Tony's Reviews > The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson
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Jun 16, 13

bookshelves: wwii, top-10-2013
Read from May 17 to June 11, 2013

(Okay, so I added a picture).

In a drawer, in a sealable plastic bag, there are some memories: a rough map of North Africa, a divisional flag, some medals, love letters with censored locations but uncensored passion. There is a bright red Nazi armband complete with swastika which was always the hit at show and tell. There was a Purple Heart, wisely, lovingly and perfectly bequeathed to a granddaughter as a prized possession.

These were my father’s things from the war.

Of course not everything could fit in a plastic bag. Not the men he saved as a medic; nor the ones he didn’t save. Not the soldier who started shaking and said “I can’t go. I can’t go.” And so my father went instead. Not the shrapnel that came that night, while clearing a road in the last days of Sicily. Not the frightened pleading, “Don’t cut my leg.” Not the skin grafts, the maggots, the jaundice. He told me, “We would hear I’ll be home for Christmas and we would cry and cry and cry.” That’s not in my plastic bag.

----- ----- ----- ----- -----
And so I’ve turned the last page of Volume Three of Rick Atkinson’s magnificent The Liberation Trilogy. A day later and my pulse is still up, my eyes puddle. These men. These men. Citizen soldiers. One of them wrote his daughter, “We are certainly no smaller men than our forefathers.” Perhaps that is the only generation that can safely say that. Atkinson lets you look into their eyes, eyes I’ve seen before, eyes I miss.

Rarely in war did success and sorrow exclude each other from the battlefield.

This book continues Atkinson’s monumental study of the Allied armies in North Africa and Europe. Here we see the planning of the Normandy invasion to the capitulation of German forces.

There are judgments as to generals. Patton gets high marks. Eisenhower is shown as a work in progress, a man who would grow into the job. Montgomery’s own words paint him in buffoonerous hues but Atkinson still offered that Monty, while “careless with the truth,” nevertheless “was as responsible as any man for victory in Normandy.” This last judgment does not square with what I’ve read and will be a pebble in my shoe.

Aided by plenty of maps and quality pictures, Atkinson does a more than creditable job in describing the battles, weaponry and geography. And Atkinson can spot celebrities. There’s Daphne du Maurier’s husband. And over there is Gertrude Stein. And there’s Hemingway, making pancakes with buckwheat flour and bourbon.

Atkinson displays a genius for finding just the right quote or vignette.

For many months we have fought together, often on the same side. -- Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers

Nuts. – Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, responding to a German ultimatum to surrender at Bastogne.

A soldier from the 75th Division described an hour in a foxhole with a mortally wounded comrade and no morphine: “I tried to knock him out. I took off his helmet, held his jaw up. And just whacked as hard as I could…That didn’t work. Nothing worked. He slowly bled to death.”

Maybe it’s a good thing their mothers can’t see them die. -- A Third Army shock ward nurse.

Maybe just read the few pages about the execution of Private Eddie Slovik, pp. 527-31.

But let’s be clear. What separates Atkinson from other historians is the writing, Atkinson’s own turns of phrase. This is history as literature.

It has become my custom to make notes of things I’ve learned and passages that play a perfect chord as I’m reading a book. There are pages of such notes stuck in the back of this book. I could have made a note at every page, virtually every paragraph. I’ve noted a few of these as status updates. Here are some more:

Such stenches lingered in the nostril, to be carried beyond Cherbourg and beyond the war: the stink of diesel exhaust, of cordite, of broken plaster exposed to rain, of manure piles and the carcasses of the animals that shat them before being slaughtered by shellfire. An infantryman named John B. Babcock later catalogued the scents wafting around him: “cosmoline gun-metal preservative, oil used to clean weapons, chlorine in the drinking water, flea powder, pine pitch from freshly severed branches, fresh dug earth.” Also: “GI yellow soap and the flour-grease fumes” from field kitchens, as well as those pungent German smells of cabbage and sour rye, of “stale-sweat wool [and] harsh tobacco.” Even if the war in the west had barely begun, here was the precise odor of liberation.

Montgomery had overegged the pudding.

Describing the hundreds of thousands of captured German soldiers: A single strand of barbed wire often sufficed for an enclosure. GI sentries cradled their carbines and stifled yawns. Within the cordon sat supermen by the acre. Singing sad soldier songs and reminiscing about better days, they scavenged the ground for cigarette butts and plucked lice from their field-gray tunics.

Supermen by the acre. Three words. Just three words.

Because there is a challenge in being brief and yet saying everything. Like Eisenhower being helped by his staff to compose the announcement of victory to the Chiefs of Staff. As each draft grew more grandiloquent, the supreme commander thanked his lieutenants and then dictated the message himself: “The mission of the Allied force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7, 1945. Eisenhower.”

