“The saviors come not home tonight: Themselves they could not save.”
— Lines from A.E. Housman, scribbled in a soldier's diary.
On Oct. 27, 1947, thousands of caskets were unloaded from a ship in New York. The bodies of soldiers from the European theater, writes Rick Atkinson, “then traveled by rail in a great diaspora across the republic for burial in their hometowns.” Three young men, killed between the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and April 1945 in Germany two weeks before the war in Europe ended, were destined for Henry Wright's Missouri farm:
“Gray and stooped, the elder Wright watched as the caskets were carried into the rustic bedroom where each boy had been born. Neighbors kept vigil overnight, carpeting the floor with roses, and in the morning they bore the brothers to Hilltop Cemetery for burial side by side by side beneath an iron sky.”
Atkinson's “The Guns at Last Light,” the completion of his trilogy on the liberation of Western Europe, is history written at the level of literature. If, as a U.S. infantryman wrote, “No war is really over until the last veteran is dead,” the war has not ended: About 400 World War II veterans, almost half a battalion, are dying each day. Spend the shank end of summer with Atkinson's tribute to all who served and suffered.
Western Europe was, Atkinson stresses, just one cauldron: “The Red Army suffered more combat deaths at Stalingrad alone than the U.S. armed forces did in the entire war.” But “for magnitude and unalloyed violence, the battle in the Ardennes” — the Battle of the Bulge — “was unlike any seen before in American history.” The 600,000 Americans who fought in the Ardennes were four times the number of Union and Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg. Atkinson's story is propelled by vivid descriptions and delicious details. Britain before D-Day “was steeped in heavy smells, of old smoke and cheap coal and fatigue.”