||Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944, to May 7, 1945,
by Stephen E. Ambrose. 1997; reprint, New York: Touchstone, 1998.
Professor Stephen E. Ambrose’s highly-acclaimed Citizen Soldiers (the sequel to his enthralling D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II) has now been published in paperback, with the addition of a new afterword, thus making this book available to an even larger audience. Highly-lauded and a riveting read, Citizen Soldiers is not a study of generalship or strategy, but is about the “GIs, the junior officers and enlisted men of ETO [European Theatre of Operations] — who they were, how they fought, why they fought, what they endured, how they triumphed” (p. 13).
From the hedgerows of Normandy, to the Siegfried Line, through the Hurtgen Forest and the Ardennes in the Battle of the Bulge, fighting inexorably eastward to the Rhine and Elbe Rivers, the American citizen soldiers fought indefatigably and gallantly. Experienced German soldiers, rugged terrain, and terrible winter weather, coupled with periodic logistic shortages, challenged but never halted the American fighting men. The American soldiers, fighting for their buddies and squads and platoons, also “knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it” (p. 14).
In writing this book, Ambrose has retained the formula proven so successful in some of his earlier volumes. He has culled interesting quotes and passages from memoirs, reminiscences, and oral histories of American (and some German) World War II veterans, donated to the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. These vignettes, and selected passages from published books, have been woven into a narrative organized chronologically and topically. Examples of the latter, providing insight on support and other soldiers, include “Replacements and Reinforcements, Fall, 1944,” “The Air War,” “Medics, Nurses, and Doctors,” and “Jerks, Sad Sacks, and Jim Crow.”
In letting the soldiers “speak for themselves” through their anecdotes and oral histories, the author states unequivocally that “They speak with an authenticity no one else can match” (p. 13). This assertion is highly questionable. Oral histories and reminiscences, including those made days, and especially those made decades or even a half-century, after the event, are frequently and unintentionally of dubious accuracy and veracity. Over time, memories fade, are influenced by external factors (books, movies, etc.), become embellished, or transform into one’s perception of what should have happened, rather than what actually did happen. This is not meant to detract in any way from the courage, perseverance, and outstanding accomplishments of the soldiers depicted in this study, but to point out potential viability shortcomings of oral reminiscences and recollections.
Many of the soldiers’ oral histories and reminiscences recounted in the study sound very similar to “war stories.” (On p. 471, the author states he heard from World War II veterans in 1947 his “first war stories,” and that he has “been listening ever since.”) Some of these recollections are significant not only for what they include, but frequently for what they do not mention. For example, not all US Sherman tanks in the ETO had 75 mm guns; there were many modified M4A3s with 76 mm guns to better counter German tanks. The US Army also had superb tank destroyers — never mentioned in the book — with 76 mm and 90 mm guns. In Chapter 10, “Night on the Line,” it is stated, “the principal characteristic of the front line was how quiet it was . . . Nor was there much movement” (p. 253). In reality, night time was a period of significant activity, when hot chow was brought up to the soldiers (another topic not mentioned in the book); resupply, especially of ammunition; evacuation of wounded soldiers; rotation of soldiers at observations post; and active patrolling. Replacement reception is another contentious issue, with many company-level Infantry leaders receiving and treating their new soldiers much better than portrayed. Numerous other examples abound. The bottom line is that the citizen soldiers knew what they were supposed to do, and did their job well.
The sub-title of this book, The US Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944, to May 7, 1945, and the author’s stated intent to tell the story of the soldiers in the ETO, is also somewhat misleading. This book focuses on the soldiers and operations of Hodge’s First Army and Patton’s Third Army (which became operational on 1 August 1944), while virtually ignoring the activities and achievements of Patch’s Seventh Army (which landed in southern France in August 1944) and Simpson’s Ninth Army (organized in October 1944 as a component of Bradley’s 12th Army Group). This also results in a somewhat skewed portrayal of the ETO.
Some historians seem obsessed with the purported invincibility, or at least superiority, of the German Wehrmacht, and find it difficult to comprehend or explain the eventual success of the US Army in World War II. Still other academicians attribute the American victory to an overwhelming preponderance of firepower and material. Ambrose, however, hits the target when he properly gives the lion’s share of the credit for the American success to the battle-hardened, resilient, and courageous combat Infantrymen.
It was this generation of Citizen Soldiers, memorialized by Ambrose through its members’ own words, who fought and bled and died if necessary to stop Hitler and Tojo. This same generation that had survived the horrors of war ensured, through their determination, discipline, and teamwork, the perpetuation of their hard-fought legacy of peace, freedom, and prosperity. These men, contrary to contemporary (and ludicrously absurd) concepts of political correctness, gender equality, and diversity, were truly “the men who built modern America” (p. 472). Because of their uncompromising values and deeply inculcated sense of duty, these Americans “fought, and won, and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful” (p. 473).
Book Review, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944, to May 7, 1945, by Stephen E. Ambrose, Army History 47 (Spring-Summer 1999): 32-33. Reprinted in Defence Journal (Pakistan) 5 (June 2002): 76-77; reprinted in Defence Journal (Pakistan) 5 (June 2002): Available [Online]:[26 February 2004].