I felt somewhat dispirited, really almost annoyed, when I got to the library and discovered that one of the reserved books that come in for me was The Day of Battle, by Rick Atkinson. I barely remembered having put it on my list. I must have read a good review of it and unthinkingly added it on, suffering as always from some sort of weird panic that I might run out of books to read someday if I didn’t keep compiling an ongoing list of everything I could find.
My bad mood was brought on by a feeling that I had been reading far too many books about war this year, and didn’t know if I was up for another. More troop movements that feel like geometry exercises, more descriptions of mangled bodies, more heartrending letters, more generals disagreeing, more Roman numerals and acronyms—it all seemed like too much.
But here is where writing makes a difference. The Day of Battle contains all of the above, but Atkinson’s prose makes it come alive in a way novelists should envy. Details, in just the right words, about what people did, said, ate, wore, believed make it all very real.
The invasion of Italy was born of loose ends rather than a real sense of urgency; there were Allied troops in North Africa, essentially doing nothing, and the big continental invasion, Operation Overlord, was being planned for a year hence. Churchill pushed for Italy—it would give the troops something to do, and hopefully divert German forces from their fight against the Russians.
Things never turn out quite as planned, though, and this is especially true in war. The wrong supplies go to the wrong location and soldiers who are trained for one job are sent to do another. Weather never behaves and terrain is always much more difficult than it appears on a map. As the Allied troops made their way up from the toe of Italy’s boot (has there ever been or will there ever be a more usefully shaped piece of land?), heading ever north, on to Rome, things usually went wrong and occasionally went right, but whichever way, there was always an enormous death toll, both soldiers and civilians. And the soldiers became tougher, and taught themselves to hate and dehumanize their enemies, so they could deal with the constant attacks and killing. Eventually some feared that the hate that bought them peace in the short term was destroying something of themselves forever, their humanity or their souls.
These ordinary soldiers are an important part of the story, and their accounts of events are invaluable in reconstructing the events (are the emails sent from current wars as articulate or descriptive? I worry they are not, and sympathize with future historians). And while outsiders, journalists such as Ernie Pyle, Bill Mauldin, and Margaret Bourke-White contribute to the retelling, inevitably a story about a war becomes a story about officers and leaders. The usual suspects are here—Churchill and Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Patton, and Montgomery. Germany is represented by the Reich's commander in Italy, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, who always seemed to be everywhere and ready for everything, until he wasn’t.
The real star of this show, though, is Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, leader of the Fifth Army and the senior American field commander in Italy. A steady letter writer with a wife who campaigned so avidly on his behalf back in the states that both Clark and the government got annoyed, the author of an autobiography, his wife the author of a memoir, Clark is proof that if you tell your story first, you get to construct it and star in it. Whether he was the dominant personality of the campaign, or just the one who left the most detailed record, Clark stands out from the other commanders. He comes across as driven, fierce, and mightily flawed—he wasn’t liked by everyone, was thought to lack respect for his fellow leaders, and was considered a relentless self-promoter. Yet he also was fearless, confident, and determined. He saw victory in Rome as a necessity, not just for strategic reasons, but as a way of bringing meaning to the deaths of those lost on the way.
However, Clark was not just obsessed with taking Rome—to be a success, he would have to get there first, beating the British. The whole campaign was marked by an air of paranoia on the part of both Allied armies—the British feared that the Americans would take all the credit for success in Italy, and the Americans feared the same thing about the British. The rivalry was so intense and obvious that before one campaign, reporters were warned that “no invidious comparison should be made between Eighth (British) and Fifth (US) armies and the FEC (French Expeditionary Corps); no exaggeration, no overcolorful narratives….Speculation should be avoided.” This distrust culminated in an episode during the final drive to Rome when Clark changed plans without consulting the British officer in command of operations, for the sole purpose of making sure he and the Fifth army were the first to reach Rome. Clark thought the British were scheming to “get into Rome the easiest way,” and reconstructed strategy so, “Not only did we intend to become the first army in fifteen centuries to seize Rome from the south, but we intended to see that the people back home knew that it was the Fifth Army that did the job and knew the price that had been paid.”
(Here is where I might mention that Clark’s self-assurance must have been very great indeed—he returned to Italy, after a short visit home, with the family cocker spaniel, brought along to keep him company at the front. Surely he must have been very confident in his ability to protect the dog; otherwise there would have been a lot of unpleasant explaining to the family if something happened to poor Pal. Annoyingly, Atkinson doesn’t detail the spaniel’s adventures in Italy, or tell us whether he made it back to the States.)
So the Fifth Army did claim the glory, entering Rome while ignoring pleas to include some British or at least a few token Polish troops. Clark even complained about a communiqué that stated, “Rome is now in Allied hands,” objecting to the use of “Allied” instead of “Fifth Army.” The question, though, was whether the venture was worth it.
On this point, experts seem decidedly undecided. Atkinson cites historians who declared the campaign at best a diversion in a war won elsewhere; at worst, a waste of Allied resources, lost for “no defensible military or political purpose.” There were about 312,000 Allied casualties during the Italian campaign, including 23,501 American deaths.
Atkinson, though, points out that the victory in Italy led to a control of the Mediterranean that allowed the sea to become a useful supply route to Russia (via Persia). Italian airfields served as a starting point for a bombing campaign that targeted German oil production facilities. And while the Allies used up valuable resources in Italy, the Germans also lost their share of soldiers and material. Finally, the experience in Italy provided valuable training in managing large amphibious operations, experience that Kesselring believed was vital to the success of D-Day.
On June 5th, 1944, Clark ordered his lieutenants to gather on the Capitoline, one of the seven hills of Rome, where, Atkinson writes, generals in the days of classical Rome went to celebrate their victories. Clark didn’t participate in any of their traditional activities, such as painting his face vermilion and slaughtering a white bull, but did hold an impromptu press conference, where he held forth on this “great day for the Fifth Army.”
It was a good thing the press showed up when it did; by the next day, the victory in Italy was swept off the front page by the invasion of Normandy. Upon hearing the news, Clark said, “How do you like that? They didn’t even let us have the newspaper headlines for the fall of Rome for one day.” They were now yesterday’s news. War is funny that way.