Kaiserschlacht 1918
The Final German Offensive
Of World War One

Randal Gray
(Praeger Illustrated
Military History Series)
"The Emperor's Battle," it was called. It was the last and one of the bloodiest series of battles of WWI. It murdered 240,000 German soldiers in the field, and almost as many on the side of the Allies. That works out to 22,500 men a day that got it between 21 March - 17 July, 1918. And the Germans damn near won.

Can you imagine? A world in which the Germans won World War One. Taking over the whole of France, Italy, Poland, maybe even England, Scotland, Wales. No Versailles Treaty. No Wilson's Twenty-One points. The Americans finally and possibly launching a massive attack against the beaches of Normandy sometime in 1922. An end of the war in 1925. Perhaps a softer peace. Perhaps no Hitler, perhaps no concentration camps. It's all a matter of what we used to call the Fickle Finger of Fate.

Kaiserschlacht was the Germans last great push --- and after that, the game was up, even though no one acknowledged it until November. It was the last big blitzkrieg operation of WWI, and it was named after Kaiser Wilhelm II. Imagine having a series of battles named after you: ones that did in a half-a-million young men in the trenches, the holes, in the mud and slush of Flanders. What glory, eh? It's not unlike having an aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine dedicated to you. Or even a freeway. They name something for you that will cause even more blood to flow.

It was, as most of that war was, a futile and senseless bloodbath that went on and on because so much blood had already been spilled that neither side wanted to cry Uncle. It is something like getting drunk --- at least, as the Japanese define it. You take the first drink of sake, and then the first drink of sake takes the next one, and the second drink of sake takes the third, und zo weiter.

This particular volume reads like something from the Official Military History. Where the battles took place, how many arms and armaments and men on each side, who was in charge, when the battle took place, how much land was won or lost, how many bodies exploded. Not mentioned here is the fact that a high percentage of casualties during WWI were exploded body parts pieces of flesh and bone penetrating the bodies of near-by soldiers? It wasn't the shrapnel or bullets or bombs that got you --- it was arms or legs or heads of your closest friends, pulverizing your flesh at 2,000 miles per hour.

The official histories usually stay away from that, and you would never find it in a book like Kaiserschlacht. But in 14 - 18: Understanding the Great War, author Audoin-Rouzeau quotes historian John Keegan:

    I constantly recall the look of disgust that passed over the face of a highly distinguished curator of one of the greatest collections of arms and armour in the world when I casually remarked to him that a common type of debris removed from the flesh of wounded men by surgeons in the gunpowder age was broken bone and teeth from neighbours in the ranks. He had simply never considered what was the effect of the weapons about which he knew so much, as artifacts, on the bodies of the soldiers who used them."

He continues: "Reticence in discussing violence is particularly unfortunate in the case of the Great War, for one important characteristic of this four-and-a-half-year conflict is its unprecedented levels of violence --- among combatants, against prisoners and, last but not least, against civilians."

§     §     §

The eeriest item in this slim volume occurs on the last pages, after the "Balance Sheet" (Profit and loss? Assets and liabilities? Reserve for taxes? Goodwill?) There's "The Chronology," then there are a couple of pages designated "Wargaming Kaiserschlacht." The author writes:

    The First World War was a war in which commanders had remarkably little control over their troops once they had been committed to battle. When designing our wargame we need to be constantly aware of this factor. In fact, the period is remarkably suitable for wargaming because it allows genuine "armchair" generalship!

It goes on to describe "Board Games" "Committee Games," "Map Games," and "Megagames." After the ghastly pictures of the mud- and body-strewn fields of Flanders, let's play a few games. Become a Ludendorff or a Haig. Throw another quarter-million men into the broth of tanks, mustard gas, machine-guns, Very lights, barbed-wire, bomb craters filled with muck and bodies. Then, when done, players can choose between ending up as gas attack victims, multiple amputees, trench-footers, the dead or the mad.

--- Bruce Cleveland


Healing Rituals and
Traditions from
Around the World

Rosita Arvigo,
Nadine Epstein

(Ten Speed/
Celestial Arts)
This is not just you in the shower with the spiders running up the wall and fungus on the shower curtain, but, rather, ritual bathing: Sweat lodges, Roman bathhouses, tahara (Muslim purification rituals), the Sacred Pools of Egypt, the Healing Waters of Lourdes, ancient Roman Baths, and a Yom Kippur New Ceremony: "collect herbs with kindness --- rue, lemon balm, rosemary."

It's a feel-good book. The text and photographs embody an aura of cleanliness and purity (and high finance) that doesn't take into account poverty, dirt, or scabby reality. There is a chapter on Hinduism, which, the authors tell us, "is like a great streaming river," and I start thinking of the holy of holies, the Ganges, filled to the brim with dead cows and dogs and garbage and sewage and burnt bodies, drifting, slowly drifting by. That won't be illustrated here, it's a bit too real --- although it is certainly a key element in spiritual bathing for amidst all this stink and detritus, there are thousands of people wading into the waters, seeking ritual, holy purification.

Rather, there is "The Swimming Ritual," with one of those soft-focus pictures, a blue-tile pool, rosy petals floating on the surface, and the instructions:

    Feel the joy of swimming throughout every part of your body.

