“The saviors come not home tonight: Themselves they could not save.”
— lines from A.E. Housman, scribbled in a soldier’s diary.
Oct. 27, 1947, thousands of caskets were unloaded from a ship in New York. The bodies of soldiers from the European theater, writes Rick Atkinson, “then traveled by rail in a great diaspora across the republic for burial in their hometowns.” Three young men, killed between the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and April 1945 in Germany two weeks before the war in Europe ended, were destined for Henry Wright’s Missouri farm:
“Gray and stooped, the elder Wright watched as the caskets were carried into the rustic bedroom where each boy had been born. Neighbors kept vigil overnight, carpeting the floor with roses, and in the morning they bore the brothers to Hilltop Cemetery for burial side by side by side beneath an iron sky.”
Atkinson’s “The Guns at Last Light,” the completion of his trilogy on the liberation of Western Europe, is history written at the level of literature. If, as a U.S. infantryman wrote, “No war is really over until the last veteran is dead,” the war has not ended: About 400 World War II veterans, almost half a battalion, are dying each day. Spend the shank end of summer with Atkinson’s tribute to all who served and suffered.
Western Europe was, Atkinson stresses, just one cauldron: “The Red Army suffered more combat deaths at Stalingrad alone than the U.S. armed forces did in the entire war.” But “for magnitude and unalloyed violence, the battle in the Ardennes” — the Battle of the Bulge — “was unlike any seen before in American history.” The 600,000 Americans who fought in the Ardennes were four times the number of Union and Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg.
Atkinson’s story is propelled by vivid descriptions and delicious details. Britain before D-Day “was steeped in heavy smells, of old smoke and cheap coal and fatigue.” Gen. Lucian Truscott “possessed what one staff officer called a ‘predatory’ face, with protruding gray eyes and gapped incisors set in a jut jaw built to scowl.” Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery chaffed under Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s command: “Subordination held little appeal for a solipsist.” Soldiers visited Picasso in his Paris studio where Hemingway, who ghostwrote love letters for some soldiers, “had left behind a box of grenades.” Churchill, whose thoughts encompassed millennia past and future, ordered German rocket sites on the French side of the English Channel destroyed so the French could not use them “if they fall out of temper with us.”
Some of the 6 billion propaganda leaflets dropped over Germany drifted as far as Italy. Jewish soldiers in the chaos of the Bulge hammered out the “H” — for “Hebrew” — on their dog tags. In a German iron pit, U.S. soldiers found crates labeled “Aachen Cathedral” containing “a silver bust of Charlemagne embedded with a fragment of the emperor’s skull.” These words were on a fortification in France: “Austin White, Chicago, Ill., 1918. Austin White, Chicago, Ill., 1945. This is the last time I want to write my name here.”
In December 1944, the president’s blood pressure was 260 over 150, and on an April day in 1945 American newspapers published the daily casualty list with next of kin, including this: “Army-Navy Dead: ROOSEVELT, Franklin D., commander-in-chief; wife, Mrs. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, the White House.”
Atkinson’s narrative glows with the poetic prose of the heartbroken — letters penned by people caught up in what he calls “the scarlet calamity.” After Conrad Nutting died when his P-51 crashed, his pregnant wife wrote: “It will be my cross, my curse, and my joy forever, that in my mind you shall always be vibrantly alive.” An American war correspondent listened in a cemetery as a French girl read a letter from a mother to her son: “My dearest and unfortunate son, on June 16, 1944, like a lamb you died and left me alone without hope. ... Your last words to me were, ‘Mother, like the wind I came and like the wind I shall go.’”
Such reservoirs of eloquence were drawn from the depths of human dignity that survived the scalding obscenity of the war Atkinson describes unsparingly. The Battle of Agincourt (1415) is remembered less for its consequences than for what Shakespeare made of it in “Henry V.” World War II’s reverberations will roll down the centuries in its geopolitical consequences, and in the literature it elicited in letters and in histories like Atkinson’s trilogy.
George Will is a Washington Post columnist.