Carnage on the Belgian front
Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble By Antony Beevor Viking, 451pp, $49.99 (HB)
Christmas Eve 1944 found thousands of Allied — mostly American — troops dug into trenches and foxholes along the Belgian front, where they sucked at frozen rations and, in some places, listened to their enemies singing Stille Nacht. Their more fortunate colleagues in command posts gathered around Christmas trees decorated with strips of the aluminium foil more usually dropped from planes to jam enemy radar signals.
The following morning a wave of Junkers dropping magnesium flares led the German Christmas Day onslaught, soon answered by American P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers dropping napalm ‘‘blaze bombs’’ or strafing with machineguns.
On the ground, following reports of appalling atrocities, the battle was fought with ‘‘savage hatred’’ on both sides. General George S. Patton’s promised breakthrough had yet to materialise, but the German generals already knew their great Ardennes offensive had turned, as Anthony Beevor writes, into a ‘‘bloody, dubious and costly struggle for what was, in the final analysis, an unimportant village’’.
The crucial points here are why Hitler gambled all with this attack on the Western Front; why the Allies were so ill-prepared for it; and whether these questions, and the action, are sufficient justification for Beevor’s latest tome.
This is military history, as denoted by the neat column of chapter titles mainly listing daily dates to mark battle progress, and the use of military time; there are few descriptive excursions from the field. Beevor’s focus is close to the action as we watch what Generalmajor Siegfried von Waldenburg described as the ‘‘bitter and ever-changing’’ battles for positions, and often for individual ditches, houses and tanks.
What builds up is an exemplary picture of the misery and horror of this most appalling conflict, in which more than a million men fought in conditions comparable to those on the Eastern Front, and ‘‘the life of the wounded’’, as one American glider infantryman observed, ‘‘is likely to go out like a match’’.
At times this makes for painful reading. The vast numbers of the dead, particularly the young or those less experienced in battle, pervade the pages like an oppressive fog; but, as ever, Beevor writes with an eye for the personal that keeps the narrative flowing.
Nevertheless, and despite good maps, it is easy to get slightly lost in the relentless manoeuvres, with the narrative echoing the confusion of many soldiers in the field, certain only of the misery around them.
Had Beevor chosen to zoom out a little more often we might perhaps have lost this immediacy, but gained the opportunity to study some of the fascinating themes that weave through the action, such as the long-term impact of atrocities on both sides; the significance of language both to hide the savagery of war and to stoke it; the vital importance of communications; and the commonalities and distinctions between the forces of both sides. All this is here, but sewn so tightly into the detail of battle orders and the changing front line that the threads are sometimes hard to follow.
Several crucial issues do emerge clearly, however, most notably the breakdown of goodwill between generals Bernard Montgomery and Omar Bradley, and hence between Britain and the US. While Bradley was one of the weakest American generals, repeatedly failing to understand the situation on the ground, Monty appears extraordinarily arrogant, arriving at the US First Army HQ ‘‘like Christ come to clean the temple’’. Interestingly, Beevor speculates that Monty may have suffered from high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome. Certainly his inability to interpret correctly the nuance of communications or pitch his responses accordingly, combined with the bullishness of the British press, effectively caused a disintegration of relations that without careful management may well have proved disastrous for the Allies.
Also admirable is the way Beevor addresses both German and Allied courage — and war crimes. Stories of atrocities riddle the text, featuring officers such as Heinz Lammerding, the Reich commander responsible for the Oradoursur-Glane massacre in France, and Joachim Peiper, whose Waffen SS group killed prisoners ‘‘at almost every opportunity’’. Allied crimes have sometimes been underplayed or presented solely in terms of hot-blooded revenge, but Beevor is braver, rightly exposing the open approval of a number of Allied generals for a policy of retaliatory execution of German prisoners. This is history as it should be written.
A book such as this would be unbearable, however, without Beevor’s ability to pick up on the humour — often black — that must have sustained the men on both sides. Fortunately characters such as Ernest Hemingway were also on the scene, bringing some light relief amid the carnage, mud and ice.
Having shot up the plumbing of the Paris Ritz with a German machine pistol (after he had decided that flushing was too good an end for a photograph of his current romantic rival), Hemingway headed into battle armed with a Thompson sub-machinegun and two canteens: one for schnapps, the other for cognac. ‘‘Journalism was not high on his priorities,’’ Beevor states with evident admiration.
Hemingway would later prove his courage under fire, but was never far from a good anecdote. Staying in the Belgian house of priest suspected to be a German sympathiser, he takes great pleasure in drinking all the communion wine and refilling the bottles with his own urine. Reportedly, he later drank one himself by mistake.
Hemingway is one of a number of famous names at the Ardennes, including the journalist Martha Gellhorn, his estranged wife, who entranced Patton; JD Salinger, scribbling furiously in trenches; Marlene Dietrich, in sequins but no underwear; and Kurt Vonnegut, whose capture