Lead book review

Mud, blood and war crimes on both sides – the struggle for the Ardennes was one of the bitterest of the second world war

Clare Mulley admires Antony Beevor’s account of the Ardennes in 1944, but finds is almost unbearably painful reading

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble Antony Beevor

Viking, pp.480, £25, ISBN: 9780670918645

Christmas Eve 1944 found thousands of Allied — mostly American — troops dug into trenches and foxholes along the Belgian front, where they sucked at frozen rations and, in some places, listened to their enemies singing ‘Stille Nacht’. Their more fortunate colleagues in command posts gathered around Christmas trees decorated with strips of the aluminium foil more usually dropped from planes to jam enemy radar signals. The following morning a wave of Junkers dropping magnesium flares led the German Christmas Day onslaught, soon answered by American P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers, dropping napalm ‘blaze bombs’ or strafing with machine guns.

On the ground, following reports of appalling atrocities, the battle was increasingly fought with ‘savage hatred’ on both sides. General Patton’s promised breakthrough had yet to materialise, but the German generals already knew their great Ardennes offensive had turned into a ‘bloody, dubious and costly struggle for what was, in the final analysis, an unimportant village’. The crucial points here are why Hitler gambled all with this attack on the Western Front; why the Allies were so ill-prepared for it; and whether these questions, and the action, constitute sufficient justification for Antony Beevor’s latest tome.

This is military history, as denoted by the neat column of chapter titles mainly listing daily dates to mark battle progress and the use of military time; there are few descriptive excursions from the field. Beevor’s focus is close to the action as we watch what Generalmajor Waldenburg described as the ‘bitter and ever-changing’ battles for positions, and often for individual ditches, houses and tanks.

What builds up is an exemplary picture of the misery and horror of this most appalling conflict, in which more than a million men fought in conditions comparable to those on the Eastern Front, and ‘the life of the wounded’, as one American glider infantryman observed, ‘is likely to go out like a match’. At times this makes for painful reading. The vast numbers of the dead, particularly the young or those less experienced in battle, pervade the pages like an oppressive fog; but, as ever, Beevor writes with an eye for the personal that keeps the narrative flowing.

Nevertheless, and despite good maps, it is easy to get slightly lost in the relentless manoeuvres, with the narrative echoing the confusion of many soldiers in the field, certain only of the misery around them. Had Beevor chosen to zoom out a little more often we might perhaps have lost this immediacy, but gained the opportunity to study some of the fascinating themes that weave through the action, such as the long-term impact of atrocities on both sides; the significance of language both to hide the savagery of war and to stoke it; the vital importance of communications; and the commonalities and distinctions between the forces of both sides. All this is here, but sewn so tightly into the detail of battle orders and the changing frontline that the threads are sometimes hard to follow.

Several crucial issues do emerge clearly, however, most notably the breakdown of goodwill between generals Montgomery and Bradley, and hence between Britain and the US. While Bradley was one of the weakest American generals, repeatedly failing to understand the situation on the ground, Monty appears extraordinarily arrogant, arriving at the US First Army HQ ‘like Christ come to clean the temple’. Interestly, Beevor speculates that Monty may have suffered from high-functioning Asperger Syndrome. Certainly his inability to interpret correctly the nuance of communications or pitch his responses accordingly, combined with the bullishness of the British press, effectively caused a disintegration of relations that without careful management might well have proved disastrous for the Allies.

Also admirable is the way Beevor addresses both German and Allied courage — and war crimes. Stories of atrocities riddle the text. With officers like Heinz Lammerding, the Reich commander responsible for the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre in France, and Joachim Peiper, whose Waffen SS group killed prisoners ‘at almost every opportunity’, Allied crimes have sometimes been underplayed or presented solely in terms of hot-blooded revenge. Beevor is braver, rightly exposing the open approval of a number of Allied generals for a policy of retaliatory execution of German prisoners. This is history as it should be written.

A book such as this would be unbearable, however, without Beevor’s ability to pick up on the, often black, humour that must have sustained the men on both sides. Fortunately characters such as Ernest Hemingway were also on the scene, bringing some light relief amid the carnage, mud and ice. Having shot up the plumbing of the Paris Ritz with a German machine pistol (after he had decided that flushing was too good an end for a photograph of his current romantic rival), Hemingway headed into battle armed with a Thompson submachine gun and two canteens; one for schnapps, the other for cognac. ‘Journalism was not high on his priorities,’ Beevor states with evident admiration. Hemingway would later prove his courage under fire, but was never far from a good anecdote. Staying in the Belgian house of priest suspected to be a German sympathiser, he takes great pleasure in drinking all the communion wine and refilling the bottles with his own urine. Reportedly, he later drank one himself by mistake.

Hemingway is one of a number of famous names at the Ardennes, including the journalist Martha Gellhorn, his estranged wife, who entranced General Patton; J.D. Salinger, scribbling furiously in trenches; Marlene Dietrich, in sequins but no underwear; and Kurt Vonnegut, whose capture would lead him to Dresden and the firestorm described in Slaughterhouse-Five. However, only David Niven matches Hemingway for insouciance in these pages. When challenged about the 1940 baseball World Series, a question designed to ascertain whether he was an infiltrating German commando, Niven replied: ‘I haven’t the faintest idea. But I do know that I made a picture with Ginger Rogers in 1938.’

