Book Review: The Guns at Last Light

The Guns at Last Lightguns at last lightRick AtkinsonHenry Holt, 2013After ten years and some two thousand pages, Rick Atkinson's epic“Liberation Trilogy” is now complete. Its story began with the blooding of the untested American army in North Africa in 1942 and '43, continued with the seasoning of that army in Sicily and Italy in 1943 and '44, and now, in The Guns at Last Light, concludes with that army at last confronting Hitler's Wehrmacht in Europe in 1944 and '45. That confrontation saw some 587,000 casualties, including 135,576 dead, and as Atkinson writes, it left its participant cities little better than dead ("graveyards full of the living," as one American wrote home), stretched thin with privation and strain:

Nearly five years of war had left British cities as "bedraggled, unkempt and neglected as rotten teeth," according to an American visitor, who found that "people referred to 'before the war' as if it were a place, not a time." The country was steeped in heavy smells, of old smoke and cheap coal and fatigue. Wildflowers took root in bombed-out lots from Birmingham to Plymouth - sow-whistle, Oxford ragwort, and rosebay willow herbs, a tall flower with purple petals that seemed partial to catastrophe. Less bucolic were the millions of rats swarming through three thousand miles of London sewers; exterminators scattered sixty tons of sausage poisoned with zinc phosphate, and stale bread dipped in barium carbonate.

The Guns at Last Light illuminates this familiar world like a halogen search-light. The narrative runs from the D-Day invasion through the liberation of Paris, the large-scale Allied fiascos like Operation Market Garden, the stark, stand-alone epics like the Battle of the Bulge, and the final conquest of Nazi Germany. Thousands of books have been written on each of those turning-points, and it often seems as though Atkinson has read them all. He populates his story with all the famous actors his readers will expect to find: General Omar Bradley (far less the saint in these pages than he's usually portrayed), Field Marshal Montgomery (prickly as ever, but with his immense competence given refreshing emphasis), General George Patton (as close as the book comes to having a villain), and presiding over them all the Allied supreme commander General Eisenhower (placating, self-pitying, trying to work). But the real influences here aren't generals and dictators but Atkinson's fellow historians, living and dead - the most noticeable thing about The Guns at Last Light isn't the prodigious research but rather the sharply intelligent, often beautiful prose. This brief account of the German attack on Mortain in August of 1944 owes more to Bruce Catton than it does to Cornelius Ryan:

Swirling fog lifted and descended with state-curtain melodrama in the balmy small hours of August 7. Shortly after one a.m., American pickets reported a spatter of rifle fire, followed by the distinctive growl of panzers on the hunt. Then the attack slammed against the 30th Division front in scalding, scarlet gusts: 26,000 Germans in the first echelon, with 120 tanks crewed by men in black uniforms evocative of the old imperial cavalry. Machine guns cackled, and the percussive boom of tank main guns rippled up and down the line. American howitzers barked back, firing by earshot at bent shadows barely a thousand yards ahead. GIs scrambled among firing positions to simulate regular numbers; pockets here and there were cut off in what one soldier described as“an all-gone feeling.”Wounded men mewed in the night.

The climaxes are well known. As Atkinson reports, the U.S. battle losses in the Ardennes and Alsace regions from December 16 to January 25 peaked at 105,000, including 19,246 dead: "Even as American losses in the Pacific spiraled, roughly one in ten U.S. combat casualties during World War II occurred in the Bulge, where 600,000 GIs had fought, fourfold the number of combatants in blue and gray at Gettysburg." The Ardennes Valley today has reverted to its usual abiding peace and quiet; this book reminds readers that it was once a main thoroughfare of Hell.And yet, paradoxically, the deeper the Allied forces penetrated into the heart of the Reich, the more pristine some outward appearances became. Nearer the Rhine, as Atkinson writes, "the swift bound of Allied armies captured intact a gemutlich land of bucolic farmsteads and bulging larders":

Here was a world of Dresden plates, pewter steins, and trophy antlers arranged just so on parlor walls, of Goethe and Schiller bound in calfskin, of boiled eggs in bring vats and the small of roasting goose. Here was a world of damask tablecloths and silverware in handsome hutches, of Third Reich motherhood medals for stalwart childbearing, and French cosmetics looted from Paris or Lyon. Every house seemed to display a crucifix or Christian texts over the bedsteads; some flew Allied flags, or posted signs claiming that the occupants were Dutch or Belgian, and never mind that discolored patch of wallpaper where the Fuhrer’s portrait had hung until the day before.“No one is a Nazi. No one ever was,” [Martha] Gellhorn wrote.“It would sound better if it were set to music. Then the Germans could sing this refrain.”

But a merciless revelation was at hand, and such is Atkinson's narrative skill that even readers who know every detail will find themselves reading with breath-holding attention:

On a chilly, sunless Sunday morning, April 29, the 45th Infantry Division, bound for Munich and badly frayed after vicious gunfights in Aschaffenburg and Nuremberg, arrived in Dachau town. "There are flower beds and trees, small shops, bicycles on the ground, churches with steeples, a mirror-like river," an Army physician wrote. There was more, as I Company of the 157th Infantry discovered upon following a rail spur toward the prison compound. Thirty-nine train cars - gondolas, passenger carriages, and boxcars - sat on the siding. Either in the cars or scattered along the tracks lay 2, 310 decomposing corpses, some naked, others in tattered blue-and-white camp livery; most were Poles who had starved to death after being forcibly evacuated from Buchenwald. While GIs wept at the sight, four Waffen SS soldiers emerged from hiding with hands high. A lieutenant herded the men into a boxcar and then emptied his pistol into them. Another GI pumped rifle rounds into those still moaning. "You sons of bitches," the lieutenant shrieked. "You sons of bitches."

The Guns at Last Light begins with prolonged notes of exhausted depredation, and it can't help but end with such notes as well, since that's what war is. There's little unalloyed heroism in these gripping pages, although there's plenty of unalloyed evil, and the disproportion exhausts and exalts the reader in exactly the same measure as Greek tragedy. With this volume Atkinson completes a trilogy that stands in the front ranks of all WWII literature; it's an exhausting, wringing, unforgettable achievement.