The brutal nature of war and the culture of revenge

Keith Lowe talks to historian Antony Beevor about his latest book, Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge.

The book begins with a description of one of the battles that preceded Hitler’s massive Ardennes offensive, and it is this that sets the tone of the pages to come. In the autumn of 1944, the Allied advance across western Europe finally got bogged down on the borders of Germany. The Americans found themselves entangled in a bitter fight for the Hürtgen forest, a place that, in Beevor’s words, was “so dense and so dark that it soon seemed cursed, as if in a sinister fairy-tale of witches and ogres”. There is no hyperbole in this description, he insists. “It is purely a reflection of the way the soldiers saw it themselves. Everybody who described that place talked of it in those sort of terms.” As part of his research, Beevor visited the forest, “and there is something spooky about it”.

Here, men on both sides developed extraordinarily creative ways of killing one another. They fired bursts of artillery at the tree tops so that splinters would tear through the people below. They learnt to play on the instincts of their enemies, placing landmines wherever they might seek shelter, such as in hollows or shell holes. Soldiers were often afraid to look about them, because they were too busy scanning the forest floor for trip wires. The Germans, in particular, developed a habit of placing explosive charges beneath American wounded or dead, knowing that as soon as a rescue team or burial party tried to move them, they, too, would be killed by the explosion.

“This is not a normal part of human behaviour,” Beevor tells me. The purpose of tactics such as this was not only to kill the enemy but also destroy their spirit. Both sides, he says, knew that demoralising the enemy could be the key to winning each battle; thus brutality, even atrocity, became an integral part of the fighting.

Over the coming weeks, the logic of such brutality would be tested to the full. On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched their counter-attack across the boggy fields and wooded hills of south east Belgium. Much of the German army was made up of SS soldiers who had served in Russia, where they were notorious for torching villages and killing all the inhabitants. Now they brought the fighting methods of the eastern front to the heart of Belgium: civilians suspected of sympathising with the Americans were murdered, women were raped, farmhouses looted, and prisoners of war were shot. There were several massacres, most notably at Malmédy, where 130 American prisoners were herded into a field by SS Panzergrenadiers and 84 were machine-gunned to death.

Faced with this onslaught, the American defenders fell back in disarray. The units defending this part of the line were already demoralised by their recent encounters in the Hürtgen forest, and many of them now simply broke down. Those who suffered worst were the new recruits who had only recently joined their units to replace men who had already died. “There probably is no more desperate position than finding yourself in combat for the first time,” Beevor says. “It’s counter to every form of normal human experience. It becomes intensely personal, as if every bullet is aimed at you, as if every shell is aimed at you. The poor b——- came in without proper training – they were the ones who cracked in no time at all.”

The morale of American troops quickly became a serious problem. Instances of self-inflicted injuries increased as traumatised soldiers did whatever they could to escape the violence of the front. Usually these injuries took the form of an “accidental” rifle shot through the left hand or the foot, but one soldier from the 99th Infantry Division was so desperate that he lay down beside a large tree, reached around it, and exploded a grenade in his hand.

However, if the shock of the German attack struck fear into some American soldiers, it seemed to have the opposite effect on others. “The determination to fight back was astonishing,” says Beevor, “and probably the most important contribution to the eventual outcome.” News of the atrocities committed by SS troops also strengthened American resolve.

At this point, Beevor begins to tell me some of the savage details of American revenge. Their first targets, he says, were SS soldiers, who were often shot out of hand. He also talks of at least one platoon that vowed never to take any prisoners at all: whenever the Germans raised a white flag, a sergeant would stand up and beckon them closer before giving his men the command to fire. At Chenogne the 11th Armoured Division shot 60 German prisoners: “There was no secret about it – Patton even mentions it in his diaries.”

Perhaps the most shocking thing about this culture of revenge is that the American commanders were not only complicit but actively encouraged it. [Continue reading…]

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