However, this is a tale coloured essentially by tragedy, much of it gruesome, all seemingly unnecessary. So why did Hitler gamble all in the Ardennes, and why were the Allies unprepared? ‘Wars are finally decided,’ Beevor quotes Hitler as saying, ‘by the recognition on one side or the other that the war can’t be won any more.’ Despite overwhelming evidence, in the autumn of 1944 Hitler refused to concede that he could no longer win the war. Many of his senior staff felt it better to fight to the end in any case, giving their nation the ‘moral strength’ to rise later from the ashes. ‘If we were fighting a reasonable people they would have surrendered a long time ago,’ General Bradley commented at the start of the engagement. ‘But these people are not reasonable.’

Hitler believed American forces would fall back after a surprise attack, and that the strained coalition of the Allies would prevent a rapid response. He was wrong. The Allies meanwhile felt that the Germans were no longer capable of launching a strategic offensive, and failed to foresee the attack. Both sides underestimated the strategic and military capabilities of their enemy, but ultimately it was the grim determination of the Allied soldiers whose heroism kept German forces, especially the Panzer divisions, engaged in the Ardennes far longer than anticipated, helping to pave the way for the successful Russian offensive towards Germany and Berlin.

Hitler’s greatest mistake, Beevor argues, was that he ‘misjudged the soldiers of an army [he] had affected to despise’. This is above all the story of those soldiers, and for that alone it deserves the widest audience.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £19.50 Tel: 08430 600033. Clare Mulley is the author of The Spy Who Loved: the Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville.

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Show comments
  • Jambo25

    Beevor takes his dislike of Montgomery too far. The reality is that Montgomery while not nearly as good a commander as he thought he was was, nevertheless, a good deal more able than most of the Americans he had to deal with. In the initial phases of the German Ardennes offensive there was something approaching paralysis in the US command structure and Montgomery had a better appreciation of what was going on than Eisenhower or Bradley. It was him who appreciated the vital nature of the Meuse crossings and began to organise moves to evacuate overstretched US infantry from dangerously exposed positions.

    • John P Hughes

      Previous historians have argued that Montgomery stablised the Allies’ defence on the northern side of the Bulge that the German advance created. Max Hastings has said, in talks based on his book on the War in Europe 1944-45, that, unlike the Americans, who did not have his experience, Monty knew how effective the German Army was in defensive positions, and how to construct a defence against German attacks.

      • Jambo25

        Spot on. Strangely enough some of the US airborne commanders thought rather more of Montgomery than other US commanders. They were also rather led impressed by Patton and his ‘wonder’ drive on Bastogne. The men of the 101st Airborne always maintained that they simply didn’t need saving.

        • BlackArrow

          Paratrooper braggadocio. They certainly *did* need saving. 🙂

          • Jambo25

            Not what the men of the 101st said and they didn’t appear to be under too much pressure prior to Patton’s arrival.

        • Kennybhoy

          You really are rather sound on the British in WWI and II. How did you survive teaching history over the past three decades or so? Consider yersel’ cyber man-hugged Maister J! 🙂

          • Jambo25

            Thanks Kennybhoy. Military History and Organisation was one of my main subjects at university. One of my thesis papers was on ‘Weaknesses in the British Command Structure and Military Doctrine in the run up to and during the Gazala Battles in 1942’ I thought about doing a doctorate on the transfer of military technology and organisational methods from Europe to Meiji and post Meiji Japan but life’s too short. I had to read Lord knows what from Sun Tzu through to Guderian and Giap.
            I’ve gone on reading a lot of military history since. I got very interested in WW1 and read up more about that period now rather than WW2. One of my favourite books on the period is ‘Tommy’ by the much missed Richard Holmes. Not just a very good popular history but almost a love letter to the institution and men of the old BEF.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    I didn’t read anything in the text justifying the sensational headline. In fact it is hard to imagine any circumstances in December 1944 that could have lost the war, i.e. allowed the Germans to win it short of them revealing and using a secret arsenal of atomic weapons.

  • Barba Rossa

    At that stage in the War.. It mattered not that the western Alllies fell back or advanced, The Red Army was winning the war on the Eastern Front…no doubt Beevor would know this even if he didn’t, make it clear in this book..

    • Jambo25

      It did matter, however, as to how much of Europe the Red Army would have occupied in the late Spring of 1945

    • Mr TaxPayer

      HAving written books an Stalingrad and the battle for Berlin, I’m sure Beevor is aware of what was going on on the Eastern Front.

      • Barba Rossa

        Indeed Mr Taxpayer.. Ive read both both, excellent history books if your interested in WW2 Eastern Front.

  • Mark

    Oh no, so the British General wasn’t as good as the Americans who saved Europe.

    This is a repeated and tedious, revisionist “narrative” that fits the political correctness of our times and downplays the non American contributions to the defeat of Nazism.

