The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Atkinson)

The third volume of Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy ( started slowly. I think because I know much of the story from reading Ambrose’s works, I was more bothered by Atkinson’s armchair hindsight. He continues to make Churchill seem ridiculous and Montgomery also is presented as cartoonish. Atkinson saves his worst, though, for De Gaulle. He paints him as a selfish opportunist, more interested in appearance than anything else.

As I moved through the book and the Allies moved through Europe, I became more engaged. Given today’s headlines about civilian casualties in the Middle East, I was struck by just how many Europeans were caught in the crossfire. What are our expectations for war? Are they reasonable?

I knew little of the Battle of the Bulge, and Atkinson explained it well. And the final steps toward victory are rendered remarkably well here. As in the first two volumes, Atkinson has an impressive ability to choose a telling detail. I also thought his presentation of German leaders was more balanced than in the first two volumes.

The passages that describe the liberation of various concentration camps are necessarily grim. Atkinson’s epilogue sings; tears came to my eyes. But I wondered whether it would have been useful to integrate more of that positive lyricism throughout. Many things, Atkinson makes clear, were done wrong during the war – equipment failures, leadership failures, etc. – but many things were done right. Atkinson would have done well to comment on those on a more consistent basis.

Atkinson’s implicit thesis remains present in this volume. Though there were many great leaders and many great decisions, it was the ordinary man, the soldier, the engineer, that was the hero. We get excerpts from letters and interviews as well as descriptions of battles that make this argument well.

Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is a stunning accomplishment. I wonder what he’ll tackle next.


2 Replies to “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Atkinson)”

  1. If you’re interested, I recommend reading as a pair two in depth political histories about the end of the war (in chronological order): Yalta: The Price of Peace by S. M. Plokhy and Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. Neither book is without fault, but together they bring to light the real political drama that occurred in the rapidly changing circumstances of 1945, and the lasting effects of deals and decisions made under the highest pressures.

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