11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944

11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944

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by Stanley Weintraub
     
 

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It was truly a white Christmas in the Ardennes Forest in 1944, but that was cold comfort to the Allied soldiers trying to stop the Nazis from retaking Belgium in one of the most decisive battles of World War II. While a German loudspeaker taunted, 'How would you like to die for Christmas'? the Allied forces dug in, despite freezing conditions. They needed a miracle

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Overview

It was truly a white Christmas in the Ardennes Forest in 1944, but that was cold comfort to the Allied soldiers trying to stop the Nazis from retaking Belgium in one of the most decisive battles of World War II. While a German loudspeaker taunted, 'How would you like to die for Christmas'? the Allied forces dug in, despite freezing conditions. They needed a miracle.

In a medieval chapel, General Patton, who needed clear skies to allow airborne reinforcements to reach his trapped men, uttered what would become a famous prayer: ?Sir, whose side are you on?? His soldiers wouldn't be home for Christmas, but as the skies cleared, they went on to win a battle? and a war.

Editorial Reviews

Vince Rinehart
Reading Stanley Weintraub's 11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944 is like sitting down with an entertaining raconteur steeped in World War II's history and literature. This is a rewarding mosaic of personal stories, woven around two themes: Christmas and a broader military picture of a battle in which, according to official estimates, almost 81,000 Americans and more than 98,000 Germans were killed, wounded or captured.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The Battle of the Bulge doesn't quite fit the epic mold it's often cast in bloody, yes, but lacking in strategic consequence, with no one but Hitler doubting the Allied victory. That the carnage spoiled Christmas time is the slender irony anchoring this aimless retelling by military historian Weintraub (Silent Night: The Story of the 1914 Christmas Truce). Noting American complacency about the German buildup, and strategic and personal squabbles among the Allied commanders, he trumps up Patton's prayer for good killing weather into a dramatic turning point. Mainly, though, the book is a kaleidoscope of anecdotes, combat scenes alternating incoherently with foxhole doldrums and frontline picaresque. There's pluck and defiance " `They've got us surrounded, the poor bastards,' " quips a jaunty GI and death and despair. There are celebrity cameos: correspondent Ernest Hemingway drinks and growls and shoots a few Germans; Marlene Dietrich, on a USO tour, allows a soldier to dust her body with delousing powder. And there are many Christmas celebrations, everywhere from POW camps and Belgian orphanages to Hitler's headquarters. Unfortunately, the reader gleans neither a clear battle narrative nor a sense of pathos only a period-authentic impatience to get the war over with. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Nov. 28) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
One of war's most graceful chroniclers (Iron Tears, 2005, etc.) visits the troops in the winter of 1944 as the Germans planned and executed a fierce, desperate attack. How do men in hell celebrate Christmas? Weintraub (Arts and Humanities Emeritus/Penn State Univ.) explores that question while delineating German strategy and the Allied response, territories he knows well. The author outlines Hitler's basic intent: to convince the Allies with a ferocious surprise attack that they could not easily win the war; perhaps to earn the Reich a treaty rather than a total defeat. Weintraub alternates regularly between the two sides, quoting from wartime diaries and postwar memoirs of the participants to let us know what is happening; he even pulls away a few times to explain what the Russians were doing on the Eastern Front. He finds space as well for celebrity news. Marlene Dietrich was around, sleeping with an officer or two. Hemingway and his estranged third wife, Martha Gellhorn, were both there; impolitic Weintraub says she "nagged" Papa from the rear of a Jeep they shared. Young Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was captured and sent off to Slaughterhouse-Five in Dresden. The tale's hero is George S. Patton, whose daring and full-speed-aheadedness the author greatly admires. Field Marshal Montgomery, by contrast, comes off as timorous and tardy; Eisenhower frolics too much with Kay Summersby; the displaced Omar Bradley pouts. The best, most affecting and effective sections are anecdotes about how individuals behaved (bravely, brutally, cravenly, bizarrely), how some men were able to convince other men to run toward gunfire, how soldiers and officers on both sides figured out how to celebrate Christmas in theabsence of all evident humanity. Patton's death closes the narrative. A dark Christmas card from the middle of some frozen and very bloody ground.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780451223173
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/28/2007
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
872,242
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
18 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

11 Days in December

Christmas at the Bulge, 1944
By Stanley Weintraub

Free Press

Copyright © 2006 Stanley Weintraub
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7432-8710-4


Preface

Sir, This is Patton talking ... You have just got to make up Your mind whose side You're on. You must come to my assistance, so that I may dispatch the entire German Army as a birthday present to your Prince of Peace.... - from Lieutenant General George S. Patton's pre-Christmas prayer, at the chapel of the Fondation Pescatore, Luxembourg, December 23, 1944

Thousands upon thousands of lofty snow-laden spruce that from a distance suggested a vast expanse of Christmas trees stood in the dark, rugged forests of the Ardennes overlapping the frontiers of Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and France. Yet there was not much Christmas there late in December 1944. The Battle of the Bulge, the most intense fighting of World War II in the West since Normandy, and soon the costliest and the most futile, was at its peak.

The Christmas tree, the most recognizable image of what had become the major family-focused holiday in Europe and America, had its likely origins just south of the Ardennes. Napoleon's armies had brought decorated Christmas trees from Alsatia into the duchies and principalities of Germany, where the peasant practice took further hold. German immigrants carried the traditional tree across the Atlantic to America, where the custom spread in the 1820s, even before Clement Clarke Moore's ballad The Night BeforeChristmas established, or revived, other festive symbols. In the early 1840s, Queen Victoria's young consort, Prince Albert, further popularized the Christmas tradition beyond Germany when he brought candlelit tabletop trees to England from Saxony, and London's new illustrated magazines featured them.

A century later, the dark evergreen forests would be illuminated only by shot and shell. What there was of Christmas in the embattled countryside was remarkable for having survived at all.

In 1944, the lethal new war had reached its sixth Christmas for the Germans and the British, its fourth for the Americans. In an inhospitable terrain nearly dark in daylight, where dense, snow-covered evergreens recalled the season, there were few other vestiges of Christmas. Most troops hardly knew what calendar day they were trying to live through.

No single soldier can be said to have "saved" Christmas in the contested "Bulge" of the Ardennes. Many ordinary men did extraordinary things, and many extraordinary things happened to ordinary men. Still, one brash and theatrical general stood out, one who, as an invalided young officer at the close of the earlier world war, rushing from an army hospital to get back into the fighting before the Armistice occurred, had paused on the field to pen a poem about a dead colleague. He could always be expected to do the unexpected. As Christmas 1944 approached, at a medieval chapel near the battlefront, he knelt at the altar and asked God, as if the Almighty were merely a military colleague of superior rank, to grant a Christmas gift of proper killing weather. Although his form of worship seemed medieval, Lieutenant General George Smith Patton was an anachronism, and this was no ordinary Christmas.

My look at the Christmas war in 1944 - what there was of it on both sides - is not a detailed military history of the Ardennes campaign. Tens of thousands of pages have been published about that, from close strategic analyses to vivid first-person accounts, and many more pages still remain to be drawn from attics and archives and memories. What follows is how it seemed then - a look at ten days on a frozen World War II battlefront through the lens of Christmas.

Stanley Weintraub Beech Hill Newark, Delaware

(Continues...)



Excerpted from 11 Days in December by Stanley Weintraub Copyright © 2006 by Stanley Weintraub . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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