July 17, 2015

Book Review: Ardennes 1944 by Antony Beevor

Something a bit different this morning a book review.  I've been a fan of Antony Beevor's work since I read his book Stalingrad several years ago.  It remains one of my favourite pieces of narrative history even after multiple readings.  His other WW2 works D-Day, Berlin and 'The 2nd World War' are all in the same vein so when his latest work Ardennes 1944 was advertised I ordered it straight away.

The 'Battle of the Bulge' while relatively minor in the grand scheme of things (don't tell the yanks that though) - compared to say the Russian Front where Operation Bagatron several months early had destroyed Army Group Centre or the advance to the the Oder which started a few weeks after the Ardennes offensive ended - it was still an important battle; more so for the resources the Germans deployed and lost there instead of against the Russians were they would have been more useful (although it wouldn't have done anything more than delay the inevitable).

Following Beevor's usual practice the book mixes traditional history discussing dates, strategic decision making, key players and data from the battle itself with narrative history based around the experiences of individuals at all levels.  In doing so his writing replicates in many ways the work of Cornelius Ryan a WW2 correspondent and historian whose 3 works "The Longest Day", "A Bridge to Far" and "The Last Battle" (also about Berlin) are among the best of their kind.  Of the two Ryan had a distinct advantage it that he was able to interview countless numbers of participants from each of the campaigns he wrote about whereas Beevor has access to historical archives that were sealed and unavailable to historians of Ryan's era (Soviet archives in particular).   It is interesting to compare Ryan's work on Berlin (The Last Battle) with Beevors on the same battle (Berlin) of the two I prefer Ryan's work.

A good read but Cornelius Ryan's 1966 novel is better IMO
Unfortunately with Ardenne Beevor has not produced as book that is compelling, informative or as immersive as his earlier works particularly Stalingrad.  As a historical novel it contains the dates, times and key events of the battle as any history should.  But that information lacks IMO context and in the end its a lot like reading a descriptive timeline i.e. "Person A did this and Person B did this" but one that doesn't allow the reader to place those events into a clearly described wider picture (a bit like a gardener describing individual blades of grass but not telling you what the lawn looks like overall).  As a narrative it also falls down in that the personal stories included lack the immersive and empathetic quality that he managed to convey with Stalingrad in particular.  Some of the personal stories and incidents are informative - the description of Kampfgruppe Pieper & the Americans early battles in the forests of the Ardenne contain details I don't remember reading anywhere else.  But....

A very good read particularly for its coverage of the political issues that dominated SHAEF and the underlying sub-plots of the Montgomery issue and the French Government/Resistance (the latter not covered in Cornelius Ryan's work)
.... I found myself skipping entire sections of the book and I actually put it down and began reading other things rather than finish it straight away.  With Stalingrad I read it cover to cover almost non-stop and then read it again.  With Ardenne I had to make a deliberate attempt to force myself to read it twice just to ensure I didn't miss anything. 

There are 2 books about the Russian Front you should read this and Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sayer. 
It is still worth a read but if you are looking for a repeat of Stalingrad or Berlin this IMO doesn't deliver it, and if you want a good history of the Battle of the Bulge then there are better books out there. 

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