    Acknowledge the joy of nature, above and below you.

    Contemplate the blessing and the role of water in daily life.

    Pay attention to your breath.

    Let your breath be your prayer.

This is bathing for the haves. For the have-nots, there is Lourdes, described here in glowing terms. But we remember the last time we were at Lourdes. Being there in southern France sounds quaint and scenic but Lourdes is in truth awash with acres of asphalt and acres of cars and acres of tour-buses filled with acres of people. Lourdes may once have been a miracle, but now it is but a tourist trap for the needy and innocent faithful.

§     §     §

Towards the end, the authors suggest a "Magical Finnish Cure:"

    Consider having a sauna theme party in conjunction with a special event celebration ... a mid-winter cold-weather buster for your friends ... If you can't find branches of birch leaves, try bay leaves. Get creative and have fun.

And we immediately think on that delicious passage in Kaputt! --- where Curzio Malaparte takes part in a dry sauna with a dozen or so German high officials, in Finland, in the winter of 1943 --- a hot room full of plump, pale, and definitely pompous upper echelon Nazis who after boiling themselves in the steam run out to roll around in the snow and giggle as they are being beaten with twigs (Malaparte speaks delicately of Heinrich Himmler's "milk-white breasts, pink nipples leaking sweat").

I know, I know --- it's my problem; I read too much; I am much too cynical; bathing can and should be holy. Spiritual Bathing wants us to look on the brighter side of life --- and here I am, thinking of all the sordids, as I often do. I apologize. I am now going to take a ritual purge bath in my moldy old claw-footed bathtub filled with Lysol.

Once there, I'll be praying to the water gods to forgive me while I am washing out my mouth with pure Ivory soap.

We were taken by Knipfel's earlier biographical work, Quitting the Nairobi Trio. We wrote, "The mix of lunacy and so-called sanity are finely merged so that one cannot tell one from the other. The other patients are his study, as are the nurses and social workers. And his visitors. And his visions."

In fact, his visions are so well merged with what we might call "reality" that, at times, it is hard to tell which is which.

    For instance: Knipfel has this thing about Nazis and rats. As he looks out the door of his room, "a skinhead in complete Brownshirt regalia walked by; shiny black jackboots, armband, cap... A few minutes later, another Nazi walked by, headed in the same direction." A nurse comes in with a package --- "a gaily wrapped bright-red box with a huge black bow." I tried to tell her about the Nazis, but nothing came out of my throat... She set the box on the edge of the bed and lifted the lid. Three huge black Norway rats scurried out of the box and slid to the floor, clutching at the sheet as they scrambled down... "How beautiful!" she crooned. "But whoever sent it didn't include any card." She peered into the box to make sure. "You must have a secret admirer! Well, I'll just leave it right here so you can see it."

Ruining It for Everybody is a follow-up and offers memories of growing up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, hanging out with neo-anarchists in college, living in New York where he writes for a quasi-underground newspaper and gets drunk with his girlfriend and tries to make it around town without running into anyone or anything. (He is, he tells us, going blind from retinitis pigmentosa).

Knipfel sounds not unlike an East Coast version of Charles Bukowski --- body falling apart, generally hating people, living the life of a dedicated misanthrope, boozing. Like Bukowski, Knipfel can be very, very funny: Once he is stopped on the street by a girl who wants him to know, "You're ugly!" Then there is a bout with bedbugs and another with a stigmata. The CIP page tells us this is a "Spiritual Biography" which may refer to the time he finds his right foot bathed in blood, calling it (perhaps) a holy sign. Besides this, there is little holy outside a pilgrimage to Coney Island to visit a smelly tavern and drink beer with his sweetie. If this is spiritual, we won't demur.

"Everything I had, I figured, meager as it was, I had because I was a cranky drunken bum..." he writes. And you want to write him a letter, beg him to stop spelling it out. These kinds of confessions only work when they are not confessions. A worthy writer should tell us his story so that we get to figure out that he is "a cranky, drunken bum" without being told.

His writing here comes very close to not being a cynical (or a funny) revelation, but --- not unlike Bukowski's final writings --- one of self-pity. We know --- Knipfel's life has been a bitch. He grew up with "twisted legs." He convinces us he is anything but beautiful. His eyes are going. He seems to have an undiagnosed case of Tourette's (he babbles obscenities while he's having strange attacks). He has an endless supply of bile.

Ruining It for Everybody is disability lit. And the best way to properly convey the horror of it, to avoid becoming a purveyor of Christian miracle-cure (my disease is a message from God; I have now only to translate it for you and for me) one must mine the latent humor of it.

One of the best books on disability is Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. It's by John Callahan and is a genuine knee-slapper. The tone of the writing is one of ill-contained exasperation. Being in a wheelchair is a mess; one may try to imagine the woe of it. But a good writer will turn it around, give it another slant, get you into his seat without seeming to do so.

Knipfel showed us a mad grace in Quitting the Nairobi Trio. It was weird and painful and uproarious at the same time. This newest has touches of the cynical wit that drove the earlier book, but not nearly enough. Let us hope that his next opus will take us back to the wicked joy that made his early writings such a work of genius.

--- L. W. Milam
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