For Tolstoy and Hemingway, as for Homer, writing about war was the natural thing. They did not exactly worship the demands of ‘hateful Ares’, as Homer calls him; but they knew that war as hell was the proper field of the heroic, and thus of narrative itself. The story of what happens in a football match today is our equivalent of yesterday’s battle; and it can be established later, as game, in the same heroic sequence. Who is taking care of the left flank? What is General Grouchy up to, and how soon can the Prussians be in action? At the height of his description of the Battle of Borodino Tolstoy breaks off to imagine a spirit of the pities, who cries to the combatants: ‘Just a moment!’ and ‘Consider what it is you do!’ But having satisfied, as it were, the requirements of amazement and revulsion, Tolstoy the narrator, and the soldiers he writes about, go right back to the business in hand. That is the world’s business after all, as it is the tale of what happens in the world.
Whether by chance or coincidence, for it is hardly likely to have been by intention, the writers of all the new books commemorating D-Day, 6 June 1944, adopt a wholly different narrative strategy. And it has to be said that from a military and a literary point of view it is not really a success. No eagle’s-eye view of war, and no sure grasp of events. Contemporary technology in a different if related field seems to have unconsciously imposed itself on the ‘how it was’ of the printed page. Our habit now is to let the people tell the microphone. The hand-held recorder has taken over from the creator of written words, just as it has from the commentator on the radio. Napoleon and Wellington, and the writers who came after them and tried to personify them, would not now have a monopoly of all versions of events. Much more important would be the battlefield recording, from a hundred different and isolated sources, of what individuals were feeling and suffering, and what they thought they were trying to do. Technology has made the common man the literary arbiter of what happened. Tolstoy has his common soldiers, as they go into action, think, ‘Here it comes – awful but fun’ – but Tolstoy is inventing this himself, afterwards. Who can say if they felt it at the time? Technology helps to deglamorise war as game, as narration and strategy, even to some extent as history too. The voice record does not think much about what people are going to be writing afterwards. And today we have come to accept the superior authenticity of the voice on the spot, but the overall picture you get is a blur of close-ups.
Juliet Gardiner had written very well on social conditions in wartime Britain, and on the changes brought about in the country by the huge scale of the American occupation. I remember American cities, lavishly equipped for the GIs’ comfort and leisure, appearing in the countryside overnight and changing Piccadilly Circus into Rainbow Corner. To get a free beer in one of these places, or a plate of bacon and eggs, was the wish of all ranks in the British Army, who were lacking any of these amenities. A common American joke was ‘the English are beginning to act as if the country belonged to them.’ Miles and miles of the best East Anglian farmland was devastated to provide a concrete home for the B17s and 24s which, unlike the RAF Lancaster (which none the less carried more bombs), could not be allowed to rest their massive wheels on grass.
These tremendous preparations went on all through 1942 and 43 and Juliet Gardiner describes them admirably, although they are of course only a prologue to the moment when the hand-held microphone takes over, as it were retrospectively; for the many recollections of the day which fill the remainder of the book read like today’s news flashes. Reminiscence becomes immediacy, and this provides poignant glimpses but an overall monotony: the same voice or piece of film seems to keep coming back again and again. The story of the build-up to the invasion, with all its social effects and implications, is more absorbing for a reader than is the collage which tries to cover the first day of the battle.
As at Gettysburg, the first day was terrible but quite inconclusive. It is the days and weeks that followed, and the strategic problems they created, which make the narrative of war. The British, Canadians and Americans were ashore on D-Day, but only just. The sea was rough and the weather very bad, which made air-strikes a problem. On the other hand, the German High Command had thought it most unlikely that an invasion could come at that moment, and the two senior generals – Rommel and Von Rundstedt – were away consulting with Hitler at Berchtesgarden. The whole thing might have been a deception, with the main thrust to come later in the Pas de Calais. None the less the shore artillery, barbed wire, pill-boxes and underwater obstacles fairly bristled along the whole bay of the Seine. History rather likes the legend that we successfully misled the Germans, but there is a good deal of evidence that we did nothing of the kind. Certainly the first soldiers who attempted to get ashore cannot have thought so.
Paddy Griffiths’s scholarly and well-argued study of the British Army’s battle tactics is mostly about those enlightened tacticians of 1916-18 – more enlightened, at any rate, than the generals who thought only in terms of suicidal frontal attacks – whose methods continued to be pondered in the inter-war years. Montgomery was the man most deeply imbued with them. The idea was above all to save the troops: to adopt any strategy of mechanical assistance, no matter how fussy and unmilitary it might seem, to stop the poor bloody infantry being herded into a killing ground.
