Atkinson offers compelling human epic

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

By Rick Atkinson

Henry Holt, 2013; $40

For obvious reasons, most books about World War II deal either with the largest of sweeps (the grand strategies, the political forces and results) or much smaller slices (individuals, units, particular battles or campaigns). Most authors dare not try to do both, and most authors shouldn’t. It takes special skill to write something both comprehensive and detailed about a subject so large.

Rick Atkinson has that skill. All who are interested in the war are richer for it.

The Guns at Last Light, the last of Atkinson’s trilogy on the war, covers the action from D-Day to Germany’s surrender, and does so with depth and breadth. The major players on both sides of the conflict — Roosevelt, Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Eisenhower, von Rundstedt, Montgomery, Bradley, Patton, among others — are shown for their strengths and their flaws. The reader also is introduced to some names and political intrigues absent from most accounts of the war.

Some, like Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers, commander of the 6th Army Group that formed the southernmost part of the Allied Army, had risen to his position despite being disliked by virtually all of his peers and superiors, but whose political skills kept temperamental French generals more or less in line. Then, there was Lt. Gen. John C.H. Lee, the imperious head of logistics whose ego was grand enough to earn him a variety of nicknames, including Jesus Christ Himself Lee.

Along with the significant names and battles, the author is masterful at weaving vivid quotes and details into the narrative that never loses the compelling humanity of the epic story. The reader never gets too swept up in the victories to lose sight of the unspeakably tragic and often senseless loss of life. Had the Duke of Wellington not already said “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won,” one suspects Atkinson would have.

This is a book worthy of the topic.