    Let’s be clear, the U.S. like the USSR waited until the axis attacked them before declaring against Nazism, the British didn’t.

    The British Empire couldn’t have defeated the axis alone, but had Britain fallen in 1940 it is likely that the USA couldn’t have either.

    • The Real Spartacus

      The US could have done very little without Britain. Indeed, all 3 major allies needed one another, it really was a team effort.

  • BlackArrow

    My recently deceased lifelong family friend in Rock Island Illinois was a very effective teenage German-American infantryman in Patton’s 3rd Army. He won 2 Bronze Stars for courage in battle. He was afterwards haunted by all the (young) men he had killed and the possibility he might have been related to some of them. After that Ardennes winter, he *hated* the cold, and as soon as he retired from teaching and coaching wrestling, he and his Franco-American wife would head for their trailer down in Brownsville Texas, the first cold day of winter.

    The father of my best friend in kindergarten – now still a good friend thanks to Facebook – was an infantryman in the 99th Battle Babies/Diaper Division, along with veteran 2nd InfDiv on the northern shoulder of the Bulge. Before he died, he took his son on a tour of the battlefield, easily finding a couple of his foxholes.

    The uncle of a friend from Alaska died in Jan45 in his ground-strafing P-51 Mustang during the closure of the Bulge. Belgians still tend his grave.

    My little (free, print-and-play) Battle of the Bulge boardgame Ardennes Petite has a dedication which includes the men above.

    A former U.S. Military Academy (West Point) Librarian was a young Austrian (Jewish, I believe) who was an intelligence and reconnaissance lieutenant in the Ardennes. He and others like him were sending reports up the chain of command that they had identified 1.SSPzDiv and the other elite/shock German units concentrating behind the Schnee Eifel … only to be ignored.

    After the offensive had begun, he and some of his men were in a Belgian family’s apartment in Houffalize, when they heard heavy engines moving through the streets – panzers! Looking down, he saw General Hasso von Manteuffel, and lined him up in his rifle(/carbine?) sights at only 30 meters. Not wanting his men and the Belgian family … and himself … slaughtered, he didn’t pull the trigger.

    Some years after the war, General von Manteuffel came to the Academy to lecture. At the reception for him, the USMA Librarian came up to him and said what a privilege it was to see him again. Von M. was puzzled, until Mr. W. told him the previous circumstances … and they became very good friends. 🙂

    Lou Coatney

    • Jambo25

      One of my ma’s sisters married a GI she had met during the war. A big, gangly Yank with that ‘hard’ Yankee accent you get up in Northern New England. He was a bit shy with a slight stutter. Unassuming and modest: the best kind of old time Yankee. Generous and kind to a fault. Nobody knew, including, I think, his family, that he’d been decorated twice for bravery in Normandy and the Ardennes fighting. They found out when going through his private effects after he died. It did appear in his obit in the local paper though.

  • Roger Hudson

    I find Beevor’s books hard to understand, never enough maps.
    The Americans getting caught up in the Ardennes (essentially German home turf) nearly let Stalin overrun Western Europe. Of course it was the same stupidity as the German 1918 KaiserSchlacht offensive, Hitler knew how that went, he got gassed. Peiper and his tanks would have been better used on the Eastern front.

  • frank davidson

    Monty only entered the picture when the Americans needed him. His arrogance was when he entered the US field headquarters arriving in his Rolls Royce. He was ordered there by Eisenhower to fix things, he did.

  • Patrick_Heren

    Who wrote the nonsensical headline about Monty nearly losing the war? In the Ardennes? Come off it. In any case the German offensive, however ferocious, had no chance of succeeding.

  • boultonzz .

    Beevor really has it in for Monty.
    But let’s step aside from the fact that Monty was successful in Africa as well as in Europe post D-Day, Beevor himself admits that the British faced the toughest and hardest German forces, that either the American or indeed Russians faced probably since operation Barbarossa commenced. Yet Monty, was successful, he/the Allies did win, whether or not it took a bit longer than was planned, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile, winning is winning.
    Long story short, I’m probably not going to read it, lets just for once, celebrate the achievements of a British general and stop trying to downplay and besmirch him.

    • Jambo25

      In fact, the allied victory in the Normandy battles took about exactly the time that Montgomery had predicted. He got the timings of the break out battles (Longer than predicted.) and the battles of annihilation against the Wehrmacht (Shorter than predicted) wrong but the overall timing was about right. The end game, in Normandy, only happened because the British, Canadians and Poles had destroyed the fighting ability of the Wehrmacht prior to the US break out.

      • Kennybhoy

        Utterly sound.

  • WTF

    Monty’s arrogance cant be any worse than the arrogance to us and appeasement towards Islam that we see by todays crop of western leaders that are selling us out to a world wide caliphate. Chamberlain may have been an idiot in not seeing the Nazi threat but Cameron and the rest are far worse as they have already invited into the country the fifth column of Islamic agitators that are taking over the country !

  • mikewaller

    Interesting article, but stupid title. There was not risk of losing the war at that stage, although victory might have been delayed.