Review of Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944
There is no disputing that Anthony Beevor is one of the most skilled raconteur’s of episodes from our recent military past. His new treatment of Operation Market Garden and its aftermath demonstrates tremendous research (not necessarily all his own – a point we’ll discuss later) as well as a unique ability to weave together disparate narratives into a single engaging narrative. He did this supremely well with Stalingrad, the Spanish Civil War and D-Day to name the more stellar – in my opinion.
Beevor’s stated objective for revisiting this previously explored operation was to reveal some previously untouched aspects. The result of his re-engagement with the existing record and previous narratives does drive a final nail in any defence that circumstances and not simple lack of solid military preparedness and good strategic foresight led to what can only be termed an abject military and humanitarian failure. Not only did it fail to accomplish the grand objective of establishing a bridgehead to allow a final (British) push into Germany, but it distracted from more pressing strategic concerns (securing and holding Antwerp for example) and led to substantial and easily avoidable civilian and military sacrifices that did not (despite Churchill’s statement) grant any substantive strategic achievement.
However, I am unconvinced that this conclusion or much of the narrative really sheds new light on the operation or the personalities involved. In fact, as Beevor freely admits in his acknowledgements he relied heavily on the evidence compiled by Cornelius Ryan for his magisterial ‘A Bridge Too Far’. Although Beevor (or his team) are superb researchers and were able to draw on additional records and seemingly carried out a superb trawl, I would not come away feeling that the objective of raising new (and/or substantive) discoveries is achieved. There is no doubt that this book may well expose many to this compelling tale of pre-destined operational failure – if you haven’t already read Ryan’s (or other’s work) or sat through the cinematic treatment. The footnotes are possibly some of the more telling and rewarding aspects of the experience. They contain some lovely sidenotes that possibly have escaped earlier note and made for fine reading in themselves.
I came away feeling that for all the exquisite detail – it was far too much to really deliver a tight and effective narrative and the cast of thousands made for a real challenge to keep track of. It may well work for some. I felt that, as Beevor admits, he meticulously explored much of the evidence compiled by Ryan and found that much went unused in this earlier work. However, perhaps Ryan was just a better editor and used what was effective and the scraps that Beevor cleaned up off the cutting room floor could have been left there.
As seems the generally accepted perspective, Montgomery comes off as a detached ego-driven villain once again, and the peccadilloes of egos, hierarchies and inability to learn from the past amongst the subordinate players demonstrates how not to launch an effective military operation. Nonetheless, the story is well retold, the evidence well presented, and I certainly learned many things I had not known from past recounting (largely from the footnotes). However, all in all, it felt that this could have been more effectively told with less detail in a far less elaborate arrangement to better effect. It is difficult to tell the Market Garden story as an upbeat tale of heroism and victory (although many of the politicians and soldiers sought to do so in the immediate aftermath) and the overall tone of Beevor’s treatment is not unlike Stalingrad – thoroughly capturing and reflecting the grim, harsh and depressing realities of modern warfare.