of time seeking Belgian victims of atrocities.   Some modern reporters will take comfort from the evidence of a historic lack of probity in their trade.

The title of the book is misleading in the extreme, and its contents shed little light on any aspect of the Great War, or anything else really.  The vignettes are just that, and there is no central theme beyond the author’s somewhat random movements.