September 26th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Abbott era ends as Liberals oust elected PM

EDITORIAL The future of the Liberals after leadership coup

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Vulnerable GLBT youth pawns in plebiscite game

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Cuts in aid trigger mass migration: more to come?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Labor campaign to 'get' Dyson Heydon backfires

FOREIGN AFFAIRS China's official media hints at power struggle in Beijing

ASIA Taiwan: no longer the Kingdom of Youth

MILITARY HISTORY Antony Beevor at the Australian War Memorial

LIFE ISSUES Assisted suicide and our society of autonomy

SCIENCE You can trust research papers (we think; we hope)

PUBLIC HEALTH Taxpayer funding offers no immunity from failure

MINING Supreme Court dismisses attack on Qld Land Court

CINEMA Technology and the antisocial network: The Social Network

BOOK REVIEW Hollow Heroes: An Unvarnished Look at the Careers of Churchill, Montgomery and Mountbatten, by Michael Arnold


NATIONAL AFFAIRS Turnbull divides party in Cabinet reshuffle

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Antony Beevor at the Australian War Memorial

by Chris Rule

News Weekly, September 26, 2015

On September 3, English military historian Antony Beevor gave a talk about the World War II Battle of Ardennes based on his latest book, Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble. Beevor is a consummate performer and tells a good story, whether orally or in writing.

English military historian Antony Beevor

The Battle of Ardennes, which began in mid-December 1944, was the German offensive pushing back against the Allied advance across Western Europe after D-Day. In autumn 1944 the allies got bogged down in the Hürtgen Forest, in Germany to the east of the German-Belgian border.

Beevor says of the forest that it was “so dense and dark that it soon seemed cursed, as if in a sinister fairytale of witches and ogres”. It was the battle of Hürtgen Forest which set the tone for the Ardennes – also covered in forest and mountainous – offensive; Ardennes is in Belgium.

Beevor said it was the Western Front’s equivalent of Stalingrad, with savagery not seen before on that front, and extreme winter weather conditions similar to those on the Eastern Front. The weather was so cold that the rations froze, making it very difficult to eat them. The soldiers had to hold the food in their mouths to defrost it enough for it to be swallowed and digested.

The allies were in a condition of what Beevor calls “victory euphoria” after the liberation of Paris. The feeling among the Allies was that the end was nigh and Allied governments were planning to reduce spending on armaments and on prosecution of the war by the end of 1944.

With the Ardennes offensive, what Beevor called a “wild gamble on Hitler’s part”, the Allies were caught by surprise. The German troops were mainly from SS units who had fought on the Eastern Front and, in comparison with the Allied troops, were far more battle hardened. Allied replacement troops were generally inexperienced and poorly trained, which gave the Germans the upper hand in the first 48 hours of the battle.

There was also tension between the British – mainly Montgomery – and American commanders. Montgomery, egged on by elements in the British media, wanted to be in charge of the Allied ground forces. Montgomery, who, Beevor said, “these days might be diagnosed as a high-functioning Asperger’s”, was so insensitive towards the American generals that he contributed to Britain losing all influence in Allied councils in the last months of the war.

During the battle there was a great reliance on artillery, and mortar shells caused most casualties. This was because of “tree burst”: when shells hit trees causing splinters to fly and hit combatants.

Shooting of prisoners occurred on both sides. The Americans were incensed at the execution of 84 of their troops in a field at Malmedy. This was carried out by SS troops, part of a battle group commanded by General Joachim Peiper. After this the Americans carried out revenge killings with the approval of their commanders. After the shooting of 60 German prisoners in Chenogne on January 1, 1945, General Patton wrote in his diary: “There were some unfortunate incidents in the shooting of prisoners. I hope we can conceal this.” Because of such incidents the Germans gave the U.S. troops nicknames such as “Roosevelt’s butchers”.

The Germans also indiscriminately killed Belgian civilians. According to Beevor, the civilians were the “unsung victims of battle”. Villages were totally destroyed by artillery fire from both sides. The civilians displayed an exemplary community spirit in looking after the aged and the infirm.

Although in all armies the fear of mutilation, including having limbs amputated in field hospitals (little more than butchers shops), was greater than the fear of death, the number of non-battle casualties was mounting as soldiers tried to get out of the battle alive. According to Beevor, the German troops were less likely to be traumatised by battle than their Allied opponents. This was put down to the indoctrination which the Germans had experienced under the Nazi regime. However, according to American interrogators of German prisoners, the morale of German troops was rapidly deteriorating by this stage.

Beevor also mentioned that some American celebrities were present at Ardennes. For example, Ernest Hemingway, who was more interested in other pursuits such as drinking and actually being involved in battle (apparently he did take up arms) than in journalism. Also present was Martha Gellhorn, an ex-wife of Hemingway, and J.D. Salinger.

The battle of Ardennes took the Allies by surprise. The fighting was every bit as savage as that at Stalingrad and weather conditions were similar; and it was the largest battle that took place on the Western Front.

Despite what British General Montgomery said, the Americans did most of the fighting and took most of the casualties on the Allied side.

Chris Rule is a library technician at Marist College, Canberra.

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