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Posted on Dec 5, 2007 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Some Recommended Reading

By Carlo D'Este

I am often asked what books inspired me to become a military historian. My response is that three books by three different authors motivated me to follow in their footsteps. Each is outstanding for two very essential reasons: a great subject and terrific narrative. All have been in print for many years yet remain models of their subject and belong on everyone’s reading list. In no particular order they are: The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman, The Bitter Woods, by John S.D. Eisenhower and The Patton Papers, edited by Martin Blumenson.

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Guns of AugustThe Guns of August was published in 1962 to great acclaim. The book chronicles how the warring nations of Europe foolishly stumbled into a war no one wanted except Germany, and which escalated into the greatest human tragedy in the history of mankind. Focusing on August 1914, the critical first month of the war, Tuchman weaves a masterful account of what occurred in the high councils of the protagonists and on the various battlefields. The events of August 1914 determined the course of the war and to read this book is like finding oneself an involved spectator in the event. I can vividly recall being unable to put this enthralling book down while at the same time attempting to savor it by rationing my reading over a period of days. There are some books one wishes would never end. The Guns of August is such a book.

This is narrative history at its very best and besides becoming an international bestseller it also won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. Its influence was far reaching. While grappling with the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy read it. His daughter, Caroline has said: “He encouraged the members of his cabinet to read The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s history of the misjudgments that led to the First World War, in order that American leaders would never be in the same position” as Germany’s foreign minister who, after the war had ended at a cost of 20 million lives, was asked: “How did it all happen?” He replied, “Ah, if only we knew.” Tuchman’s book also had a powerful effect on British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, a veteran of the Western Front.

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In an age when the shelf life of a hardback book is usually measured in weeks, The Guns of August is still in print after forty-five years. In my opinion, the vast majority of the many books written since 1962 about World War I fall under the shadow of this magnificent work.

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The Bitter WoodsJohn S. D. Eisenhower’s The Bitter Woods is an account of the Battle of the Bulge. Written while he served as U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, Brig. Gen. Eisenhower tells a powerful story of one of the key battles of World War II fought by the Western Allies in December 1944 and January 1945 in the frozen hell of the Ardennes Forest.

On December 16, 1944, in an all-out gamble to compel the Allies to sue for peace, Hitler ordered the only major German counteroffensive of the war in northwest Europe by three armies (more than a quarter-million troops). Its objective was to split the Allied armies by means of a surprise blitzkrieg thrust through the rugged, heavily forested Ardennes to Antwerp, marking a repeat of what the Germans had done twice previously — in August 1914 and May 1940. Despite Germany’s historical penchant for mounting counteroffensives when things looked darkest, Gen. Omar Bradley miscalculated and left the Ardennes lightly defended by only two inexperienced and two battered American divisions. The result was the largest single battle ever fought by the United States Army by more than a million G.I.s.

The once-quiet Ardennes became bedlam as American units were caught flat-footed and fought desperate battles to stem the German advance at St. Vith, Elsenborn Ridge, Houffalize and later, Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne Division was surrounded, its commander issuing a one-word refusal to surrender that has become a symbol of defiance: “Nuts!” As the German armies drove deeper into the Ardennes in an attempt to quickly secure vital bridgeheads west of the River Meuse, the line defining the Allied front on the map took on the appearance of a large protrusion or bulge, the name by which the battle would forever be known.

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