Lt. Col. John K. Rieth, USA-Ret., has published Imperial Germany’s “Iron Regiment” of the First World War; War Memories of Service with Infantry Regiment 169. 1914 -1918, www.BadgleyPublishingCompany.com
Inspired by the by wartime journal of the John’s grandfather, Albert Rieth, this book offers a rare, English-language history of a German regiment that fought through some of the heaviest combat of the Great War. Much of the book is based on German first-hand soldier accounts. This is John’s second published book, and follows his 2004 work: Patton’s Forward Observers: The History of the 7th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, XX Corps, Third Army (Brandylane Press). John is veteran of a 22 year career with the United States Army and holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Rhode Island and a Masters of Public Administration degree for Golden Gate University. John is a life-long student of military history and is a member of the Army Historical Institute and Western Front Association.
The Story Behind the Book
From time he was a young boy, John Rieth was fascinated by the fact that his grandfather, Albert G. Rieth, was a German Army veteran of the First World War. Albert, twice wounded, survived the war and emigrated to Rhode Island in the late 1920’s. Although John was only 10 years old when Albert passed away in 1970, his stories of the early days of the Great War left a strong, if fragmented impression of the horrors he witnessed. After decades of research, John was able to complete the story of not only Albert’s wartime experience, but also that of his unit, Infantry Regiment (IR) 169. In 2014, this effort culminated with the publication of the book Imperial Germany’s “Iron Regiment” of the First World War; War Memories of Service with Infantry Regiment 169. 1914 -1918.
The details of Albert’s World War One journey would have forever remained a mystery had family members not uncovered a long-forgotten journal that Albert wrote from a German military hospital in March 1915. Unfortunately, the journal was written in an obsolete form of German script that is virtually undecipherable to those educated in modern German language. When other German-speaking family members and friends proved unable to translate it, the project reverted to writing various oral history accounts that Albert had passed along. This foray however, embedded John with a life-long desire to unlock the journal’s secrets.
Time moved on and John, went on to serve a 22 year career as a US Army officer. During this period, his grandfather’s journal was often out of mind, but never entirely forgotten. In the mid 1990’s, John was posted to Germany. There, he became friends with a German colleague who had the skills to translate Albert’s scribbled text. Titled “Kriegserinnernungen” (War Memories), the journal turned out to be a fascinating account of Albert’s journey through the bloody first month of the war. In the following passage from the journal, Albert wrote of being trapped in a crossfire of French and German artillery fire in the Battle of Mulhouse on August 9, 1914:
“The machine-guns fired murderously, but since our fighting line had advanced already, we also had to go forward. To follow the front lines, we crossed the yard when a terrible shelling came through the roof of the paper factory and exploded in the yard where we were. We had no choice but to leap across the yard. We made it just in time because a new steel rain began. I laid flat on the ground behind a big bale of paper stacked by one of the buildings. There I had the dubious pleasure to hear and see what artillery shells look like when they detonate at a distance of 3 - 4 meters away. I believed the earth was torn to pieces and the shrapnel flew about my ears so I could neither hear nor see.”
John’s assignment in Germany put him in proximity to rare sources on IR 169 that otherwise would have been impossible to find. With this growing information in hand, he was able to wander across the battlefields described by Albert, witness the scars on the French villages where he fought and even find the graves of comrades he noted who were killed by his side.
John’s interest in IR 169 in the period beyond Albert’s early war service grew as he continued to collect first-person accounts written by other German veterans of the unit. With the centennial of the war approaching in 2014, John saw the value of getting a rare, English-version, history of a German combat infantry regiment into publication. John was fortunate to have a circle superb German linguist friends to help translate the multiple accounts into English.
The full story of IR 169’s WW I journey proved dramatic, bloody and tragic. At one point or another, IR 169 served in every sector of the Western Front. Beginning with the Battle of Mulhouse in August 9, 1914, IR 169 was in the midst of the war’s brief maneuver phase that transitioned into four horrific years of trench warfare, including 18 months in the infamous Somme. In 1918, the regiment finally met its destruction at the hands of United States Marines and Army tanks in the Meuse-Argonne in the very last days of the war.
It comes as no surprise that this tempo of intensive combat left IR 169 with appalling casualties. At full strength, IR 169’s manning tables called for a complement of 3,500 officers and men. In four years of war, 22,540 German soldiers would cycle through IR 169’s ranks; over 12,000 were eventually counted as casualties. For those men like Albert, who served in the ranks at the beginning of August 1914, there was a 400% probability that they would be killed, wounded or captured before the war’s end.
John writes that there is an American immigrant thread to this story. “Albert was among the thousands of skilled German immigrants who sought to escape the economic chaos of post-war Germany. Among other accomplishments, craftsman like Albert had an enormous impact in building Rhode Island’s jewelry industry in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Albert secured life-long employment with the Speidel Company in Providence, where became a senior toolmaker. Eventually joined by his son Kurt, a design engineer, they helped develop Speidel’s revolutionary ‘Twist o-Flex’ watchband. Looking back, I can appreciate how well my grandparents and their circle of friends assimilated into American culture while still taking pride in their German traditions. I also have to believe how the cataclysmic experience of living through the First World War shaped the persons that they eventually became.”