Exactly.

----- ----- ----- ----- -----

There is something that is not in the book. Well, not in it exactly. My father did not get out of Volume Two, so he wasn’t there at Omaha Beach and Aachen and Bastogne. A good thing perhaps. So let me tell you about someone else: Charles Durning, the American actor. Durning played a tough guy, often a cop or private eye, in numerous movies. But once upon a time there was a war. And Durning was a young soldier in that war. He was one of the many Americans who landed at Normandy. I’ve watched numerous clips of Durning talking about that day, or just thinking about that day. He always, always breaks down, often sobbing uncontrollably. I could only find one such clip on YouTube. Sadly, it’s a ‘production’ with music and pageantry and Nancy Pelosi. But watch this, because eventually Durning starts to talk. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0GVUX... That voice, that face, the choked silence at the memory. That’s what this book is about.

----- ----- ----- ----- -----

There is one more thing in that plastic bag, a yellowed, folded paper with balky typewritten words. A poem from a homesick, lovesick PFC.

Mary had a little lamb
Its feet as white as snow.
When I’m getting out of here
Is what I’d like to know.

But since it’s an emergency
I might as well be here
And protect you from the Evil
Because I love you DEAR.

No one knows what is to come.
I know that I love you.
Us getting back together
I’ll try my best to do.

Always keep your chin up
Just like I always said.
It won’t be long til Hitler’s gone
Then ‘DARLING’ we will WED.

Your loving soldier.


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Reading Progress

05/20/2013
19.0% "A man with 20/400 vision could now be conscripted if his sight was correctible to at least 20/40 in one eye; toward that end, the armed forces would make 2.3 million pair of eyeglasses for the troops. The old jest that the Army no longer examined eyes but instead just counted them had come true."
05/21/2013
19.0% "One British wit observed that a staple of DeGaulle's diet had long been the hand that fed him."
05/21/2013
19.0% "Down the ten channels they plunged, two designated for each of the five forces steaming toward five beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword. Wakes braided and rebraided. The amber orb of a full moon rose through a thinning overcast off the port bow, and the sea sang as swells slipped along every hull bound for a better world. Hallelujah, sang the sea. Hallelujah. Hallelujah."
05/28/2013
19.0% "At 8:30 p.m. De Gaulle reluctantly boarded La Combattante, convinced that "France would live, for she was equal to her suffering," while privately wondering, "How can one be expected to govern a country that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?"" 2 comments
05/29/2013
19.0% "German stragglers...surrendered, shouting "Merde pour la gurre" -- Shit on the war... The dead were picked clean of Lugers, daggers, watches, and bloody francs, spread in the sun to dry. An old Frenchman...poked a dead German with his foot...then chortled as he urinated on the body..."subjecting each feature in the gray face to equally timed porportions of debasement." Yes, merde pour la guerre."
05/29/2013
19.0% ""German spoken" signs vanished from shop fronts...Collaborators were pelted with eggs, tomatoes, and sacks of excrement; shorn women, stripped to the waist, had swastikas painted on their breasts and placards hung around their necks: "I whored with the Boches." An American sergeant barked at a mob shearing yet another wretch, "Leave her alone, god-damn you. You're all collaborationsts.""
05/29/2013
19.0% ""I'll tell you what liberation is. It's hearing a knock on my door at six o'clock in the morning and knowing it's the milkman."" 8 comments
05/29/2013
19.0% "An American patrol arrived at the Claridge to be told by the manager, "This Hotel is under lease to the officer corps of the German army." A colonel drew his .45 and said, "You've got just thirty seconds to get it unleased. We're moving in. Hemingway, pulling up to the Ritz with two truckloads of his French irregulars, told the bartender, "How about seventy-three dry martinis?""
05/30/2013
19.0% "After viewing a military cemetery near St-Mère-Église, a soldier on August 28 scribbled lines from A.E. Housman in his diary: "The saviors come not home tonight: Themselves they could not save.""
06/04/2013
49.0% "The cellars and stout-walled houses in Oosterbeek brimmed with wounded men, sick men, dying men, and men newly dead. A gallant Dutch woman, Kate ter Horst, glided among them to read King David's Ninety-first Psalm by flashlight: "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day.""
06/06/2013
53.0% "A new garrison commander summoned from the Eastern Front, General Heinrich Kittle, was made to swear an oath to defend the city "to the last man and cartridge," the usual immolation blithely demanded of those in harm's way by those far from it."
06/06/2013
53.0% "In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school --
Till our lives wore out.


