Through a glass darkly – 67

The Boys’ Crusade

I used to think I knew quite a lot about the Second World War. Certainly more about the Royal Air Force than about the Army. And more about the Army than the Royal Navy. I guess that I know a lot more about the activities of SOE, especially in France, than I do about more conventional forces. Something that is certainly reflected on my bookshelves. And, like a lot of people of my age and stage, I know quite a lot about Colditz, and about D-Day, and about Operation Market Garden, the doomed attempt to shorten the Second War by dropping air-borne troops into the Netherlands in order to force a bridgehead across the Rhine into Northern Germany.. A Bridge Too Far.

But apart from watching Saving Private Ryan some twenty years ago, a film that begins with an extended, bloody, gut-churning sequence of American GIs landing on Omaha beach in June 1944, I realise I know very little about the role of American troops in the Second World War. And very little about what they did between D-Day in June 1944 and the end of the war some eleven months later. So, although I should be reading a small pile of books on the Ukraine, mainly by Anne Applebaum, I have been reading a very slight book, The Boys’ Crusade by Paul Fussell. Unlike books by Max Hastings, which get longer and longer, this is a small book with no footnotes and no bibliography.

The Boys’ Crusade

Paul Fussell [1924-2012] was an American academic, a professor of English literature, the author of  more than a dozen books, including The Great War and Modern Memory [described by Joseph Heller as “the best book I know about World War One”]and Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars. What I didn’t know is that he landed in France in 1944 as a twenty-year-old lieutenant in the 103rd Infantry Division, and remained with them until he was wounded fighting in Alsace. After the war he became an academic, and several of his books seek to disentangle the romantic myths about war from the painful reality.

The Boys’ Crusade is essentially a tribute to the young men with whom Fussell served. He stresses their youth; reminding us that the bulk of the infantry were boys who were seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen years old. You could enlist at seventeen with your parents’ permission. Most waited to be drafted at eighteen. Of the millions of Americans sent overseas during the Second World War, only 14% were infantry-men. And they accounted for 70% of the casualties. For nearly all of them it was their first time overseas. In the UK the cars were tiny, the food was bland, and the beer was lukewarm; the bathroom facilities were archaic. And it rained all the time. The only compensation was the reception they had from British women. Who found that the GIs had better hygiene, better uniforms, and were substantially better paid than their British equivalents. Hence the joke: ‘Have you heard about the new utility knickers, One Yank and they’re off’.’ The American army calculated on 22.5 sheets of toilet paper per man per day. The British estimate was 3 sheets. British troops complained that the Americans “were over-paid, over-sexed, and over here”. The Americans retorted that the British were “under-paid, under-sexed, and under Eisenhower”.

Over-paid, over-sexed, and over here

Fussell notes that the American policy of strict racial segregation was another source of friction with the British. Who found the policy unlawful and distasteful. Race riots broke out in several cities. Including Bristol, where the black soldiers were convinced that they had been allocated the less desirable public houses. A major fight broke out there involving some four hundred black and white GIs, and more than a hundred MPs with truncheons were needed to break it up. 

Many British civilians found the blacks GIs more polite and more decent than the whites. George Orwell commented that “the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes”. One wit remarked: “I don’t mind the Yanks, but I don’t care for those white chaps they’ve brought with them”.

As a boy the young John Keegan, subsequently a distinguished military historian, was enraptured by the sight of the American GIs. By their  habitual sloppiness; the way they chewed gum, leaned against buildings, and drove their jeeps with one leg outside, ostentatiously steering with one hand.

For the vast majority of American solders, France was a very foreign country. [General George Patton was an unusual commander in that he knew France well and spoke the language.] A pamphlet advised the GIs not to refer to the French defeat of 1940. In fact they had neither the knowledge nor the language to have done this. Most could manage only a few cliches about food and about sex. Fussell writes of a GI on a truck heading for Paris shouting joyously: “we’re all going to get laid, French style”. In truth the Americans resented having to equip an almost non-existent French army with Sherman tanks and American uniforms. Many GIs resented the fact that for the second time in half a century they had come to pull the French chestnuts out of the fire. And the French for their part resented the huge black market in Paris run by some two thousand American deserters.

D Day and beyond

The Normandy Landings

Much of Fussell’s book is given to episodic snapshots of the subsequent advance of the American GIs. The horrors of the landing on Omaha beach, hampered by sea-sickness of the troops in their landing craft off-shore, inadequate naval bombardment prior to the assault, imperfect navigation, and heavier than anticipated German fire, both automatic weapons and artillery, are disturbingly depicted here, as in the opening sequences of Saving Private Ryan. Breaking out from the landing beachheads took most of a month. After which the inexperienced GIs were fighting in the Normandy bocage, small agricultural fields delineated by thick hedgerows, too often concealing German soldiers with rifles and machine guns, grenades, mortars, artillery, and Tiger tanks. When General Omar Bradley called in airstrikes, of fighter-bombers and heavy B-17s, to open the way for a ground advance, Operation COBRA, the planes got the message wrong; and 111 US infantry soldiers were killed and a further 500 were wounded. Many of the boys mangled or killed by the bombing were green replacements, only recently arrived from their training camps.

Omaha Beach

After Omaha beach the episode most feared by the American infantry was the battle of the Hürtgen Forest. A story that was completely new to me. Fighting went on through the month of November 1944 in an area of some fifty square miles, an area of dark woods, deep gorges, and stone walls, not far from Aachen. Of the 120,000 American troops who fought there, some 33,000 were killed or wounded. For those who fought there the name ranks with Passchendaele or Verdun from the previous war. Russell Weighley wrote about “a witches’ caricature of a forest”; while John Ellis spoke of “attacking a particularly intractable maze …  inhabited by a malevolent breed of troll”.

Hürtgen Forest

Fussell writes admiringly of the work of the medical orderlies, the American aidmen, unarmed and protected on the battlefield only by a red cross on their left arm. Aidmen soon learned to sport a similar cross on their right arm. Albert Cowdrey, a historian of army medicine, wrote: “The damage that weapons could inflict on the human body was varied and spectacular. Veterans remembered – and sometimes dreamed of, years after the war – bodies literally torn to pieces, of intestines hung on trees like Christmas festoons”.

In autumn 1944 with Germany staring defeat in the face, Hitler made a momentous decision; the Germans would launch a major offensive from the Ardennes, aimed at Antwerp. The objective was to split the British and American forces. In the hope of destroying the coalition and turning his attention to the Russian front. The brunt of the offensive was borne by the US Third and First Armies, under General Patton and General Hodges. And by the men of the 101st Airborne Division under Brigadier Anthony ‘Nuts’ McAuliffe., who were besieged in Bastogne. The Battle of the Bulge, as it became known, was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by American troops in the Second World War. Of the  600,000 American troops involved in the fighting, some 90,000 were casualties, with over 10,000 killed or missing. Many of them are buried in the cemeteries at Bastogne, which also houses the Mardasson Memorial, erected in 1950 to honour the memory of Americans killed or wounded n the battle.

Mardesson Monument, Bastogne

Fussell himself was profoundly affected by his army experiences. His book is dedicated “to those on both sides who suffered”. It concludes with a quotation from Martha Gellhorn, the American reporter, who was at Dachau on the day the war ended: “Surely this war was made to abolish Dachau and all the other places like Dachau and everything that Dachau stands for … We are not entirely guiltless because it took us twelve years to open the gates of Dachau. We were blind and unbelieving and slow, and that we never can be again”.

February 2022

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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