By Gerard DeGroot
Lt. Gen. Alexander Patch’s exploits as commander of the Seventh Army in France were celebrated across America. “This temporary notoriety will soon die out,” he assured his wife in September 1944. “God protect me from being spoiled by it.” Those words proved too prophetic.
Two months later, glory morphed into despair when his son was killed while serving under his command. “I shall never be able to forgive myself,” Patch wrote. He blamed himself for rushing his son back into combat after he was wounded the previous June. Reflecting on Patch’s travails, his friend Maj. Gen. John Dahlquist wrote, “It is almost beyond comprehension that the human being can stand so much.”
Dahlquist’s remark is perfect because it is generic — it describes equally well the misery of an individual and the agony of a continent. Patch’s despair was a minuscule drop in a torrent of suffering; its significance lies in its ubiquity. That ubiquity usually defeats those who chronicle World War II. How, then, to convey its immensity — the terror and the tragedy, but also the beauty? Rick Atkinson, a former reporter at The Washington Post, has found a way. In this, the third volume of his Liberation Trilogy, he reconstructs the period from D-Day to V-E Day by weaving a multitude of tiny details into a tapestry of achingly sublime prose.
When handsome words are used to convey horror, their effect is like a bayonet in the gut. That is what Siegfried Sassoon proved with his poems from the First World War. “The Guns at Last Light” often reads like the best of Sassoon. “In claustrophobic holds and on weather decks the troops made do, wedged like sprats in a tin,” Atkinson writes. The stark tone and rhythmic perfection of that simple line brings to mind Sassoon’s “In winter trenches, cowed and glum/With crumps and lice and lack of rum.” Later, we get this: “On they marched, south, east, and west: past stone barns and mules hauling milk in copper urns, past shops that still peddled perfume and silk scarves, past collaborators with crude swastikas swabbed onto their shaved heads.” The fountain of eloquence bursts forth so frequently that one almost becomes immune to its beauty.
The war’s immensity is perfectly conveyed through thousands of details. For Operation Overlord, the U.S. Army accumulated 301,000 vehicles, 1,800 locomotives, 20,000 rail cars, 2.6 million small arms, 2,700 artillery pieces, 300,000 telephone poles and 7 million tons of gasoline. Reconnaissance of the Siegfried Line produced 200,000 aerial photos, comprising four acres of paper. American soldiers smoked more than 1 million packs of cigarettes a day, an addiction that strained shipping resources. Holding this vast logistical conglomeration together took its toll on Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander, who smoked four packs a day. When his blood pressure rose to 176/110, he banned doctors from taking further readings, for fear they might order him home.
The tiny details often illustrate war’s absurdity. On one occasion, German soldiers, lacking white flags with which to surrender, waved chickens instead. G.I.s forced to retreat across the Moselle River fashioned water wings from inflated condoms. Atkinson’s capacity for whimsy provides welcome respite from the oppressive horror. For instance, he relates how liberated Parisians affected the look of artists Daumier and Delacroix, with loose neckerchiefs and shirts unbuttoned halfway down the chest. They “mass produced Molotov cocktails with champagne bottles; the lightly wounded wore arm slings fashioned from Hermes scarves.”
Throughout the book, the author squeezes the air out of the pomposity of generals and politicians by providing evidence of their manifold peccadilloes. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery neglected to visit the battlefield during Operation Market Garden because he was having his portrait painted — “again.” The 350-strong British delegation at the Yalta conference brought more than 1,000 bottles of spirits, 324 bottles of sherry and 20,000 cigarettes.
There is, admittedly, a trend in popular history toward long books that bombard the reader with a fusillade of detail in the mistaken belief that accuracy is proportional to volume. These works often seem to be written by committee, for the simple reason that they are. An army of researchers provides myriad arcane facts that the author then indiscriminately sews together with little attention to nuance, rhythm or tone. Atkinson, however, rises above this crowd of history hacks. He seems to weigh carefully every small piece of evidence before inserting it precisely where it belongs. “The Guns at Last Light” is a very long book, but in contrast to so many popular histories I’ve read of late, this one seemed too short.
The war correspondent Alan Moorehead noted how, during the advance across Europe, “here and there a man found greatness in himself.” Testimony of this sort has encouraged conceptions of the “Greatest Generation,” a cohort that supposedly touched perfection. While Atkinson recognizes their heroism, he does not allow it to erase their attendant iniquity. Desertion rates in 1944 were among the highest in the U.S. Army’s history. When these men entered Germany, they plundered, pillaged and raped. Soldiers called themselves the “Lootwaffe.” “We’re advancing as fast as the looting will permit,” one commander admitted.
“Fraternization” became a euphemism for rape. “Tell the men of the Third Army that so long as they keep their helmets on they are not fraternizing,” a callous Gen. George Patton quipped. One G.I. asked a reporter: “Do you tell [your readers] their brave boys are livin’ like a lot of fornicatin’ beasts, that they’re doin’ things . . . that beasts would be ashamed to do?”
The evidence of vice should not detract from the obvious magnificence of the Allied effort. Iniquity instead makes sublimity more realistic, for this is what war does to men. With great sensitivity, Atkinson conveys the horrible reality of what soldiers had to become to defeat Hitler’s Germany. “Complete victory,” he writes, “would require not only vanquishing the enemy on the battlefield, but also bearing witness to all that the war had revealed about the human heart.” As one G.I. told his sister: “I have seen men do such things, both good and bad, that surely the recording angel in heaven must rejoice and despair of them.”
As the poet Wilfred Owen once wrote, “My subject is war, and the pity of war.” So, too, with Atkinson. War without the pity is just a flat caricature, a sterile thing of right flanks and left, fields of fire and proportional rates of exhaustion. This was total war; success went to the side that could sustain and multiply its horror. In that, the Allies succeeded, but lurking within that horror was a heart beating with the best that men could muster.
Gerard DeGroot is a professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and the author of “The Bomb: A Life.”
THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 By Rick Atkinson Henry Holt. 877 pp. $40