FOR A RELATIVELY minor episode in the Second World War (that is, when compared with the Battle of Normandy or any one of the great battles on the Eastern Front between 1941 and 1945) the Battle of the Ardennes in 1944 has already been well written over. The U.S. Army official history devotes a volume to it; the American writer John Toland wrote the heavyweight Battle: The Story of the Bulge; and British and French authors have contributed accounts as well. What the battle lacks in strategic importance it makes up in dramatic impact. Here were the Western allies on the eve of what they rightly believed would be the last Christmas of the war, complacently free-wheeling against an enemy whom they wrongly believed to have no punch left. Then, starting on December 16 and running on through Christmas, the "finished" enemy unleashed his old 1940 form (as it seemed), smashing by surprise through an over-extended American front, and giving everyone from fox-hole to SHAEF a nasty turn.
Yet it may be wondered whether the drama of it all justifies a fresh account 712 pages long. Charles B. MacDonald, author of A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge, believes it does, because he regards the battle not as a relatively minor episode but "as the greatest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army," which, if true, bears witness to the pacific nature of American history; because he himself served in the battle as a subaltern; because friends of his died in the battle; but most of all because he has "an untold story" to tell. This untold story consists of an immensely detailed paste-up of anecdotes of individual experiences from American enlisted men to German oberleutnants and Belgian village girls, to say nothing of assorted generals of various grades of seniority. The book is constructed in the familiar "Cornelius-Ryan" style, with abrupt cutting from Panzergrenadier Pumpernickel noshing his K-rations at some crossroads to General Eisenhower or the Fuehrer conferring at their headquarters (in live speech) and back again to Belgian farmer's wife Th,erand noticing that the end-stall is occupied by a German assault gun, which suggests to her that something untoward is afoot. As in turn we are personally introduced to this colossal dramatis personae the characters are brought alive for us, or, rather, embalmed, with such descriptive one-liners as "a wiry, blunt-spoken man, something of an iconoclast, little given to formalities and speaking with a mountaineer's twang."
Charles B. MacDonald narrates the course of the battle itself in terms of minutely detailed descriptions of small-unit struggles for a corner of forest, a river crossing, a village street, a back lane, so that the reader will do well to equip himself with a map on the scale of at least 1:200,000 if he hopes to grasp what is happening where. The result of adding what sometimes seems like a topographical gazeteer of the Ardennes region to what seems like the complete muster-rolls of several American and German armies has been to overload the circuits and blow the fuses of this reviewer's mind. For the short-coming of the author's chosen approach is that he gives equal weight to a battalion fight for a bridge as to major command decisions or to the overall operations of whole divisions. Even though he does interlard this fine-grain narrative with occasional r,esum,es of the overall strategic situation, the ultimate effect is like a close look at a high magnification of a half-tone plate -- all dots and no picture.
THE CONFUSION is all the greater because the author does not differentiate, say by use of italics, between American and German personnel and military units. Since German names are not uncommon among American soldiers, and the local Belgian placenames are also Germanic, the reader needs an ice-pack coupled with deep mental concentration to distinguish (for example) Sergeant Elmer Klug, who is American, from Major Krag and Sergeant Vince Kuhlbach, who are Germans; or (in successive sentences) Corporal Rudi Frubeiser of the 3d Parachute Division, Tech. Sgt. Ben Nawrocki of the 393d Infantry, Pfc. Thor Ronningen of the 395th Infantry and Major Gunther Holtz of the 12th Volks-grenadier Division's tank destroyer battalion.
This is therefore not a book for those who want a clear picture of the course of the battle and a clear understanding of why it went as it did. Yet to be fair to MacDonald, his main purpose in undertaking this immense book and in resorting to such a laborious accumulation of detail has been to convey how ireally was for the participants and hapless civilian bystanders; to bring to the reader the sense and smell of danger, fatigue, wounds and death. Nevertheless his narrative is so matter-of-fact and circumstantial in content and language that, despite all the human interest accounts, it fails to stir the imagination or touch the emotions. On this level, just as with his account of the battle, the author weakens his book by failing to proportion the narrative weight between the more telling individual experiences and the less. The reader closes A Time for Trumpets not so much purged of pity and terror as surfeited with prolixity and tape-record.