In Three to a Loaf, 80-something Rory Ferrall recounts his adventures in WW1. In 1915, he was a Canadian university student living in Montreal with his British father and German mother. He joined the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, trained as a junior officer, headed to England and on to the Western Front, and was injured at Ypres … one of 1000s of young men who followed the same path as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
But there Ferrall’s story veers from the usual path. While recovering in a British hospital, his fluent German brings him to the attention of British military intelligence. He assumes the identity of Alex Baumann, a captured German-American officer, and infiltrates the German General Staff to learn their secret plans.
Author Michael J Goodspeed’s concept for this story is noteworthy, in that it permits us to examine both sides of the war through one person’s eyes. Ferrall sympathetically describes the character differences between British and Germans from personal experience. His divided familial loyalties and pride for the best on both sides lead to ethical quandaries and questioning the meaning of the war.
I was patriotic enough, but having spent most of the summers of my boyhood and adolescence in Germany, I never believed the German people or the Kaiser were the menace to civilization that the papers made them out to be. Nonetheless, my thoughts on the war were confused. I felt strongly about Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality, and German militarism was something no responsible person could ignore. (p 4)
Ferrall also examines human frailties, seeing each side misinterpret clear intelligence that doesn’t match what they want to believe. His romance with a German nurse shows his own blindness to the exigencies of his mission.
Ferrall’s memoirs are an interesting contract to those of Ashenden, the British agent. Some fictionalized characters are recognizable as the same person … Maugham’s R and Goodspeed’s Cumming as the head of British intelligence, for instance.
As a retired officer, Goodspeed has first-hand knowledge of military matters. He occasionally assumes his readers share the same depth of knowledge. For example, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry is first mentioned on p 10, and the fact that they were dubbed the “Princess Pats” on p 11. There are frequent references after that to the Princess Patricia’s, the Princess Pats and the Patricias. On p 27, the acronym PPCLI pops up for the first time, with no reference back to its meaning.
Goodspeed has meticulously researched the historical details of the era. While there is no doubting the authenticity, I often found the essence of the story bogged down in particulars. Every mention of brandy on p 263, for example, needn’t state that it’s German brandy. The point is that the officer who has befriended Baumann/Ferrall is sharing important information. His access to rare luxuries is incidental. I also wonder whether an 80 year old man would remember events from 50-60 years earlier in such exacting detail. Perhaps the point is that his exacting memory makes him excel at espionage. All I’m saying is it can get in the way of the story.
I liked the story, but not the distractions. Recent German immigrants to North America faced a dilemma at the outset of WW1. Many returned home to Germany from the US and Canada to enlist. Three to a Loaf is a good twist on that angle of the war.