Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk – Book Review
There are many ways to differentiate writers of military history. One approach is to classify authors by the questions they seek to answer in their volumes. In one group, you will find a large contingent focusing on providing the answer to the “what.” In a way, they are reminiscent of a sports play-by-play commentator: They strive to deal in facts, in the black and white. This group fills a vital role in our understanding of war and the people interlinked with it.
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At the other end of the spectrum are those authors who key on answering the questions that are not so cut and dried. These authors seek to offer analysis. Their focus is on the “so what”—on presenting the grey versus the black and white. Again, utilizing my sports broadcasting analogy, they are the analysts or color commentators. In this group, resides veteran military historian Dennis Showalter.
For many, Showalter is a very familiar name. He has developed a superb reputation as a military historian. In particular, his scholarship in the genres of World War I, World War II, and German military history has been highly acclaimed. Additionally, Showalter has held many esteemed positions related to his profession, including serving as President for the Society of Military History and serving as the Series Editor for both the University of Kansas Press Modern War Studies and Brassey’s Military Profiles.
In his latest volume, Armor and Blood, he focuses his attention on World War II’s Battle of Kursk. Much has already been written on the “largest tank battle in history.” Numerous authors have answered the “what” of Kursk. Far fewer have truly tackled the “so what” of Kursk. (Showalter highlights the authors in each category in an excellent appendix he includes entitled, “Guide to Further Reading.”) I believe readers will find Showalter clearly meets the challenge of answering the “so what.”
In order to proceed to the “so what,” you must provide your audience with the “what”—as in “what happened.” Showalter delivers a concise “what” of the Battle of Kursk but does not delve into a highly detailed narrative of the specifics (For those seeking this detail, I would recommend David Glantz and Jon House’s superb, The Battle of Kursk). The author does present sufficient detail to give readers the necessary background to contemplate Showalter’s conclusions.
Showalter injects his analysis throughout Armor and Blood. However, he dedicates his final chapter (“Watersheds”) to offering his thoughts on the impact of Kursk for both sides. He dissects both the short- and long-term ramifications of Kursk on the Germans and Russians, and he looks at not only the obvious material consequences of the fighting, but the effects on strategy and tactics, and the mental effects it had on each side.
In conducting this analysis, he focuses on dispelling several myths he believes have surrounded Kursk for decades. In particular he does not believe the outcome of Kursk on German forces was as dramatic as others contend. He states, “The German army on the Eastern Front was neither bled white nor demodernized by Citadel’s human and material losses,” and he makes a compelling case to support this claim. Readers well versed on Eastern Front operations will find his discussion extremely thought-provoking.
Having read many Showalter books in the past, I have found they share the same characteristics, and Armor and Blood is no exception. Like his previous works, this book is vividly written, deftly organized and exhaustively researched, making outstanding use of newly released sources (particularly on the Russian side). The author is always extremely adept at transitioning from the brutal fighting on the battlefield to the command posts where decisions were made at the operational and strategic level. Showalter has few peers in portraying the human dimension of war; he is able to vividly depict for readers the array of emotions felt by the Soldier.
Armor and Blood is an outstanding book. Showalter has expertly blended the “what” with the “so what,” relating the facts and giving those facts meaning. This volume will be highly beneficial to readers, no matter their previous level of knowledge or understanding of the Battle of Kursk. Dennis Showalter has added another quality volume to his superb body of work.
Rick Baillergeon is a retired U.S. Army Infantry officer. Since his retirement, he has served as a faculty member at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is also co-author of the popular Armchair General web series “Tactics 101.”