Ardenees 1944 – Hitler’s Last Gamble
By Antony Beevor
As with many of Antony Beevors’s previous books, the excellent Stalingrad and Berlin in particular, this most recent addition to a veritable canon of great works on the Second World War is by no means an exception.
It’s simply the norm.
Strong, concise, believable, accurate and almost naturally definitive, Ardennes 1944 – Hitler’s Last Gamble regales the ultimate futility and monstrous folly of what the latter part of the book’s title so brazenly suggests. Indeed, the savagery of war and the acute winter weather conditions of 1944/45 were comparable to that of the Eastern Front. Yet one needs to readily remember that the Ardennes offensive – where over a million men were hurled into battle – evolved into one of the greatest battles of the entire war (on the western front at least). That it took place in south-western Belgium, a mere stone’s throw away from the city of Luxembourg, does nevertheless, take some ultimate getting used to. This partially explains why this revealing and profoundly honest book makes for such a compelling read.
One of the reasons for this is primarily being because it’s written from the exceedingly well learned perspective of both sides; which, in and of itself, does invariably draw the reader in. For instance, in chapter seven (‘Intelligence Failure’), Beevor writes: ”Parties from the divisions in the Ardennes were allowed back to the VIII Corps rest camp at Arlon or to Bastogne, where Marlene Dietrich went to perform for the GIs, crooning huskily in her long sequinned gown which was so close-fitting that she wore no underwear. She nearly always sang ‘Lili Marlene.’ Its lilting refrain had gripped the hearts of Allied troops, despite its German provenance. ‘The bloody Heines!’ wrote one American soldier. ‘When they weren’t killing you they were making you cry.”’
Moreover, in relation to the German mindset, I found the above quite telling, especially when placed alongside the rather gritty context of a German soldier’s letter home: ”It looks as if the Americans cannot withstand our important push. Today we overtook a fleeing column and finished it… It was a glorious bloodbath, vengeance for our destroyed Homeland. Our soldiers still have the same old zip. Always advancing and smashing everything. The snow must turn red with American blood. Victory was never as close as it is now. The decision will soon be reached. We will throw them into the ocean, the arrogant big-mouthed apes from the New World. They will not get into our Germany. […]. If we are to preserve all tender and beautiful aspects of our lives, we cannot be too brutal in the deciding moments of this struggle” (chapter thirteen, ‘Wednesday 20 December’).
That such racist overtones (”apes from the New World”) remained at the forefront of the everyday German foot-soldier as late as 1944, continues to say a lot within the fraught, ironic and indoctrinated parameters of the Third Reich. Likewise: ”if we are to preserve all tender and beautiful aspects of our lives…” What lives? And were they really ”tender and beautiful?”
Book-ended with two detailed maps – the first of which depicts the front line just before the German offensive of December 16 1944, and the second, depicting the furthest point of the German advance which actually took place on Christmas Day, Ardennes 1944 is an altogether well-rounded, well-written and well-researched, masterful work. Its 369 pages – excluding Order of Battle, Notes, Select Bibliography, Index and an assortment black and white photographs – most definitely warrants reading by every curious, serious student of history.
It’s no wonder Beevor is regarded as highly as he is and has won a menagerie of awards – among them: the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson Prize for History and Hawthornden Prize for Literature (due to Stalingrad alone).
Perhaps this book will generate another one or two?