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Posted on May 19, 2010 in Books and Movies

War Stories of the Battle of the Bulge – Book Review

By Neal West

War Stories of the Battle of the Bulge. Michael Green & James D. Brown. Zenith Press, 2010. 314 pages. 14 pages of photographs, 2 maps. Hardback. $28.00.

What they personally witnessed is presented in sometimes humorous, sometimes excruciatingly gory, detail.

On January 18, 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons and declared that the "terrific battle which has been proceeding since Dec. 16 on the American front" was "undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war, and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory." Indeed, the "Battle of the Bulge" has been enshrined in history as uniquely American and for ample reason: all but 1,400 of the estimated 80,000 casualties were Americans.

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Some 840,000 U.S soldiers were involved in the Battle of the Bulge. fifty-six of them have contributed their experiences to Michael Green, freelance author and contributor to over eighty books, and James Brown, a twenty-year U.S. Army officer. Green and Brown have published these 56 remembrances in War Stories of the Battle of the Bulge, a book that provides a wide-ranging and somewhat chaotic first-person view of one of America’s most legendary battles.

The introduction of War Stories provides a short chronology of events, the German goals, the major units involved and their locations but the book is not a history of the battle. It is a repository of memories, culled from several sources. Most of the stories are reprints from the Bulge Bugle, the newsletter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Association, while others were submitted especially for the book by Association members, and a very few taken from various U. S Army historical repositories. The collection is separated into four chapters: "The Germans Attack," "The American Fight Back," "Christmas in the Ardennes," and "Closing the Bulge."

What the reader will find in War Stories is perhaps best described by one of its contributors, Ralph Schip, of the 18th Cavalry Recon Squadron. Schip writes that, "the overall tenor of experiences during a period of combat can often be encapsulated in the recounting of a very short-term, specific experience, which by its intensity can be vividly recalled in fine detail." As a result, these collected recollections are either incredibly detailed or aggravatingly vague. The level of detail seems to depend on the rank of the writer, officers having a better sense of their locations and tactical situation. Other writers have little recollection of where they were or what was happening beyond eye and earshot. But what they personally witnessed is presented in sometimes humorous, sometimes excruciatingly gory, detail. While most of the recollections contain very powerful scenes, it is still a haphazard collection of memories written in the 1990s and early 2000s, some 50 years after the fact. These stories are an important recording of memories from a rapidly vanishing generation but, with few exceptions, are not useful to the student of military history.

Also, the fact that the War Stories were collected from a veteran’s newsletter, meant for other veterans, perhaps explains the prideful boasting and jingoism that crept into a couple of the tales. One writer declares that we won the war due to "our reason for fighting and the dedication and courage of our young men." The same writer attributes his ability to survive capture and interment in a POW camp to his "experience and ability in the martial arts" and his training "in the air force for special commando services." These are surprising traits for a runner in the 106th Infantry Division, which had been on the European continent for only ten days.

From a historian’s perspective, the most useful contributions are those from sources other than the Bulge Bugle. Brigadier General Bruce Clark’s contribution from the files of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Library area is especially enlightening. As commander of Combat Command B, 7th Armored Division, he realized that holding on to Saint Vith at all costs was not his immediate goal-delaying the Germans, while maintaining control of his command, was.

Reading War Stories, I kept hoping there would be more entries like General Clark’s, but most were the short, intense personal vignettes described by Ralph Schip. And while each chapter was presented in chronological order, the stories inside are so isolated from each other that I had trouble connecting with the individual soldier. Each story is prefaced by the soldier’s name and unit and then introduced with a few lines from the editors about the unit’s part in the battle. But this information was, at most, a teaser with little to place that soldier’s tale in context with either the campaign or the story before or after it. Even grouping the units together would have helped maintain cohesion I think. Instead, for example, two stories from members of the 28th ID are separated by two stories from the 106th ID, two from the 2nd ID, and one each from the 9th Armored and 1st ID. Granted, there is a great variety of units represented – eight in the first chapter alone-but this, I think, adds to the feeling of disconnection: there are just too many viewpoints from too many locations to really connect with the individual soldier.

There is also little information about the soldiers themselves. I sometimes wondered "where this man was from" or "what happened to him after the war." But unless the soldier mentioned it in his tale, I was left wondering. I feel that a short biography should have been included with each entry in order to build a rapport between the storyteller and the reader that would make the soldier’s experiences more personal.

In the end, War Stories of the Battle of the Bulge held little appeal to me as a piece of military history; it is simply a collection of loosely connected anecdotes. A collection such as this could have been so much better. I would point to the Time Life’s Voices of the Civil War series or Richard Wheeler’s book of the same name for better examples of the genre. While Green and Brown are listed as authors; in reality they are simply editors. They have assembled a valuable collection of first person accounts of one of the most costly campaigns in American history, but that is all it is: a collection. Sad to say, it is a collection poorly assembled and linked together that detracts from the appreciation of what these American heroes lived through in the hell of the Battle of the Bulge.

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