The Boys' Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945

The Boys' Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945

4.7 7
by Paul Fussell

View All Available Formats & Editions

The Boys’ Crusade is the great historian Paul Fussell’s unflinching and unforgettable account of the American infantryman’s experiences in Europe during World War II. Based in part on the author’s own experiences, it provides a stirring narrative of what the war was actually like, from the point of view of the children—for children


The Boys’ Crusade is the great historian Paul Fussell’s unflinching and unforgettable account of the American infantryman’s experiences in Europe during World War II. Based in part on the author’s own experiences, it provides a stirring narrative of what the war was actually like, from the point of view of the children—for children they were—who fought it. While dealing definitively with issues of strategy, leadership, context, and tactics, Fussell has an additional purpose: to tear away the veil of feel-good mythology that so often obscures and sanitizes war’s brutal essence.

“A chronicle should deal with nothing but the truth,” Fussell writes in his Preface. Accord-ingly, he eschews every kind of sentimentalism, focusing instead on the raw action and human emotion triggered by the intimacy, horror, and intense sorrows of war, and honestly addressing the errors, waste, fear, misery, and resentments that plagued both sides. In the vast literature on World War II, The Boys’ Crusade stands wholly apart. Fussell’s profoundly honest portrayal of these boy soldiers underscores their bravery even as it deepens our awareness of their experiences. This book is both a tribute to their noble service and a valuable lesson for future generations.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
As this short, riveting book turns to the war itself, it allows for heroism, but dwells more on what went wrong.—Alan Riding
The Washington Post
Instead of the camaraderie, courage and respect emphasized by Stephen Ambrose and Tom Brokaw, Fussell focuses on the dark side of combat -- the absurdity, tragedy and horror. With considerable insight, he stresses the many costly foul-ups ("snafus"), the failures of training, communication and supply, the casualties from "friendly" as well as enemy fire, the desertion and self-inflicted wounds, and the meaning of the "deterioration" of units eroded by continuous service on the front lines. — John Whiteclay Chambers II
Publishers Weekly
This short study of the U. S. Army's most burdened branch in the final campaign against Germany does not represent its National Book Award-winning author at his highest level. It focuses on the 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds who were the backbone of the infantry. They were also frequently thrust into combat after no more than four months' training, led by officers as green as themselves; Fussell himself was one of them. If wounded, they were returned to some other unit through the infamous Replacement Depot system, and altogether not treated much better than the trench fodder of WWI. Thorough research has not prevented some questionable pieces of historiography, such as leaving out the resistance the American army eventually generated in the Battle of the Bulge. Fussell also tends toward space-consuming jabs at rival schools of interpretations and even journalists as distinguished as Ernie Pyle. The focus bounces around, with mini-essays covering such non-infantry affairs as the Allied deception operation for D-Day, at the expense of material on the infantry as other than victim. For a minihistory or minibiography of the same subject, readers should stick with Stephen Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers. (On sale Sept. 9) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Have you ever noticed how war veterans--survivors of actual combat--are generally silent about their experiences? Mostly it's the peacetime soldiers and the support troops who tell the funny stories, but the guys who saw "real" combat are generally quiet about that part of their lives. There are good reasons, of course: deadly combat is gruesome and terrifying, and few want to relate experiences that would horrify the home folks. Mostly, though, it is a case of not being able to explain the unexplainable. Combat is a totally unique paradigm, and those who face their own annihilation in the jungle, the air, or far at sea simply have no language to express it. Most don't even try. Perhaps it takes someone like Paul Fussell, a poet and a literary historian and--not incidentally--a combat infantryman, to peer into the minds of those who have lived through the ultimate experiences of their lives before the age of 21. He accomplishes this simply by leading the reader through all of their defining experiences: the bewilderment of boot camp, uncertainty about their dangerous new skills, the strangeness of deployment into a combat zone, and even interacting with the first foreign citizens they have ever seen. The operative term here is new and unfamiliar situations. While this particular book keys in on the troops who fought from Normandy to the Elbe, the same factors hold true for any newly minted infantry grunt, squid, zoomie or jarhead, from any country in any war. The "fresh fish" with a rifle never really accepts that his enemy probably feels just the same. It is far too easy to pen a searing indictment of war per se, and to moralize about its harmful effects on all concerned.Showing just why this is so is quite another thing and Fussell does this superbly, without pity and without cant. KLIATT Codes: SA--Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Modern Library, 184p. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Raymond Puffer, Ph.D.
