Although I usually remain mired in books dedicated to the Eastern Front of the Second World War, when offered the opportunity to receive an advance reader’s copy of ‘The Guns at Last Light’, I was happy to dive into the history of the Western Front. For all the praise the previous two volumes written by Atkinson received I was expecting something out of the ordinary. That, unfortunately, was not what I found. Speaking as someone who has studied history and the Second World War for over a decade, this is a good book for hobbyists and those new to the topic, but nothing groundbreaking. One can easily tell this is a journalistic effort (akin to what Max Hastings has written previously) as the author deals with the equivalent of sound bites of information. Atkinson all too often relies on emotional narratives to tell a story many are already familiar with. Without the superfluous information that can be found on practically every page (needless descriptions of the sky and ground, or counting the paper plates, napkins, and bottles of alcohol needed for the participants of the Yalta conference), this book could have been reduced by 100-200 pages and still retained its readability and fluid historical narrative.
Coming in at 640 pages, this is a book that will take you days if not weeks to finish. For those unfamiliar with the Second World War or the Western Front, this makes for a good grounding and introduction. Some of the most interesting passages discuss and showcase the troubles Eisenhower encountered in Europe while dealing with the likes of British and French commanders whose egos often took center stage. Too often their ineptitude and callous disregard for their allies resulted in missed opportunities and needless casualties straining relations and nerves on a daily basis. Combined with logistical difficulties that took numerous divisions out of the line and held up offensive operations along the front, the achievements of the allies need to be lauded when seen for what they were able to overcome. Descriptions of the more important battles – Normandy, Market Garden, Hürtgen Forest, and the Ardennes offensive – get the usual majority of attention. But other operations are also touched on with allied failures and missed opportunities coming to the forefront of what little analysis is offered. I was surprised to see the limited coverage of the liberation of concentration and labor camps; at most one or two dozen pages were devoted to the discovery of the genocidal campaign waged by the Third Reich.
Atkinson commands a wide range of knowledge when it comes to the history of the Western Front and the bibliography and endnotes attest to that. Unfortunately, the best he can do is regurgitate all that information for his readers while practically omitting any analytical conclusions. What analysis there is usually comes from quotes of participants, ranging from the highest echelons of the military and government to the average private in a foxhole. The end result is that while at times there is some analysis for why the allies were successful in their operations (again, mainly relying on quotes and opinions of participants and at times historians) there is an obvious lack of such scrutiny for the axis. Furthermore, when stepping outside of the Western Front there is an obvious lack of context.
The Eastern Front is mentioned numerous times throughout this volume. The harsh conditions German formations experienced against the Red Army are often the barometer which German soldiers measure the western allies against. In one case, during operation Market Garden, a German soldier comments that he’s fought a battle harder than any he experienced in Russia. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know exactly what he experienced on the Eastern Front; thus there is no real way to qualify this statement with what we know about the Eastern Front. As much as this quote adds to our understanding of the violence that was encountered, the reader is also left wanting more and not knowing how to contextualize what he’s just read. While this is a rather minor point, similar weaknesses are evident throughout the text. Another example is when discussing the offensive in the Ardennes. Instead of pointing out that the allies asked the Red Army to move up their offensive in January to help alleviate the damage done by the German attack, the author contends that the German forces utilized in the Ardennes made possible the success of the Soviet January offensive. This is a rather cheap attempt to make amends for the mistakes the western allies made and make further sense of the casualties they suffered.
Nevertheless, for all its faults and weaknesses ‘The Guns at Last Light’ showcases that the ‘clean’ war of good vs. evil that is so often portrayed in the media was hardly the case on the ground. The liberation of Europe was a multi-faceted event that took the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides and extended the suffering to the civilian sector at every step of the way – from allied bombing raids to German and allied reprisals. Those interested in an introduction to the western allied campaign in Europe would do well to invest in this volume while keeping in mind that this is still a 640 page tip of a much larger iceberg.