Tell Me Tales of Blood and Glory


David Mitchell


I respect and admire historians. They—men and women who sift time’s flotsam and jetsam so that they can arrange in it a cohesive way—are a special breed. Their effort requires patience, intellect and often good fortune if it is to be successful. Despite my respect for historians, however, I do not believe that they are always the best voice for history, especially if one wants to understand what people were thinking or feeling at a given moment in time, or if one wants to understand what was happening in the multitude of little moments that fall between the big events that history usually records.

Those little moments are the moments that interest me most.  I know that William the Conqueror and his troops defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but what did William’s men think as they anticipated the battle? I know that Israel Putnam cried “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” atop Breed’s Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts on a June day in 1775 but what did the men who heard those words feel as the Redcoats marched up the hill? I know that Germany surrendered in May of 1945, but how did the men of Patton’s Third Army react when they learned that the war in Europe was over?

As time passes, personal memories are either recorded or lost. We cannot interview the soldiers who fought at Hastings or at Breed’s Hill. They are lost to time. For another few precious years, however, curious students of World War II still have the privilege of talking to the men and women who fought and watched their comrades die from 1939 until 1945. It is the oral histories of those men and women that capture my interest far more than any technical analysis of the war itself. In Crossing the Zorn: The January 1945 Battle at Herrlisheim, edited by Edward Monroe-Jones, readers who care about the thoughts and emotions of World War II’s combat troops will find an exceptionally well-compiled collection of reflections and reminiscences of both German and American troops who fought in Germany’s final offensive of World War II.

Monroe-Jones shares the stories of several soldiers who fought at Herrlisheim, beginning with their experiences years before the battle. We learn about the paths that brought the young men on both sides into the service and of the events that led up to their clash in January of 1945. The commonality of experience between combatants is made poignant and powerful. Both sides celebrate Christmas. Both sides know fear. Both sides die for their country. The grander geopolitical implications of war are in no way an in issue for the men on the battlefield. Surviving to the next moment is all that matters.

Readers of most oral histories that recount World War II will not be surprised by the human element of the American perspective. Perhaps that is because most of the books written in English tend to emphasize the American perspective or perhaps that it is just because there is a bias towards the Allied forces when the war is presented by American or English scholars. Monroe-Jones, however, has been far more willing to humanize the German troops as well, including even members of the Schutzstaffel—the SS—soldiers who rarely, if ever, in my experience at least, are portrayed as anything short of monsters.

In contrast to the generally expressed view that all members of the SS had some actual culpability for the war crimes of the Nazi regime, the experience of Bernhard Westerhoff offers a different perspective: “My existence in several prisoner-of-war camps administered by the American Army and later the French Government cannot be described. It was unspeakable cruelty spawned from the belief that all Waffen SS solders were responsible for the heinous crimes of the SS.  In 1947, I was released from prison. It was only after I had been released from the French prisoner-of-war camp that I learned of the terrible atrocities perpetrated on millions of innocent victims by members of the SS organization.”

Whether one believes or not that Westerhoff somehow managed to experience the war and two years in prison—presumably with other members of the SS—and still had no knowledge of the Holocaust until 1947 is a subject for personal determination. Regardless, it is rare to find the perspective of the “innocent Nazi” expressed.

Just as oral history offers insight into the mind of both friend and foe, so too does it answer questions that more formal historical analysis might overlook. For example, long have I wondered how soldiers pinned down in the heat of a battle could pause to relieve themselves when nature so required it. Charlie Fitts, an American soldier captured in a battle at the Steinwald Woods in January 1945, offers a reflection on just that point. Having been pinned down about seventy yards from a German machine gun nest, Fitts determined that he would need to lie still until nightfall, still several hours away.

I and my buddies simply lay where we were and remained motionless. In the prone position, the warm boots did me little good. The snow melted under me. I was cold, then the cold gripped me like approaching death. Hours went by. I had to urinate. I thought of the coffee I had drunk last night in Niederschaeffolsheim and cursed myself for being so stupid. More hours went by. I urinated where I lay. The warm liquid felt good and then froze against my body.  I wondered how long this misery could last.

A small point, perhaps, but one that really drives home the very meager existence that combat soldiers can face in the heat of battle.

Credit must be given to Monroe-Jones for recognizing that, although he has clearly done a great deal of research in compiling the oral histories and background information on a great many soldiers, he recognizes that he is the editor, and not the author, of his book. The book itself was written by the men who shared their personal experiences. That said, it would have been nice if he had included more of a framework on which to rest his excellent presentation of the stories shared by the men he introduces to us in the book. Although their stories are gripping, Monroe-Jones does not offer adequate background on the significance of the battle at Herrlisheim which marked the final German offensive of the war, after which the Germans were broken. As a result, Monroe-Jones makes the battle seem, perhaps, as senseless to the reader as it did to Charlie Fitts when he was pinned down by machine gun fire while slowly freezing in puddles of his own urine.

On the other hand, if we are to truly understand the experience of a combat soldier, perhaps it is better that we understand little more than the visceral and emotional experience of the soldier. Indeed, while it may be true that in between battles a soldier will reconcile himself to his fate by noting that it is all for “God and Country,” in the heat of battle I do not really believe that many soldiers care why they are there—they just want the battle to end and either move forward or backward or lie still because that is what is necessary to live to the next moment.

Although Crossing the Zorn may be flawed by the omission of certain background information, this did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying it. I started the book on a Saturday night and fell asleep reading it at 2:00 a.m. By ten o’clock in the morning on Sunday I had finished it and was grateful to my household for having slept in. Crossing the Zorn may not be perfect, but to me it was perfectly compelling and engaging. I think lovers of military history will agree.

Books mentioned in this column:
Crossing the Zorn: The January 1945 Battle at Herrlisheim edited by Edward Monroe-Jones (McFarland, 2010)

David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. He is currently a contributing writer at where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life. David is also a moderator, book reviewer, and active participant at World War II Forums, a discussion site dedicated to the study of the Second World War. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle puppy. Contact David.




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