Library Journal
Readers should be forewarned that this book is not your normal, garden-variety memoir of World War II. In a series of essays dealing with strategy, tactics, and leadership from the landings at Normandy to the fall of Berlin, Fussell (The Great War and Human Memory), a decorated infantry officer of the European campaigns of 1944-45, comes as close to the unvarnished truth as is ever likely to see print. Beginning with a chapter titled "Boy Crusaders," Fussell describes the typical GI as 18 to 20 years old, from all types of social and educational backgrounds, taken from minimal training and thrown into ground combat of the fiercest kind. Other essays discuss the relationship and attitudes toward the French (which were not always rosy), the lost opportunity at the Falaise Gap, the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest (perhaps the western front's worst), replacements and infantry morale, the treatment of the dead and wounded, and the discovery of the concentration camps and how that changed attitudes toward the Germans. As with his longer Wartime, this work is aimed at correcting the sanitized works of "sentimental" history the war has inspired. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/03]-David Lee Poremba, Detroit P.L. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Brief, wholly memorable essays-sometimes little more than vignettes-on a season in hell. Not for literary historian and combat veteran Fussell (Veterans, 2002, etc.) all this talk of "the greatest generation" and the mawkish military romanticism that has settled on WWII: the young men, many scarcely more than boys, who fought against the formidable German enemy in places like Normandy and the Hürtgen Forest were a "reluctant draftee army," their deeds usually less heroic than desperate. Building on his fine memoir Doing Battle (1996), Fussell explores the lives and actions of those boys, "who bitched freely, but seldom cried, even when wounded." Among the themes he explores, at the length of a few pages or paragraphs, are the widespread dislike for the young Americans among British civilians, who famously complained that they were "overpaid, oversexed, and over here," and even among the liberated French, "who didn't at all appreciate the immense black market in Paris run by over two thousand American deserters"; the extraordinary, and underreported, rate of desertion among those boys, traumatized by battle settings straight out of the Grimm Brothers and the constant presence of ignoble death; the carnage of battle in places like the Falaise Pocket, where, Dwight Eisenhower recalled, "It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh" (to which Fussell, ever the curmudgeon, adds, "And Eisenhower is gentleman enough not to offend . . . by dwelling on the smell"); and the general insanity of war and its fighters, torn between the "quite contradictory operations" of trying to kill some people with the greatest efficiency while trying tosave others to the same high standards. Throughout, Fussell writes vividly and sardonically, sounding like the spiritual twin of Kurt Vonnegut at some points and an aggrieved Julius Caesar at others, and painting extraordinary scenes at every turn. A bracing corrective for a literature recently dominated by Ambrose, Brokaw, and other cheerleaders, and just right for a new season of war.
From the Publisher
“This is a former warrior’s haunting meditation on the terrible, yet often necessary, destructiveness of total warfare. Written with passion and fidelity, The Boys’ Crusade is a book that will not leave you after you have put it down. If there is a more powerful personal account of the ground war in Western Europe I have yet to encounter it.” —Donald L. Miller, author of The Story of World War II

“No one writes about war with greater authenticity and eloquence than Paul Fussell. The Boys’ Crusade is an extraordinarily powerful account that is at once poignant and searing. It is a truth-telling of a very high order from one of our finest men of letters.” —Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of An Army at Dawn

“Fussell writes vividly and sardonically . . . painting extraordinary scenes at every turn. . . . A bracing corrective . . . and just right for a new season of war.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
250 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Boy Crusaders

When Ike Eisenhower was a boy, European history was more avidly pursued in schools than now, and it’s also possible that he knew a bit about the Crusades from his own reading, if he hadn’t heard about them in church—his family was pious—or at elementary or high school or even at West Point. In any event, the imagery of the Crusades was lodged strongly in his mind. In an Order of the Day given or read to “Soldiers, Sailors, and Air- men of the Allied Expeditionary Force,” just before the invasion of Normandy, he informed them: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.” And, once successfully over, he would title his memoir of the war Crusade in Europe.