The answer in the case of the anti-invasion defences was specialised armoured vehicles which could swim or crawl ashore, some equipped with clumsy great flails that would beat the shoreline and explode the mines; some loaded like haystacks with bundles of fascines, or huge unrolling carpets of matting, which would block gaps and lay a tolerable pathway for further traffic. Together with ‘Crocodiles’ – Churchill tanks equipped with flamethrowers – and other tanks mounting giant mortars for pulverising concrete defences, these ‘funnies’, as they were called, were the brainchildren of Major-General Sir Percy Hobart, a highly enlightened professional soldier whose photograph is reproduced in Juliet Gardiner’s book. Bespectacled, beak-nosed, with a fine long, crafty face and solid chin, he looks like Hannibal’s or Caesar’s favourite staff officer and henchman; and it was very largely thanks to his efforts that the losses on the British-invaded beaches were comparatively light. Not so where the Americans went ashore. Omaha Beach, with casualties in the first wave of 70 or 80 per cent, was worse than the first day of the Somme.
The story has grown up that the Americans were too proud, or too contemptuous of Limey caution and pusillanimity, to accept the use of the ‘funnies’ when these were generously offered to them. Like most such legends, this turns out to be true only in part: the on-the-spot explanation was more simple and practical. The funnies were based on the Churchill tank, of which the Americans, who drove Shermans, had no experience, and for which they would have no guns or spares. As the authors of D-Day 1944: Voices from Normandy point out, General Omar Bradley’s decision not to use the specialist weapons was eminently reasonable in the circumstances, though it remains ironic that the nation which prided itself on its mechanical know-how preferred to go into this encounter virtually with bare fists.
Although the lay-out and method of these books are based on present-day ways of processing warfare, there were in fact very few photographers ashore the first day, and obviously no television crews. War for the benefit of the media had not yet been invented. On the other hand, we are spared today the sort of cosily facetious cartoons and jokes (‘This is my nephew who will shortly be travelling to the Continent’) which appeared in Punch and the other papers on the eve of the invasion. The celebrated photographer Robert Capa was there, however, at least in the third wave or so, and before he scrambled back on the landing-craft he ‘felt a shock and was suddenly covered in feathers’. He wondered if somebody had been killing chickens.
Then I saw that the superstructure had been shot away, and that the feathers were the stuffing from the kapok jackets of the men that had been blown up. The skipper was crying. His assistant had been blown all over him and he was a mess ... the decks of the USS Chase were already full of the returning wounded and the dead ... The mess boys who had served our coffee in white jackets and with white gloves at three in the morning were covered with blood and were sewing the dead in white sacks.
Such telling details are the stock-in-trade of those who have written about battle since the pioneers of its descriptive technique, Stendhal and Tolstoy. And yet ordinary soldiers in battle do in fact have an involuntary eye for just such detail. I remember noting with interest that there was a great deal of what seemed to be ordinary household dust on a mortar barrel which was just about to be fired. And a soldier in the Peninsular War had an experience almost identical with Capa’s when he fired his musket at a Frenchman who had a dead goose tied to his haversack.
Stendhal’s hero Fabrice can never decide afterwards whether he was or was not at the Battle of Waterloo. He remembered panting round a corner and seeing a field in front of him ‘jonchée de cadavres’. He remembered a general’s orderly sidling up to him as he sat idle on his horse, and suddenly seizing his leg and overturning him off the animal, because the general’s horse had been shot under him and he required another mount. That was about what the battle came to. Fabrice was lucky. He lived to ask himself whether he had been in the battle or not. Those who survived D-Day did not have to ask themselves that question. They knew very well they had been there, in spite of the chaos of impressions, and the realisation that many must have had that the real slog was just beginning, and would grind horribly onwards for days and weeks. No wonder many ashore that evening preferred to use the meths in their Tommy cookers – tiny primitive devices for heating water and making tea – to give themselves a quick alcoholic fix instead. Battles in Hannibal’s and in Wellington’s time, however grisly, were at least one-day jobs. The old query of heroic warfare – ‘Went the day well?’ – would have been out of place on D-Day, and in most of this century’s wars.
All of these books do a good job in sorting out and demonstrating the complexities and problems of Operation Overlord. But Carlo d’Este’s history of the whole Normandy campaign, first published in 1983, is in a different class altogether, as are the essays edited by Theodore Wilson. The most comprehensive is of course the big encyclopedia, which in addition to all the alphabetical facts contains a choice store of those super-facts to which browsers in good reference works become wholly addicted. We learn, for example, that Theodor Bechtolsheim, who commanded the Eighth German destroyer flotilla, the strongest German naval unit in the west on D-Day, was born in 1902 in Castle Mainsondheim in Franconia, his real name being Theodor Freiherr Baron von Mauchenheim. He led a gallant sortie on the night of 8 June against the British Tenth destroyer flotilla, losing two of his ships and damaging HMS Tartar. Frank D. Peregory, a US Army technical sergeant, won the Congressional Medal of Honour on D-Day for a one-man attack from which he brought back more than thirty prisoners. He was killed at St Lô six days later, before hearing he had got the award. A murky photo from the Imperial War Museum shows a British Bren gun and gunner, who has a notebook in his hand. A caption tells us that his name was A.J. Bull, and that he was writing a poem.