We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France

Revisionist monuments

This summer, I learned that one of the monuments in Belgium was desecrated by someone who scratched on more unit designations, since it was a monument to only one company. Of course, since Band of Brothers brought so much fame to E/506, it has also generated some resentment, since anything for them is more easily funded and more widely known.

It’s not hard to find people who either think that Easy Company was the best unit in the war, or those in the opposite camp, that think it despicable that the rest of the 101st Division or the rest of the Army gets so much less credit than these men. The individual who comitted the desecration falls into the latter camp and used to be the co-moderator of a forum on airborne history.

This individual felt compelled to modify the monument because he didn’t agree with it (he has publicly apologized, for what that’s worth). I’ve run across this attitude before – people who feel compelled to change the monumentation on a battlefield to better suit themselves. I would say that it’s to better explain the battlefield, or commemorate the deeds of the warriors, or to somehow enhance the value of the battlefield, but my impression of these people is that it’s rarely about anything but themselves.

In Gettysburg, the only Corps commander on either side who had no monument was General Longstreet. While it was odd and perhaps unfair, no monument had been made for the General while he was alive or in the early 20th century when the last veterans of the battle attended the last reunions. As such, to me, the lack of a monument to Longstreet was a story of the battlefield itself. Mentioning that he had no monument allowed one to explore why General Lee’s right hand wouldn’t have had a monument, leading to a discussion of reconstruction politics in the south, the relationship between Longstreet and Grant, as well as, perhaps, a discussion of the ‘Lost Cause’ movement. So, to me, the very fact that Longstreet had no monument was an integral part of the battlefield.

General Longstreet's monument in Gettysburg

General Longstreet's monument in Gettysburg

However, a number of people worked very hard to get a monument built to General Longstreet. Unfortunately, they succeeded in putting up what some refer to as the ugliest monument on the battefield, taking away the interesting story about Longstreet not having a monument and replacing it with a story of how a bunch of hobbyists were able to band together and put up a monument to their hero. Longstreet had long been abused by the Lost Cause for a variety of invented reasons, but now, he has a monument on the greatest battlefield of the war. He must feel better! Except, he’s been dead a long time and the monument put him at ground level, on a diminuitive horse and his proportions look neither herioc, nor completely human. The artist also ensured that it would ‘violate’ the typical rules of military monumentation – often, the number of hooves off the ground on the horse is an indication of whether the rider was wounded or died in battle. (see note below on “folk wisdom”) At Gettysburg, all the equestrian monuments follow this guideline (there is no written rule) and it feels to me as though this was done because it was different and because it would stand out. So, we have a bunch of hobbyists working to make a name for themselves by putting up a monument and an artist who makes a silly-looking monument that defies convention, giving the impression he wants the monument to say something about the artist, more than something about Longstreet. So, for me, despite the fact it is nominally a monument to the man, all I can think about is the people who put it up.

In Belgium, Mark Patterson wished to make a statement by scratching unit numbers onto the Easy Company monument in Bizory. While I think we all would agree that every unit that fought there deserves a monument, it happens that because of Band of Brothers, getting money to put up an Easy Company monument is probably simpler than putting up a monument to F/501. That said, scratching the numbers on a monument and letting people know you‘ve done it, and done it more than once, is not about recognition for those other men who fought there. If you wish to honor the others who fought there, gather money, get the veterans out and put up a monument to them. Walking around pretending to be the champion of the unrecognized heroes by desecrating Easy Company’s monument is not about honoring the other units, but entirely about one’s own image. Fortunately, almost everyone I’ve seen write about this finds his actions reprehensible.

Sometimes, when listening or reading someone’s revisionist theories about a battle or a war, I also get the same impression. That it’s not about understanding, but rather about the speaker or author wanting you to notice that they have figured out something noone else has. They wish you to be dazzled by their brilliance, rather than being concerned with whether the theory actually matches with the evidence. Some of these theories are concocted by starting with a theory and then hunting down bits and pieces of evidence, sometimes out of context that support the theory. The worst cases require that you first ignore anything you know about tactics or strategy.

