I found The Wolf: How One German Raider Terrorized the Allies in the Most Epic Voyage of WWI (by Richard Guilliatt & Peter Hohnen) pretty worthy of the attention it received last year on various book lists.
If you couldn’t figure out from the subheading, The Wolf tells the story of a German Raider during WWI that stayed at sea for over a year consecutively, mining enemy territories, surviving entirely off of ships it took and serving as a prison for those it captured. I found the book to be fascinating and plowed through it in just a couple sittings. This history text could easily be a thrilling novel, but the factual basis just makes it that much better.
The book is a very human respective of the events through the eyes of those on board. We are told the individual stories of quite a few of the passengers, mostly the various prisoners. The authors allow us to live aboard the ship with them; we know their helplessness as they are captured, their dire living situation, their relationships, conflicts & petty dramas with other passengers, their hunger as the ship is low on resources, their hope for returning home, but the bleakness they feel when it seems unlikely. We also have an intimate look at the ship’s Captain and several other crew members. As easy as it would be to paint the captors as evil, brutal men to fit the “bad guys” role for contrast to the prisoners, but the authors take great pains to keep the story intellectually honest and give us insight into their lives as well. We hear the logistical issues they faced carrying so many prisoners, their longing for home, and the relationships they forged with some of the captured. This book is mainly the story of all these people together.
This great insight was achieved through diligent research by the authors. The voyage of the raider is fairly well known historically because many of the passengers — both those taken prisoner and those of the crew — went on to write about their experiences aboard the ship. However, those stories are unsurprisingly heavy with bias depending on the writer (some was used as German propaganda, while the tales from prisoners are understandably less flattering) which made them dubious sources when taken by themselves. For The Wolf, authors Guilliatt and Hohnen have pieced together the story based on not only from these previously published books, but also personal letters, diaries and other evidence, and interviews with the surviving families of passengers. They have made great efforts to make sure that the journey we take into the lives of these people is an accurate one.
However, the book is not just all about the people on board, and it doesn’t just read like a bunch of diaries. It is also about naval warfare and the role of raiders, about wartime propaganda, and the political climate for countries during the first World War.
For those interested in military or navel history, The Wolf describes the technical aspects of the ship in detail. We know how the ship looked, how it was disguised, what guns it carried, and how it functioned. The book has maps and diagrams that show us the path the ship traveled, where it overtook other ships, and the places it mined. On the political front, The Wolf also talks quite a bit about the political scenarios going on simultaneously to the raider’s path of destruction. It focuses in detail on the propaganda and censure-ship that allowed this voyage to continue unnoticed for so long, as countries blamed the disappearing ships and known sinkings to natural causes and internal sabotage. It also addressed the witch hunts for these supposed saboteurs that resulted in the internment of men and women of German origin or descent, particular in Australia.
Someone already familiar with military history might not find any of this information to be new, but for someone who has only heard of it in passing (or not at all), these things paint a very vivid image of the raider and the events along its voyage and the impact it had on the world at war. However, even if you have heard this story before — and especially if you haven’t — I highly recommend this book as a valuable and exciting piece of history.