Review: The Guns at Last Light

I bought this book on the recommendation of a friend who fought (and won a Silver Star) in the Second World War.  It was well worth reading, although the text runs to 641 pages (plus 234 pages of Notes, Sources, Acknowledgements and Index).  There are 16 pages of photographs, as well.

This is volume three of the Liberation Trilogy written by Rick Atkinson, and it covers the war in Western Europe, 1944-1945, beginning with the invasion of Normandy.  It won the Pulitzer Prize.  The other two volumes of the Liberation Trilogy are: An Army at Dawn (covering the war in North Africa, 1942-1943) and Day of Battle (covering the war in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944).

For me, the most remarkable aspect of The Guns at Last Light is the enormous depth of research that went into it.  In fact, Atkinson says in his Acknowledgements that it took him fourteen years to write the Trilogy.  Every battle is described so that one feels like a well-informed observer, and there are maps aplenty to which to refer.  One is left with a clear understanding of what the objective of the battle was, what went right and what went wrong, and, and what difference in made, ultimately.  The story is largely told from the viewpoint of the relevant commanding officer, but with commentary provided by junior officers and even enlisted men.

The focus is strategic, rather than tactical, and Atkinson reinforces this emphasis with portraits of the officers in command.  These portraits are formed from the comments of colleagues, superiors, subordinates, others and the individual himself.  For example, Eisenhower comes across to me as a man who had an extraordinary ability to motivate, cajole, an occasionally order wayward senior officers to pull together in the same direction.  Montgomery comes across as an egotistical prima donna, who over-rated his own skills as a general.  These portraits come alive through timely, pithy remarks that Atkinson has found and included.

There are statistics on everything from the quantities of ammunition expended to the number and sizes of boots used by the GI’s, but they are inserted at appropriate moments.  Moreover, the battles behind the lines are covered, as well: particularly logistics; but also care for the wounded, injured  and dead; and ‘recreation’.

Perhaps the one thing which is missing is the perspective of the individual soldier in combat, though there are many brief comments on what it was like.  To be fair, I think it is impossible to tell so sweeping a story from the perspective of both the commander and the individual soldier.  What does come across clearly it the enormous physical, mental and spiritual hardships that the soldiers endured.

The story is not told entirely from the allied point of view.  There are passages which cover German activities, from Hitler on down.

For as long as it is, this is not an easy book to put down.  The writing is fresh and innovative.   There is a sense of immediacy.  One knows in general, how things will turn out, but once a particular battle has begun, one wants to find out exactly what happened and why.  When one does put it aside, it is easy (and rewarding) to pick it up again.

Because of my own interest in Italy, I’m planning to ready the second of the Trilogy books.

If you’re interested in military history, they don’t come any better than this.

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