Eisenhower was not the only one conscious during the war of the Crusades. One of the enemy, Panzer leader Hans von Luck, had occasion three times to recall a poem about a military moment in the Crusades whose horrors resembled those he witnessed in the Falaise Pocket in 1944. He writes, “ ‘Man, horse, and truck, by the Lord were struck.’ This saying, from a poem on the battles of the Crusaders in Palestine about 1213, had come to my mind twice before: in December, 1941, by Moscow, and in 1943 in North Africa.”

The date 1213 suggests the so-called Children’s Crusade, about whose actuality some historians have doubts. In the year 1212, it is said, an odd army set out from France and Germany. Its purpose was to liberate the Holy Land from the profane grip of Islam. This Crusade is reputed to have numbered fifty thousand young people, of whom only three thousand survived the attentions of pirates, slave dealers, and brothel keepers. Whether actual or mythical, the Children’s Crusade can’t help suggesting many dimensions of American youth’s curious, violent journey eastward over France and Germany in the Second World War. Kurt Vonnegut invokes The Children’s Crusade as a sardonic alternative title for his novel Slaughterhouse Five, which measures many significant features of that war and those “children.”

I intend no disrespect to the memory of Dwight D. Eisenhower by examining his term crusade. It made some sense at the moment, even if many of the still unblooded troops were likely to ridicule it. If they read or heard the Supreme Commander’s words at all, they were doubtless embarrassed to have so highfalutin a term applied to their forthcoming performances and their feelings about them. It is likely that many never saw the sheet of paper on which the word appeared, and if the message was read to them (in the wind and the rain), their military experience so far had inclined them to greet all official utterances with scorn and skepticism. Indeed, when such pronouncements were read aloud they often ridiculed them noisily, until silenced by a sergeant’s “At ease!”

At this distance, it may not be easy to remember that the European ground war in the west was largely fought by American boys seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen years old. At seventeen you could enlist if you had your parents’ written permission, but most boys waited until they were drafted at age eighteen. (Actually, the army contained numerous illicit seventeen-year-olds, their presence as soldiers more or less regularized by false papers not rigorously inquired into.) Some of these men-children shaved but many did not need to. Robert Kotlowitz remembers bayonet drill. “We aimed, thrust, slashed or whichever—screaming ‘Kill! Kill!’ in our teen-age voices.” Not a few soldiers hopeful of food packages from home specified Animal Crackers, which, one soldier said, “can do wonders for low morale.” (Perhaps what troops were recalling when seeking this specialty was eight-year-old Shirley Temple singing “Animal Crackers in My Soup.”) At the same time, the infantrymen, not yet versed in the adult conventions of the high-class uses of wine, did not wait until after dinner to sip a little cognac. In quantity, it often replaced water in their canteens.

Who were these boys, who bitched freely but seldom cried, even when wounded? What did they have in common? Most had sufficient emotional control not to express angry envy of those (like, say, nonflying air corps troops) who had a nicer, safer war.

These infantry soldiers, if they weren’t children, weren’t quite men either, even if officers commonly addressed groups of them as such. One medical aidman was typical in referring to his patients as boys. Explaining in a letter home the workings of the casualty-clearing system, he falls naturally into phrases like these—a boy gets hurt; the injured boy; leaves space for another boy; the wounded boy; as each boy comes in; a brief history of the boy and his diagnosis—the last of which refers to the official tag fastened to the soldier’s jacket or, as our aidman puts it, to “the boy’s coat.” Wounded officers passing through the aid station were never called boys, although many were almost as young.

