Pictures from an Expedition

Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris, June 6th-August 25th, 1944

by John Keegan
Viking Press, 365 pp., $17.95

In the First World War Western Europe was the main theater from first to last. Creat Britain and later the United States behaved as European powers, dispatching their troops to the western front much as France did. The first battle on the western front, the battle of the Marne, determined that the war would drag on for more than four years, with one battle after another, all more or less in the same place, all inconclusive. In August 1918 there began a final battle in which the German front crumbled though it never broke. The First World war ended for the British where it had began, British troops encountered German troops for the first time on August 23 1914 at Mons; Canadian troops liberated Mons a few hours before the armistice came into force on November 11, 1918.

Many people expected the Second World War to be much the same: a static Franco-German front stretching from Switzerland to the sea, with the British holding one segment of it. Quite the reverse. In May 1940 the French front collapsed after a few days of ineffective fighting with the British departing from the Continent at Dunkirk. For four years when much of the world was at war, Western Europe and particularly France was at peace, a peace no doubt made unpleasant by the presence of the German conqueror but peace all the same. When later I asked my French friends, “How did you get on in the war?” most of them answered, “For us the war ended in June 1940. The peace that followed was not all that bad.”

War returned to France or rather to a part of France only in June 1944 when the Allied armies of Great Britain and the United States landed in Normandy. Landings were a word of ill omen in British strategy: La Rochelle, Bel Ile, Walcheren, Gallipoli. This one brought success: the first successful seaborne invasion of France since Henry V’s time (the British produced a film on Henry V to go with the landing) and, John Keegah thinks, likely to be the last. Certainly the Normandy campaign was an astonishing achievement which is likely to remain unique. Great armies were ferried across the Channel, fully equipped to go into battle almost immediately after landing. These great armies were supplied by sea for over two months, better supplied even than the Germans were, thanks to the destruction of railways and bridges by the Allied air forces.

Moreover, the battle of Normandy not only led to the expulsion of the Germans from France. It marked the beginning of the end in all Western Europe for the German domination, despite pauses and occasional setbacks. Here was a paradox. In the First World War Western Europe experienced battle after battle for over four years, none of them decisive except the first and the last. In the Second World War Western Europe experienced only one great battle and it was decisive.

One can add many other distinctions that …

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