11 Days in December – Book Review
11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944 Author: Stanley Weintraub. Publisher: Free Press (November 7, 2006). Hardcover: 224 pages. $25.00.
"May the world never again live through such a Christmas night!"
11 Days in December by Stanley Weintraub is not your typical retelling of the Battle of the Bulge. Rather, it focuses on the Christmas holiday in 1944 as experienced by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. As such, this book provides a humanistic view inside of a violent, barbaric moment in our shared history.
The Ardennes Battle lasted 11 days and the casualty estimates were staggering. Both sides suffered casualty counts approaching 100,000. Prisoners of war were butchered, as in the infamous Malmedy Massacre, on both sides. The weather was just as harsh and brutal and most of the men were undersupplied or unprepared for such conditions. Yet, inside of all the killing and hatred was a shared tradition of Christmas, of peace on earth and a hope for better times. Thoughts of family permeated the minds of the fighting men and the contrasting experiences, at home and at war, made it difficult to partake in the Christmas spirit while evading fire in a foxhole or assaulting a determined foe. For some, there was no brotherly love or compassion and for others, the better side of human nature and decency won out.
The book is filled with small moments swallowed up by larger events. Some moments are joyous and some are bitter. Many of the small moments are personal and reflective while others dwell on the camaraderie shared by men fighting alongside one another during the holiday of peace. Several moments struck a chord with me, and one in particular deserves mention: The 393rd Regiment of the 99th Division spent Christmas Eve in a POW hospital in Attendorn. The Germans would bring in their wives and girlfriends to gawk at the injured men as they lay in the ward. That night, a Christmas party was held on the ground floor of the hospital and the Americans could hear singing and laughter, which made them terribly homesick. An hour before midnight, a nurse appeared and told the men that any able to walk were to join them downstairs. The men were afraid of being put on display or mocked. Instead, they were asked to sing a carol in English. The Germans then sang with them. Before they were sent back to their ward, they were offered dessert. For a moment, the war had vanished.
There are similar moments like this in the book. While the above showcased love for their fellow man, some moments showcase cruelty and inhumanity. They are equally as moving and speak volumes of the inner strength and determination of the young men sent to repel that last great German offensive. This book is not a definitive piece on the history of the Bulge, merely one aspect of it, and that is the Christmas experience. As such, it proves a compelling and interesting read.
11 Days in December may be summed up by a message scrawled on the blackboard of a classroom in Champs. The schoolmaster returned from Bastogne after Christmas to find an agonized message chalked in German and signed by a German officer:
“May the world never again live through such a Christmas night! Nothing is more horrible than meeting one’s fate, far from mother, wife and children. Is it worthy of man’s destiny to bereave a mother of her son, a wife of her husband or children of their father? Life was bequeathed to us in order that we might love and be considerate to one another. From the ruins, out of blood and death shall come forth a brotherly world.”