Who was Gunther Grunau?

Grunau 1939

The above picture on the left shows Gunther Gronau at age 14 holding an American flag. The picture on the right shows Mr. Gronau in 1939. This side-by-side picture and most of the ones below appeared in the July 24th issue of Life Magazine.

The pictures were not part of a feature article that Life did but part of a letter and pictures to Life Magazine that Gunther Gronau sent in.

Note the text of the letter below.

Gronaus letter 2

After the assassination  of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 all of Europe erupted in war-the result of entangling alliances and rivalries. When the war ended in 1918 millions would have been killed and empires lost.

Although little known in the west the Germans and Russians clashed in German East Prussia. The Germans and French were at war on the western front and since Russia was an ally of France they invaded East Prussia forcing Germany to fight a two-front war. (Russian invasion of East Prussia)

The invasion was launched  by two massive Russian armies. To oppose them the Germans had but one understrength army plus hastily called up reserve regiments and landwehr (a kind of militia).

According to Gronau’s account he was part of the column of German marching soldiers in the picture below. That picture appeared in Life Magazine for some reason and Gronau recognized himself. He sent in the rest of the pictures below and wrote the letter to Life.

According to Life and Grunau the circled individual in the front rank is Grunau.

Germans matching E Prussia 1914

I have an interest in World War One, particularly the Eastern Front and The Battle of Tannenberg. When I spotted the picture in Life I was certain I had seen it before but I cannot locate it in an INET search.

The picture quality is not good but it seems clear enough to note the head gear on Gronau. Gronau and his comrades are not wearing the standard pickle-haube as shown below.


The German solider above was killed in Belgium in November of 1914. He is wearing the early war uniform of the German Army and his head gear is the distinctive pickle-haube. Gronau is clearly not and instead is wearing the short shako type head gear that was distinctive of Jager Regiments.

Jager’s were specialized “light infantry” and something of an elite in 1914. They were usually attached at the Infantry Corps level or to a division of cavalry. They were not numerous.

Below is a picture of a two Jagers (Jager  means hunter) with their distinctive shako head gear. The photo is from the excellent website that discusses the Jager and their history. (The Soldier’s Burden)


According to Gronau his unit was nearly annihilated and he was one of the few survivors. It’s impossible to know for sure but the 1st and 2nd Reserve Jäger Battalions were present at the German victory of Tannenberg. (German Order of Battle-Tannerberg)

Prior to the tremendous victory at Tannenberg the Germans fought at least two major engagements against the Russians where they suffered high casualties. It’s entirely possible that Gronau’s Jager unit was involved in one of the prior battles where most of his comrades were lost.

Gronau obviously survived the war and the rest of the pictures give a glimpse as to what he did during the war and after.

Germans stream recce 1914

The arrow points to Grunau

Germans in Russians home 1914

In 1914 the country of Poland did not exist. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia all had a part of it. After the Germans won at Tannenberg they pushed the Russians out of “Russian Poland.”

bombed our E Prussian town

As noted in the letter the Russians invaded East Prussia on August 2nd, 1914 and in the process occupied a number of towns and villages. Apparently, Gronau lived in East Prussia and his town suffered a lot of damage and his wife and young son were captured but later released. The soldiers in the picture certainly appear to be Russian.

According to the letter Gronau and his family came to America in 1926 and became a successful business man. He had four sons and they apparently liked America.

Here’s a little speculation on my part. The date of the Life Magazine is July 24th, 1939. In two months Europe (Sept., 1939) would again be at war as Hitler invaded the new nation of Poland and conquered it in less than a month.

Two plus years would pass before the United States entered the war and I can’t help wondering if any of Gronau’s sons would be called on to fight against their father’s fatherland.

Ann Sheridan Life 1939

The beautiful Hollywood starlet graced the cover of the July 24th, 1939 issue of Life Magazine.



5 comments on “Who was Gunther Grunau?

  1. Wow what an interesting article, how bizarre that must have been for him to recognize himself in a LIFE photo! Have you listened to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast about WWI? Something tells me you might enjoy it. Well done article, as usual!

    • Yes, I’m familiar with Hardcore History. He’s pretty good. The old Life magazines are filled with interesting human interest items from a time that seems ages ago but really is not. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Interesting story. Thanks for repeating it as I would certainly never have known about it any other way.

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