Taken as a whole, the boys had a powerful propulsion of optimism, a sense that the war couldn’t last forever, and that if anyone was going to get wounded, it would not be them. They had a common ability to simulate courage despite actuality: that is, a certain amount of dramatic talent, plus a vivid appreciation of black humor, involving plenty of irony. They had sufficient physical stamina to survive zero-degree cold from time to time, and considerable elementary camping skills of the sort common among civilian fishermen and hunters, which lots of survivors became after the war. They had to have fine eyesight, good enough to detect planted antipersonnel mines by their little triggers of thin wire protruding aboveground. They had to have a pack rat’s skill in collecting small objects, like looted knives and forks. And preeminently, they had to have extraordinary luck. One infantryman’s mother exhorted him to be careful. He answered: “You can’t be careful. You can only be lucky.”

And these young troops got along with each other because they usually shared certain beliefs:

        1.      America is the best country in the world because it is the only really modern one.

        2.      It is the world leader in technology, producing the bulk of the good cars, and, in unbelievably large quantities, airplanes and tanks, which, being the best in the world, are going to win the war. They are certainly better than anything the Germans and the Japs can make. (Only the brightest and boldest of the troops perceived that American tanks were seriously outgunned by German ones and, when struck by a shell, were likely to burst into flames, almost as a matter of course. This tendency earned them the name Ronsons, after the popular cigarette lighter.) Among the troops, only the finely tuned noted the superiority of the German machine guns. Discovery of these facts was demoralizing, and a problem confronting the brighter U.S. infantrymen was rationalizing away these sorry truths when among dumber people.

        3.      The American army, despite its screwups, is the best ever in providing the troops with clothing, food, lodging, personal weapons, and security.

These credulous youths were the products of American high schools, and differences of race, religion, and social class did not significantly alter their adherence to this code of belief nor influence their common hatreds, which can be specified as follows:

        1.      Officers of any kind, especially those not to a degree redeemed by sharing troops’ hardships, and those pursuing in wartime their peacetime professions in uniform, like medicine, optometry, or medical administration. These phonies were granted officer rank and beautiful dress uniforms without having to undergo the usual price of painful infantry training.

        2.      The French, and quite justly too: they spoke a language impossible to learn and embarrassing to pronounce, and worse, they required the help of strangers (especially Americans) to win their wars, both the First World War and this one. In his most famous harangue of the troops, General Patton had enunciated the American view of people who lose wars or battles: “Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser.” And the French of all types were distinctly snotty toward their saviors.

        3.      Stay-at-homes exempt from the war by virtue of largely invisible ailments, like punctured eardrums, high blood pressure, flat feet, or a “nervous condition.” Even self- proclaimed “homosexuality.”

        4.      Anyone occupying in combat a position to the rear of the infantryman. Included are soldiers in the artillery, all engineers except combat engineers, and certainly the various staff, afraid to visit the line and to see what’s actually happening there.

Military historian Roger Spiller, who has spent decades studying the embarrassing actualities of battle, quotes with approval Bernard Knox, who writes, “It is true of every war that much as he may fear and perhaps even hate the enemy opposing him, the combat infantryman broods with deep and bitter resentment over the enormous number of people in his rear who sleep safely at night.” And it was an enormous number. Spiller explains: “Of the millions of Americans sent overseas by the Army during World War II, only 14 percent were infantrymen. Those 14 percent took more than 70 percent of all the battle casualties among overseas troops.” As Captain Harold P. Leinbaugh, author of the memoir The Men of Company K, proclaims, “We were the Willie Lomans of the war.” Or, as some coarser speakers have put it, “the niggers.” Soldiers who fought in North Africa and Southern Italy, struck by the squalor and filth of the peasants, thought of them as “the Infantry of the World.”

“Adolescent fervor” is Robert Kotlowitz’s term for those characteristics of male youth that can be honed and intensified by military training. “The Army understood that fervor and used it,” he writes. “All armies do; they depend upon it.” Adolescent fervor in the form it assumed be- fore bullets and artillery and mines ruined it is pleasantly registered by Edward W. Wood Jr., an enthusiastic—no, ecstatic—soldier as he participated in the victorious pursuit of the enemy in late August 1944:

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Paul Fussell is the author of fifteen books, including Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War and The Great War and Modern Memory, which won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named by the Modern Library as one of the twentieth century’s 100 best nonfiction books. He taught literature for many years at the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife.

