Car­nage on the Bel­gian front

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Clare Mul­ley

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.