Book review: The Guns At Last Night: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

On the day Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation, two trucks screeched to a halt in front of the Ritz. Out jumped several dozen French Resistance fighters, armed to the teeth and led by a burly American with a large moustache. T

The leader swaggered up to the hotel bar and placed his order: “How about 73 dry martinis?” Ernest Hemingway went on to liberate the Ritz of a great deal of alcohol. “We drank. We ate. We glowed,” recalled one of his men.

That cameo is just one of many unforgettable scenes in the final instalment of Rick Atkinson’s epic trilogy about the Second World War, a book that stitches a multitude of such small but telling moments into a tapestry of fabulous richness and complexity. Atkinson is a master of what might be called “pointillism history,” assembling the small dots of pure colour into a vivid, tumbling narrative.

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The first book of his Liberation Trilogy, An Army at Dawn (2002), followed the war in North Africa and won a Pulitzer Prize for history; The Day of Battle (2007) described the war in Sicily and Italy. This final volume starts with D-Day in June 1944 and ends with the formal German surrender at Reims 11 months later.

This is war told through the eyes of the privates and the generals, the newspaper correspondents and the civilians, the great and remembered as well as the ordinary and forgotten; it is war fought on the beaches, in hedgerows and through the streets, village to village, river by river, evoking the smells, noise and texture of battle as the great Allied army poured into Normandy and then battled across Western Europe, toward Germany and victory.

The craft is in the detail, and the telling deployment of numbers: the 2.3 million pairs of glasses manufactured to keep the United States Army clearsighted; the German snipers awarded 100 cigarettes for every ten kills, and an Iron Cross and a wristwatch from Himmler for 50. When the US entered the war in 1941, a fighting man had to have at least 12 of his original 32 teeth; by 1944 he could be sent into battle with none at all, just one eye, or deaf in one ear. He didn’t even need to have a trigger finger.

Atkinson knows just when to release the touching, trenchant or horrifying fact. While Hemingway was gorging on Champagne and creamed spinach at the Paris Ritz, others were discovering the windowless torture chambers at a nearby German barracks, where some of the Nazis’ victims lived just long enough to leave testaments scrawled in pencil or charcoal on the walls: “Gaston Meaux, my time is up, leaves five children, may God have pity on them.”

The narrative line can be confusing. We shift from one battlefront to another, and from one side to the other. Individuals appear and then vanish, never to be heard from again. But the deliberately pell-mell quality of the writing merely adds to the sensation of battles fought at full tilt. For this is what war is like: clear in hindsight, but bewildering and chaotic to those caught up in it.

Characters are drawn in a few bold lines. Here is Field Marshal Walter Model, “Hitler’s fireman,” sent in to shore up the Führer’s crumbling Western Front: “a caustic, devout Lutheran with an adhesive memory, a taste for French red wine and a belief in the prodigal use of firing squads for shirkers.”

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Atkinson is less sure-footed in describing the fighting itself. There are only so many ways to describe men shooting, bombing or otherwise trying to kill one another.

The overheated prose contrasts with the deliberate understatement of the men fighting and dying. “We shall have to send the soldiers in to this party seeing red,” Field Marshal Montgomery says on the eve of D-Day. “Do not worry if you do not survive the assault, as we have plenty of backup troops who will just go in over you,” Royal Navy commandos were told, as if, having failed to survive the assault, they might be worrying about anything at all. When the D-Day invasion proves successful, the most one British officer can come up with is “We were not unpleased with ourselves.”

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Atkinson sees these soldiers, rightly, as heroes, paragons of an ancient warrior breed, “stalwart men, those stout hearts celebrated in song.” But that is not, with a few exceptions, how they saw themselves. Mostly, they wanted to get on with it and then return to their families. “If I could get home,” Dwight Eisenhower wrote to his mother in Kansas, “I could lie down on the front lawn and stay there for a week without moving.”

The Liberation Trilogy is a monumental achievement, about 2,500 pages in all, densely researched but supremely readable. Atkinson marshals a vast array of material with aplomb, never losing sight of the grander picture as the troops slog on. The German Army was crushed by a combination of logistical brilliance, firepower, raw courage and an American “economic juggernaut that produced much, much more of nearly everything than Germany could.” Churchill called America’s war effort a “prodigy of organization.” The same can be said of this book.