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Book Review: Snow and Steel

By (December 23, 2014) One Comment

Snow and Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45snow and steel cover

by Peter Caddick-Adams

Oxford University Press, 2014

The last-ditch and all-out attack Hitler launched against the Allied lines in the dense and beautiful Ardennes forest in December of 1944 infamously caught the largely American forces hunkered down in winter inertia badly by surprise and created an ominous “bulge” in the lines extending westward. Hitler and his generals had hoped that the idea of the forest’s impregnability combined with the severe winter weather would aid a sudden attack, and the resulting desperate encounter has been widely characterized as one of the greatest battles of the war on the Western front.

So Charles MacDonald clearly believed when he wrote his classic account of the battle, A Time for Trumpets, back in 1985, and so clearly believes skilled historian Peter Caddick-Adams in his big and utterly gripping new book, Snow and Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45. His book is longer than MacDonald’s and necessarily more elegiac, since the whole conflict has shifted so much further from the alive to the archival in the intervening quarter-century (his eyewitnesses are frail and, one fears, sometimes forgetful). He himself is a masterful storyteller, and of all the slightly twilight anecdotes he doubtless encountered in his researches, he invariably reproduces the best, most resonant ones. Take for example Major John Hanlon, commanding the 1st Battalion of the 502nd PIR, who appealed to the mayor of the town of Hemroulle, northwest of Bastogne, for the loan white bed linen his men could wrap themselves up in for camouflage and warmth:

In 1947, a retired Lieutenant-Colonel Hanlon, by then the proud possessor of a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars, read an article on Bastogne in his local Boston newspaper which mentioned, tongue in cheek, that Hemroulle was still waiting for the return of its sheets. He wrote to the Boston paper explaining that part of the story was his fault and, to his surprise, parcels of bed linen began to arrive in the mail from every corner of Massachusetts. When Hanlon returned to Hemroulle in February 1948, the church bells rang again, summoning the villagers. With much emotion on both sides, each received the same number of sheets they had ‘loaned’ him in 1944. Hemroulle then insisted on making Hanlon an honorary citizen and sending him home with paintings from the village church, which had survived the battle, and now hang on the walls of the churches of Winchester, Massachusetts, and its town hall.

Caddick-Adams does an excellent job of conveying the haunting, terrifying setting of his action – dark, freezing cold, breathing menace. “The forest is a helluva eerie place to fight,” as one American Technical Sergeant commented, “You can’t get protection. You can’t see. You can’t get fields of fire. Artillery slashes the trees like a scythe. Everything is tangled. You can scarcely walk. Everybody is cold and wet, and the mixture of cold rain and sleet keeps falling. They jump off [i.e. attack] again, and soon there is only a handful of the old men left.”

Like MacDonald before him, Caddick-Adams knows everything there is to know about his subject, and he tells the story with enormous energy and narrative discretion – the shaping here is so skillfully done that the reader is carried effortlessly along from larger set-pieces to more intimate human moments. And our author is particularly skilled at the blending of the two, as in the story of one of the surprisingly prominent dangers at the front:

Wilfrid R. Riley of the 188th Combat Engineer Battalion had a similar encounter, wearing his greatcoat. Deploying with his platoon one night, a voice in the dark suddenly commanded ‘the soldier wearing the long coat to move forward.’ Riley did as he was instructed, then ordered to halt again. Passwords, questions and answers about American culture flew back and forth, before he was motioned forward and told by a tank crewman ‘Soldier, if I was in your shoes I would get rid of that long coat … because in it you sure as hell look like a German.’ Such is the currency of war, and the majority of such encounters often go unrecorded, but in the confusion of the first week of the Bulge it is estimated that between 5 and 15 per cent of causalities on both sides may have been due to such instances.

The Battle of the Bulge in all its vivid offensives and counter-offensives was a final enormous cataclysm in the West, with a hundred thousand casualties on either side, and in Peter Caddick-Adams’s superb and comprehensive account, the whole sloppy, savage, freezing-cold drama of it is brought to life again. Our World War Two library now has a new classic.

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