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Customer Review

215 of 226 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I Have No Other Choice Than To Join the Five Star Review Bandwagon, April 12, 2013
This review is from: The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (The Liberation Trilogy) (Hardcover)
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Yes, the third volume of the Liberation Trilogy really is _that_ good. The Guns At Last Light (hereafter GALL) is a fitting conclusion to Atkinson's excellent series, and is a triumph despite the very tough competition. Volumes One and Two were confronting a (relative) dearth of recent popular works on the African and Mediterranean campaigns, but the main Western Front narrative of combat in France and Germany has been covered in history literature by numerous recent and widely read works by such credible historians as John Keegan, Carlo D'Este, Max Hastings, and Antony Beevor along with second tier "rah rah" populists like Stephen Ambrose and older works that still stand up like those by Cornelius Ryan. Could Atkinson add anything new to such well-trodden ground?

He can and does. Here are just a few reasons why Atkinson is at the top of his field:

1) Journalistic integrity. Atkinson is scrupulously fair in covering the controversial personalities and campaign controversies of the Western Front. He presents evidence pro and con, gives impressions of contemporaries that show all valid opinions, and judiciously weighs in with his own tempered assessment. Hastings in comparison is much more opinionated and lets his strong biases show clearly in discussions of events and persons. Hastings can be fun to read because of his vehemence and wit, and I happen to agree with most of his assessments, but at the same time I wouldn't assign his books for a college course or recommend them to a friend who knew nothing about the subject. Atkinson builds his assessments carefully and prudently, and this allows a newcomer or objective reader to reach their own conclusions as to whether they agree or disagree with the author. Too much military history is written with strong authorial opinions that then influence what facts and primary source evidence is presented. Atkinson in comparison is truly "fair and balanced", and his books show his experience as a journalist. This is not to say he lacks opinions or passion; rather, he presents evidence to show why he feels and believes as he does, but he also shows the other side of the coin.

2) Clarity in campaign and battle narratives. I confess that I can never fully visualize what is happening in Antony Beevor's books. His maps are usually poorly done, and his narratives of a given battle or campaign always leave me either just moving on or relying on other explanations I've read in other books. In comparison, Atkinson's works always present battles and operations clearly, coherently, and with useful maps. The publisher has not skimped on maps here, and Atkinson writes well when discussing the how and why of complex maneuvers. He moves between the sides and up and down the ranks from guy in the trench to Eisenhower and Rommel with wisdom and clarity, and I doubt any reader will be left confused about a given battle.

3) New detail. Amazingly enough, even when discussing immensely familiar subjects like Overlord, Atkinson finds new things to say, to the extent that I found at least one new interesting fact per page (usually more) in the D-Day section of the book. The end notes are comprehensive and all facts are well-documented, so this book can be a sort of gateway for those wanting to learn more about familiar topics by referrals to new sources.

4) Quality of Writing. Atkinson and Hastings are my two favorite writers from the list of works I mention above, and Atkinson, though less witty and cynical than Hastings, strikes a magisterial tone in his writing that is hard to achieve. He can mention old Roman and Napoleonic campaigns when discussing the Ardennes and not sound silly, and he can achieve an elegiac and / or patriotic tone without schmaltz (i.e. he is far above Stephen Ambrose!). It is a pleasure to read expository prose that is also literary in quality, and I think this is one of Atkinson's great strengths.

Hopefully, these four points of merit cited will convince any skeptic that this volume (and series) deserves five stars. Are there any weaknesses? Some, but hardly worth mentioning. First, because this series focuses on the American experience in the various campaigns, Brits and British Army fans may feel their favorite army gets short shrift. Actually, the coverage of British operations is featured more prominently in GALL than in the other volumes, so the British Army sort of fades in and out of sight frequently. Hastings and Beevor both cover the UK/Commonwealth operations in more detail, and Hastings (in "Armageddon") also covers the Russian advance into Germany, a comparison that is useful and provoative. (Atkinson has virtually nothing at all to say about the USSR war, which is perfectly acceptable given his intent.) Non-American newcomers to WW2 history will probably want a somewhat more coherent account of the UK's experiences and contributions, but there are plenty of other resources they can peruse. (Hastings' "Inferno" is my favorite big picture / UK partial account.)

Other than this issue (not really a fault I would say) Atkinson spendt a bit too much time (IMO)with WW2 American journalists in the field, but many will find this material enjoyable, and Atkinson obviously feels some kinship with these men who covered the same subject he is now retelling. Obviously, the need to tell the entire history of the War in the West in one volume means some subjects will be short-changed, so if you want more detail on D-Day, read Beevor or Hastings' "Overlord", if you want more detail on Market Garden, read Ryan's "Bridge Too Far", etc. I feel the events are given their proper weight in the scope of narrative coverage, so this also is not really an objective failure.

All in all, the Liberation trilogy is an excellent series, and is the place to begin if you are new to the subject; it is also a great place to learn a few new things if you are already a Western Front enthusiast. Atkinson;s series has all the virtues of good history and good books in general: finely written, eloquent, probing, and comprehensive. This series is the new gold standard for the history of the American Western Front experience in WW2.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 26, 2013 7:15:13 PM PDT
Brilliant review, you really hit the mark.

Posted on Feb 20, 2015 1:51:46 PM PST
Adam Tyler says:
This is a thorough and well-written review. I am about a third of the way through the second book in the trilogy, and am itching to get to GALL.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 5, 2015 7:48:00 AM PST
Severian says:
Thanks, stick with it! I'm sure you'll find the investment of time was worthwhile...
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