Review: The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As you might have guessed from my recent reviews of old dissertation books, I’ve read a lot of history. For the most part they all fell into the academic style. That style being bled dry of interesting language, compelling narrative or anything resembling entertainment. Relatively few of the books I read for my dissertation or comprehensive exams were memorable, let alone entertaining. History, like so many other disciplines, has books published for a small audience, only read by an even smaller audience and actually found useful by a smaller number still. The old joke was to call a book a “$20 book.” What that means is that one could stick a twenty dollar bill into a book and return in a year and find it, untouched. In all the time I had the better part of the cultural and 1930s history books from the university library, I think I had to contend with three recalls. All three of which I knew the person who needed the book, small audience indeed.

Atkinson’s work is not in this vein. He writes with a very readable, sometimes almost lyrical style. His attention to detail is almost mind-boggling. Atkinson also makes the major players come alive, Ike, Patton, Montgomery and the rest of the leaders are all presented using personal correspondence, diaries and subordinates recollections. He also doesn’t neglect the common GI, using many of the same types of sources to get the boots on the ground view, and the overview of the command post.

I found his treatment of the Battle of the Bulge to be particularly compelling, perhaps the best treatment of those pivotal weeks I’ve ever encountered. Atkinson captured the desperation of Hitler and the German high command and also the battlefield desperation of the Allied Army. He doesn’t necessarily delve into “what if” scenarios, but leaves that to the reader to draw those conclusions. Namely, I couldn’t help but think of two things, especially considering Hitler was bound and determined to attack in the west: one, if the ambition of the offensive would have been smaller, what would have been the Allied response? In conjunction with that idea, if Hitler would have kept the scope smaller, say just to cutting the allied armies in two and then suing for a separate Western peace as was an initial goal, could Germany have survived to a greater degree? Of course, the overestimation of German strength and the fevered dreams of Hitler of pushing the Allies all the way back into France became the goal which even to his general staff was so much a pipe dream. Finally, in the final assessment of the battle, Atkinson demonstrates how costly the offensively truly was to Germany. In short, speeding up the Allied victory as opposed to prolonging the war.

As most American accounts of the war, Atkinson in no fan of Montgomery and he is a little easy on Eisenhower, especially his relationship with Kay Summersby. Atkinson almost falls over himself to establish that Ike was committed to his wife. I find it particularly curious that even today, in 2013, that it has to be some kind of zero-sum game; either devoted to his wife, or devoted to his mistress. Haven’t we seen enough of powerful people, mostly men, engaged in affairs who also remain committed to their spouses, if for no other reason than good PR? What is amazing is that even after 800+ pages, I wanted Atkinson to delve more into post-war Europe, about German reconstruction and the emerging Cold War. Alas, perhaps that is the next trilogy.

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