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Posted on Dec 5, 2007 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Some Recommended Reading

By Carlo D'Este

The northern half of the Bulge was chaotic and on December 18, Allied Supreme Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower made a courageous decision to appoint British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to take command and restore order over what was a predominately American sector. A crucial German shortage of fuel and the gallantry of American troops fighting in the frozen forests of the Ardennes proved fatal to Hitler’s ambition somehow to snatch, if not victory, at least a draw with the Allies. Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s remarkable feat of turning his Third U. S. Army from Lorraine to relieve the besieged town of Bastogne was the key to thwarting the German counteroffensive. The “bulge” was finally sealed on January 16, 1945. The battles that raged for six weeks in the frozen hell of the Ardennes were among the bitterest and bloodiest of any fought in the West. Casualties on both sides were staggering. The Battle of the Bulge earned the dubious distinction of being the costliest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army, which suffered over 100,000 casualties. The Bitter Woods is remarkable for a number of reasons, but primarily as a superb work of narrative history. As a former career soldier, John Eisenhower has a superb understanding of the terrain, of history, the key players, as well as a deep understanding of the tactics and strategy employed on both sides. Although John is the son of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander, there is no bias or favoritism toward his famous father. He tells the story frankly and where criticism is warranted, without bias.


I found the book so fascinating that I purchased a detailed Michelin map of the Ardennes to better follow Eisenhower’s descriptions. What makes this book special is the author’s description of the people who drive the story. It takes a great writer to make the reader feel as if he or she is actually present and experiencing the tension, the terrible cold, and the fighting. In one remarkable scene, during the crucial battle for St.-Vith, the two opposing commanders, Brig. Gen. Bruce C. Clarke and Gen. Hasso von Manteuffel, appear on the same ice covered road directing traffic on opposite sides of St.-Vith the evening of December 17, 1944.

Others have praised the book. Historian Stephen Ambrose has written: “Like his father, John Eisenhower knows how to get to the heart of the matter. The Bitter Woods will be read so long as the Republic lasts.” S.L.A. Marshall likewise praised it in Life magazine: “John S.D. Eisenhower writes with power. His imagination flames and his prose flows. His first work leaves no doubt that he is a military historian born.”

And this comment from Col. Jerry Morelock, the Editor in Chief of Armchair General: “John Eisenhower’s The Bitter Woods remains ‘the’ classic account of the greatest battle fought by GIs in World War II. Reading it helped spark my own early interest in the Battle of the Bulge, made me want to learn more about the men who led this monumental struggle, and really started me on a path that eventually led to my first book, Generals of the Ardennes, my PhD dissertation and numerous articles on various aspects of the battle. Later, when I commanded my own battalion in Germany, I led my battalion’s officers on a tour of the Ardennes, The Bitter Woods in hand as we walked the actual ground the GIs in the book fought over. The Bitter Woods helped to start me on a journey that shows no sign of ending.” High praise indeed — I heartily concur and highly recommend it.


The Patton PapersThe final book I commend to your attention is in two volumes. The Patton Papers primarily comprise selected diary entries and letters both to and from George S. Patton, Jr. The books are edited by historian Martin Blumenson, who provides superb background and linkage. What makes Blumenson special as a writer is his ability to say a great deal effectively in a very short space. I recall the first time I came across volume I (covering Patton’s life up to World War II) while still in the Army. I had just been reassigned from Germany to England and was in a bachelor officer’s quarters (BOQ) without my family on a very cold and nasty Sunday in December. The tiny post library had very little reading material of merit except a lone volume of The Patton Papers. Mostly to help pass the time I began to read it and was instantly hooked by this fascinating and entirely different picture of Patton from the commonly held perceptions of him fostered by the notorious “blood and guts” tales and by the film starring George C. Scott. The World War II volume was not available but eager to read on, I had a copy sent from the States. These two volumes led me to further study of Patton and eventually to my biography of him — all because on a dreary Sunday I had fortuitously stumbled across a book that would change my life. Admittedly, reading some 1,800 pages of letters and diaries is not everyone’s cup of tea, but those of you interested in gaining insight into Patton will find either or both of these volumes well worth your time and Martin Blumenson a superb guide. Next month’s article will include a portrait and a remembrance of this friend and esteemed colleague.

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