From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Boys' Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
ionestjames More than 1 year ago
I started out reading this book for class. I have always been interesting in World War II literature, but this one really got to me. As the synopsis describes, this book doesn't hold a veil over the horrors and atrocities that occurred during WWII and in my opinion, I'm very grateful for it. Movies based on battles during WWII usually take the action-y, explosion-y route because it brings in an audience. People want to see other people being blown up or shot. It's just a movie, right? Well, in a book, when someone gets shot or blown to pieces by an underground land mine, it becomes real. Especially, when you know the book is a retelling of actual events, not just based on a true story. Fussell brings to light all that most people forget about the war. The young men who fought and the young men who died and suffered. In his dedication, Fussell wrote: "To those on both sides who suffered." This book is a testament and a revelation that not only did the Americans fight, but the French, the British, and even the Germans fought and lost good, young men. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know the truth about the war, through the eyes of a young man. In large part, this book is based off of the author's experiences. Not only does this ground the book into the genre of Historical Non-Fiction, it grounds it in the mind and the soul of the reader that "this actually happened, these boys actually died."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
By Bill Marsano. This book comes along just in time: Already I've been getting invitations from French tourism folks inviting me to learn all about their plans for next year's 60th anniversary of D-Day. (Do they actually give a damn any more, or are they just trying to revive their critically wounded tourist trade?) Think of it--sixty years. Soon enough there'll be no one left alive to tell the tale, and then the whole shebang--World War II from front to back--will be deeded over to Ken Burns for a series of sincere and oh-so-tasteful documentaries for his caramel-centered fans to lap up on PBS. It's probably all that 'good war' and 'greatest generation' stuff that drove Fussell to write this book; he doesn't have much truck with gooey backward glances, and that will probably make some readers mad. Well, you don't come to Fussell--author of, among other things, 'Thank God for the Atom Bomb, and Other Essays'--for good times. You come to Fussell for the hard stuff. And here it is his contention that behind and beneath all that 'greatest generation' nonsense was the Boys' Crusade--that last year of the war in Europe when too many things went wrong too often. The generals who'd convinced themselves that this war would not be a war of attrition--i.e., human slaughter--like the last one found they'd guessed wrong. Casualties were horrifyingly high and so huge numbers of children--kids 17-19 years--old were flung into combat. And they were, with the help of the generals, ill-trained, ill-clothed and ill-equipped. They were also faceless ciphers. As Fussell points out, the US Army's policy was to break up training units by sending individual replacements up to the line piecemeal--one at a time--so they often arrived as strangers among strangers, often addressed merely as 'Soldier' because no one knew their names. The result was too many instances of cowardice--both under fire and behind the lines--too many self-inflicted wounds to escape combat. Too many disgraces of every kind because the Army's system, Fussell says, destroyed the most important factor in the fighting morale of the 'poor bloody infantry'--the shame and fear of turning chicken in front of your comrades. Many of these boys--and Fussell is properly insistent on the word boys--funked because they had no comradeship to value. This is not in the least a personal journal. Fussell was seriously wounded as a young second lieutenant; he was also decorated. But he wisely leaves himself out of this narrative. There's no special pleading here, no showing of the wounds on Crispin's Day. Instead this is a passionate but straightforward report on what that last year was like for the poor bloody infantry--those foot soldiers, those dogfaces, those 14 percent of the troops who took more than 70 percent of the casualties. And yet there were those who stood the gaff, who survived 'carnage up to and including bodies literally torn to pieces, of intestines hung on trees like Christ,mas festoons,' and managed not to dishonor themselves. They weren't heroes, Fussell says, just men who earned the Combat Infantryman's Badge, which was the only honor they respected. In a brief but moving passage, he explains why: It said they'd been there, been through it, and toughed it out. This is a very short book. It's only 160 or so pages of text and they are small, paperback-sized pages. Nevertheless this book is an object lesson in writing that hits home like a blow to the solar plexus, that can double you over in pain and shock. I don't know a professional writer who wouldn't be proud to have written it.--Bill Marsano is a writer and editor with a long-time interest in military writing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was very cool story..I like this..