-- Randall Jarrell"
06/07/2013
65.0% "Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate, the soldiers sang to themselves as they crawled into their bedrolls. Darling, I remember the way you used to wait."
06/10/2013
85.0% "Every house seemed to display a crucifix or Christian texts over the bedsteads; some flew Allied flags, or posted signs claiming the occupants were Dutch or Belgian, and never mind that discolored patch of wallpaper where the Führer's portrait had hung until the day before. "No one is a Nazi. No one ever was," Gellhorn wrote. "It would sound better if it were set to music. Then the Germans could sing this refrain.""
06/11/2013
91.0% ""I sincerely believe I have served a criminal," (Field Marshal) Model mused. "I led my soldiers in good conscience...but for a criminal government." Sealing his wedding ring and a letter to his wife inside an envelope, he walked to a gnarled oak tree. "You will bury me here," he told a subordinate, then blew his brains out with a Walther service revolver." 3 comments
06/11/2013
95.0% ""Hardly any boy infantryman started his career as a moralist," wrote Lieutenant Paul Fussell, "but after the camps, a moral attitude was dominant and there was no disagreement on the main point." A rifleman in the 157th Infantry agreed. "I've been in the army for thirty-nine months," he said. I've been overseas for twenty-three. I'd gladly go through it all again if I knew that things like this would be stopped."
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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message 1: by Emily (new)

Emily Huh! I've never even heard of this author. Do write something, now I'm curious.


message 2: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· Lump in throat.


message 3: by Garima (new)

Garima Tears in eyes.

Great write up Tony.


Tony Thanks, Garima. I always call it a successful day when I can make people cry on three different continents.


message 5: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted No one could not want to read Atkinson after this review, Tony. Wonderful. Thanks.


Tony Thank you, Ted.


message 7: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted Tony wrote: "Thanks, Garima. I always call it a successful day when I can make people cry on three different continents."

I'm an easy target for this objective; and it's certainly not due to aging, though that seems to have something to do with it.


message 8: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl welling up here too. A wonderful review that is a touching tribute to the war and its soldiers. I bet your dad would have been proud of your words.


message 9: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Atkinson displays a genius for finding just the right quote or vignette.

Well...there are plenty of vignettes here which seem pretty well chosen to me.
A fine review, Tony. Just the right measure of respect for those who fought and died, and those who fought and survived, heroes all.


message 10: by Michael (new) - added it

Michael Outstanding review and homage. You illustate so well the mystery of why good writing matters in historical writing. Nothing to do with colorful or pretty phrasing. It's more to do with economy of words so they become invisible and just a doorway to seeing the real. And coordinating all the facts to get the big picture out of particulars and to make them into a coherent story.

Shelby Foote has such talent in his Civil War writing. I have been a fan of Stephen Ambrose's talent in this area, for WW2 and other spheres, and you have me hopeful over Atkinson surpassing that level of talent.


message 11: by Tony (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tony Thanks, Michael. Foote's Civil War trilogy is an apt comparison as reading experience to Atkinson. I like Ambrose too. His military histories focus - specialize really - on the common soldier. He collected their stories. As such, he performed a valuable historical service.


message 12: by Kris (last edited Jun 16, 2013 05:54PM) (new) - added it

Kris Remarkable writing here, Tony. Beautifully done. And I am so glad you added the photograph.


message 13: by Tony (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tony Thank you, Kris. I had help from a younger generation with the picture. He was a remarkable guy, in his own way. In the picture, he is giving good forlorn, just a guy who wants to go home to his girlfriend.


message 14: by Brian (new)

Brian One Like of this review isn't enough. Bookmarked, added to my list of fave reviews.


message 15: by Tony (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tony Thank you, Brian. You encourage me. I promise to read Blue Ice before year's end. Looks very good.


message 16: by Wilson (new) - added it

Wilson Tomba Outstanding review, Tony. You've certainly helped me make up my mind about reading this trilogy; it's definitely moving up on my to-read list.


message 17: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten I'm still humming like a live wire after reading this emotionally compelling review and listening to Charles Durning's voice. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful review and link with all of us.

I have all three books, but have only read the first one. Mission Atkinson activated.


message 18: by Amber (new)

Amber Berry I know someone who will be interested. Thanks for revealing this series to me.


message 19: by Laurel (new) - added it

Laurel I saw Charles durning clips on the recent Memorial Day program on

PBS. THe paid a fitting tribute to him since he had passed away last Christmas. To say it was moving, would not give enough credit to either his words or those spoken about him by Gary Sinise and Joe Maontagne. They included his burial and flag presentation at Arlington. I was already thinking about buying this book, your excellent review convinced me. Thank you.


Stephen Peale I've read the first two books of Atkinson's trilogy and have begun the third volume. It is truly hard to keep a dry eye reading about the sacrifices of our fathers, that great generation. But Atkinson's prose also stirs the reader's imagination.

For greater detail, I prefer Ambrose's Citizen Soldier and his D-Day work. But Ambrose and Atkinson together can't be beat.


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