Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light, Book Review: A Bridge Too Far?

The first two volumes of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy (An Army at Dawn and Day of Battle) really earned their many laurels. Atkinson is particularly good at chronically the larger significance of lesser known theaters; how the campaign in North Africa improved the professionalism of the Anglo-American armed forces and contributed to victory more broadly, for example.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

No surprises then that the final volume of Atkinson’s series, The Guns at Last Light is an excellent and remarkably humane portrait of the US Army’s participation in the liberation of Western Europe.

That’s actually fairly careful encomium. I enjoyed The Guns at Last Light, as I did all of Atkinson’s trilogy, but I have some real questions about his scope and inclusivity.

But first, let me say unequivocally this is worth the read and will be for many years. I enjoyed the care he gives to ancillary operations, like those of the 7th Army on the southern flank of the Franco-German border. Or the wonderful and illuminating anecdotes he’s unearthed: how the allies were so low on paper in 1944 that they resorted to printing English maps on the back of captured German ones; how Patton launched a quixotic rescue attempt for his POW son-in-law (against all military advice); how men like Eisenhower, De Gaulle and Montgomery fretted over their legacies and place in what was sure to be the defining moment of their lives.

All that said, Atkinson’s publisher probably overstates his case when writing:

With the stirring final volume of this monumental trilogy, Atkinson’s accomplishment is manifest: he has produced the definitive chronicle of the war that unshackled a continent and preserved freedom in the West.

That, if you’ll excuse the obvious reference, is probably a bridge too far. This is a strong and flattering account of US–and to a lesser extent allied–ground forces that often drifts into diplomatic history (primarily allied conferences),  but it’s by no means comprehensive.

The fantastic movie based on Cornelius Ryan's terrific book, A Bridge Too Far.

The fantastic movie based on Cornelius Ryan’s terrific book, A Bridge Too Far.

For a start, the Battle of the Atlantic, that sine qua non of American material and technological largess, hardly registers in any volume of the trilogy. There would be no American participation in the European theater without secure lines of communication across the Atlantic, Anglo-American anti-submarine warfare and merchant marine losses. Atkinson does some of his best writing on allied supply systems, but is less interested in how those supplies were made or transferred to the theater.

Then there’s the strategic bombing campaign, which Atkinson treats as an afterthought; two brief sections squeezed inside otherwise unrelated chapters. This is a real shame given how many lives and resources were allocated to the Anglo-American strategic air forces, to say nothing of the moral questions raised by terror bombing.

I also have concerns about the Ameri-centrism (or American exceptionalism if you like) the Liberation Trilogy is likely to encourage if called the “definitive chronicle of the war.” This isn’t a history of WWII, but rather of one nation’s (in many ways peripheral) participation in one half of that war. Atkinson is quick to acknowledge the larger significance of the Soviet armies in defeating Nazi Germany, but I’m worried that might get lost in the trilogy’s public billing. This isn’t a text-book, nor should it be advertised as authoritative.

All this is doubly frustrating because others have done remarkable jobs of cataloguing the US Army’s role in western Europe, which is after all what Atkinson ends up doing in the Guns at Last Light. Anthony Beevor’s D-Day stands out not least of all because it is more honest–or at least exhaustive–about war crimes committed by US soldiers on the continent. John Keegan’s History of the Second World War also remains, in my view, as a better summary of the larger war in context.

I still think the Liberation Trilogy is a real achievement. Books one and two, dedicated to the campaigns in North Africa and Italy respectively, are particularly helpful given the lack of attention typically given to those theaters.

Atkinson sets out to provide us with a picture of the American army during its greatest test. The Guns at Last Light isn’t a history of warfare; it’s a study of the American experience, compellingly framed, beautifully rendered and highly recommended, perhaps with a grain of salt.

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