The airing of Ken Burns’ The War and the release of Rick Atkinson’s second volume of what promises to be a landmark trilogy on the liberation of Europe invariably draws attention to the sobering statistic that our veterans of World War II are dying off at the rate of a thousand a day.
The figure lends a renewed urgency to the preservation of their memories, and while Burns’ achievement is imposing, if sprawling, Atkinson’s is a truly remarkable fusion of a higher order.
The number of books about World War II is beyond counting, and many choose between individual grunt-level experience and the strategic thinking at the command level—in the happy cases where it existed. Other historians have essayed a combination and ended up with two parallel narratives, from headquarters and the trenches.
Atkinson’s gift is to make one element illuminate and deepen the other. We are made to feel the full measure of a general’s arrogance or plain stupidity—and there was plenty to go round in the Allied campaign in Italy—and then given a vivid and visceral sense of the chaos and needless carnage that all too often resulted.
Take a page near the conclusion of The Day of Battle. Here we find Gen. Mark Clark, a man who makes Donald Trump seem like the epitome of self-effacement, worrying about whether he will get credit and sufficient publicity for the capture of Rome. He is already planning a triumphant entry in the manner of Pompey, and Atkinson’s withering deadpan account of what went wrong with his big day is both amusing and appalling.
Just a few paragraphs on from Clark’s vain fretting, we meet Cpl. Robert Marsh of the 81st Reconnaissance Battalion and a minor cog in Clark’s drive to push the Germans northward. In his diary, Marsh reports that Germans who hesitated to surrender were buried alive by tank bulldozers. Then he recalls watching as some American tank crews pulled up a giant broken wine barrel that was spilling its contents. “They drank a lot of wine until they found a dead German in it,” Marsh writes laconically.
The Day of Battle follows Atkinson’s much-praised account of the North African campaign in An Army at Dawn. The earlier work won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2003, and, if anything, The Day of Battle is even more engrossing.
The decision to invade Italy only came after much political debate and infighting among the Allies, and its wisdom has been much questioned by historians ever since. Its chief proponent was Winston Churchill, who rashly deemed Italy “the soft underbelly of Europe.” Stalin wanted German resources siphoned off by another front. The Americans favored invading southern France and were also looking toward the needs of the war in the Pacific.
Churchill prevailed, but Italy was anything but soft, and names such as Anzio would take their place in the lexicon of military disasters. The Allies, a huge multinational army with all the disagreements and rivalries one might expect, fought their way to Rome at huge cost (more than 23,000 Americans died). The mountainous terrain favored the entrenched Germans, and Atkinson gives us a rich perspective on their side, which was astutely led by Field Marshal Albrecht Kesselring.
Atkinson was a writer and editor at the Washington Post before turning to military history full time. He has a reporter’s eye for the telling detail and a historian’s sure grasp of the larger picture. He is particularly rewarding in discussing the destruction of the great abbey at Monte Cassino, a priceless treasure sacrificed to supposed exigencies of war.
His prose is unadorned and plainspoken in a manner that effectively lets horror speak itself. There are the incidents of that favorite oxymoron “friendly fire,” the scenes of combat that call to mind the slaughter of World War I, and assorted atrocities on both sides.
Lucid and focused, The Day of Battle only whets the appetite for Atkinson’s third installment, on the Normandy invasion and the drive toward Germany. This will be much more familiar and competitive terrain, but if Atkinson sustains the level of An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle, the trilogy will stand in the uncrowded first rank of great World War II histories.