I’ve expressed my admiration for Rick Atkinson’s books in the past. His Pulitzer-winning An Army at Dawn is a history of the Allied liberation of Northern Africa, told in a style that glides easily from the the humblest infantryman to the strategies of generals and presidents. He offers the reader a glimpse of what it was like on the ground, while also providing the big picture and dwelling on episodes and campaigns that are merely touched upon in broader histories and television documentaries. (Dawn also inspired me to enlist our readers’ help in compiling lists of World War II fiction and nonfiction.)
As the second book in Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, The Day of Battle picks up where Dawn left off as the triumphant Allied troops consolidate their hold on Northern Africa and look to Europe for their next move, which after much strategic horse trading between the Americans and British turns out to be an amphibious invasion of Sicily followed by an advance up the “boot” of Italy, with further amphibious landings along the way.
As it turns out, the Italian campaign was brutal and bloody, a halting effort with many stalemates along the way as the Germans dug in and the Allies time and again failed to take advantage of opportunities presented to them. In fact, among the may intriguing side plots that Atkinson covers was whether Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s obsession with seeing that American soldiers – and those under his command in particular – were credited for victories undermined the mission at hand. Clark’s penchant for victory parade photo ops is unnerving, though he was undoubtedly a talented general. Similarly, the complicated picture painted of Lieutenant General George S. Patton is riveting. “Few acts of corporal punishment would be more scrutinized, analyzed, and condemned than the two slapping incidents on Sicily in August 1943,” Atkinson writes of the actions that would derail Patton’s legacy, at least for a time, after he struck a pair of soldiers suffering from what we would now describe as post-traumatic stress disorder, who he saw as impugning the valor of more visibly wounded men. It is Atkinson’s rich telling of these episodes that make his work so entertaining and instructive. Other highlights – though they were horrors for the men involved – include landing by water at Salerno as well as the grueling back and forth struggle at Cassino and the destruction of the monastery that loomed above it.
But readers with an interest in history will likely most value Atkinson’s frequent use of the soldiers’ own words. “‘Someday I hope we shall be able to fight downhill for a change,’ a captain in the 16th Infantry wrote his family.” “‘I’m a little tired,’ an Irish Guards sergeant confessed after emerging from the hellish Moletta gullies. ‘But then, I’m an old man now.'” “Another befuddled guide also led company A into a minefield. ‘We walked as men do in a cow pasture,’ said one man, ‘placing each foot carefully on a pre-selected spot.'”
Immersed in the details of the war, it comes to seem incredibly remote from life in the present. Even when Atkinson describes what happened to various notable generals after the war, it is difficult to comprehend that they ever had lives outside of it, so total and suffocating was their experience. The same can be said of the enlisted men and the soldiers all the way up the chain of command. Perhaps Atkinson’s greatest accomplishment is to induce readers now, generations removed from World War II, to marvel at the realities of the fighting and suffering that went on in many now barely remembered corners of the world.