The more I learn about World War II, the more it fascinates me. I feel like most people have a vague, middle-ground understanding of the war. Two generations removed from the war, I have trouble fathoming both the global scale of the conflict and the impact it had on hundreds of millions of individuals. I had a child’s school-taught understanding of the war until I read a novel, actually. The second part of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement tells of the British evacuation from France at Dunkirk after the Germans overran the country. It was an important event in the war, but one that I had never really learned much about, and McEwan’s rich storytelling made me want to learn more. I also realized that I ought to know more about the war that both of my grandfathers fought in, one in Europe and one in the Pacific.
Wanting to get an overview, I opted for John Keegan’s The Second World War, which turned out to be an ideal choice in that it was the broad, readable overview of the war that I had been looking for. (I would later read Keegan’s history of the First World War and review it.) But after Keegan, I wanted to delve into the war more, to take a narrower view and learn about some of the hundreds of smaller conflicts that, taken together, comprised the war. I turned to Rick Atkinson, not least because I had the chance to meet him twice and because I read and enjoyed his book, In the Company of Soldiers, about being embedded in Iraq.
An Army at Dawn is the first book in Atkinson’s trilogy about the liberation of Europe during WWII. This book covered North Africa, while the forthcoming books will cover Italy and France. An Army at Dawn won the Pulitzer in 2003 and deservedly so. I don’t think I’ve ever read a history book that flowed so well. The book is an incredible marriage of storytelling and historical fact, so that the reader feels both entertained and very well informed. Atkinson relied on battle memoirs and letters from soldiers to augment traditional, official sources and it shows. The war’s narrative is textured at every turn with the words of the men who were there, providing an insight I’ve not gotten from other history books. Along with using the men’s words directly, Atkinson also combines these collective observations in his own way to paint a vivid picture of the goings on. An example:
The rain slowed to a drizzle, then stopped for the first time in two days. A monstrous, blood-orange moon drifted behind the breaking clouds. Backlit by desultory shell fire, British victualers darted up with tins of cold plum pudding for men who spooned it down behind their pathetic fieldstone parapets. Flares rose to define the dead.
That scene occurred near Longstop Hill as the conflict raged back and forth in Tunisia. We all know about World War II, but beyond the most familiar aspects of the War – the invasion of Poland, the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust – how much do we really know? For me, it didn’t go much deeper than that, but as Atkinson makes so vividly clear, the world once watched North Africa, and battles like Kesserine Pass, Mareth, and El Guettar made headlines. To me, though, the book is powerful in that it goes beyond just knowing when and where and how these battles happened, it gives us a glimpse into the lives and deaths of the men who were there. In that sense I found this book both incredibly informative while also conveying the unfathomable (to me in this day and age) emotions of war.
An Army at Dawn was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I’ll certainly read Atkinson’s next two books when they come out, but in the meantime, as I look at my queue of books to read, I see that only Robert Capa’s Slightly Out of Focus is about WWII. I need to read more books about World War II. Any suggestions?