If you want to see the opposite of these actions, check out the work of the Stoy’s (CPT Monika Stoy and COL Tim Stoy). This August, they again took money out of their own pockets to fund the commemoration of Operation Dragoon. This year, the conference ran for 3 days, with several authors giving talks and about 20 veterans attending. The Stoy’s also travel around Europe, working to get monuments to these warriors installed or repaired in small towns throughout France and Germany. Often, their work brings remembrance of a debt owed to these men, and the towns celebrate them. It doesn’t tear someone down to build someone else up, or attempt to draw attention to themselves. It’s about the veterans and about what they did.

Note on “folk wisdom”: Check the comments for a discussion about the hooves on the Longstreet statue. Neither the Gettysburg Battlefield Monument Association nor any other organization has ever wrote any guidelines on the hooves in equestrian monuments. At Gettysburg, the hooves on the monuments do seem to represent the riders fate, but outside of Gettysburg, it is merely coincidental that sometimes this is the case. Check the Snopes article by Barbara Mikkelson for a good explanation of the failure of this “folk wisdom”. Thanks to Craig Swann for prompting the clarification.

History repeats itself, in a good way
3 August 2010, 16:36
Filed under: Normandy, Operation Dragoon | Tags: ,

This coming weekend, we’ll again be commemorating Operation Dragoon. Needless to say, I’m excited about the opportunity to learn more, but I’m also excited to be seeing some veterans I met last year. Jim Welsh, who fought with the 551st Parachute Infantry, is planning on flying up from Louisiana and we’ve already spoken about getting together for dinner. I hope that the two 509th veterans that I met last year (Katz and Devaney) are there again as well, since I picked up LT Hugh Hogan’s copy of Bail Out Over North Africa. (Hogan was an officer in the 509th and he signed his copy and wrote in the margins as well.)

Also, we’ve got our plans all sorted for our annual trip to Normandy. We’ll be there in October for a week (plus a few days in Burgundy to start, staying in a B&B run by a winemaker we met last year.) One of the best parts of that is that Paul Woodadge has let me know that he’d like me to tag along when he has a few spare hours during our visit. Quite a treat!

What really happened?

In my research on Edson Raff, I read about an incident that puzzled me, even in it’s basic form. Then, I started to find other versions of the same event and realized that not everyone saw the same thing in the same way. This is one of the joys of being a historian – having the opportunity to piece multiple accounts together to determine what is most likely to have actually happened.

On the 6th of June, Raff landed with his command on Utah Beach, raced forward in an attempt to reinforce the 82nd Airborne with a small armored force. They were able to roll out from the beach, with the roads already having been cleared (not necessarily “secured”), reach the crossroads at Les Forges and look north toward Ste-Mere-Eglise, where part of the 82nd Airborne was supposed to be gathering. I’d first picked this up in Clay Blair’s Ridgway’s Paratroopers, in which Blair relates that Raff’s force was held up…

The Germans who had fled Ste. Mere-Eglise and holed up in the woods to the south of town opened fire with 88s which had been zeroed in on the road. These accurate salvoes hit and destroyed an armored reconnaissance vehicle and three Sherman tanks and inflicted numerous casualties.

I’ve been to Les Forges twice now and it doesn’t seem like that deadly an area at first glance. Route Nationale 13 (N13), which was then a nice little road, is now a highway and it slopes gently down and back up as you approach Ste. Mere-Eglise from the south. It reminds me in that sense of Route 30 in Pennsylvania, as you drive east from Chambersburg to Gettysburg. In both cases, the approach is from a slight rise, with a gentle slope down and back up again. John Buford recognized the value of such ground from the defensive side, deploying his cavalry and cannon to slow the Confederate advance on the first day, west of Gettysburg. The men of the 795th Ost Battalion (Georgian) were posted on Hill 20, south of Ste. Mere-Eglise and for an anti-tank gunner, it is lovely ground.

Being curious about the incident, I searched for more information. I checked Blair’s sources and found two that looked promising, SLA Marshall’s Night Drop and Ralph Ingersoll’s Top Secret.

Marshall is the grand historian of the American airborne and I couldn’t believe that I’d never thought to buy his book. During World War II, Marshall was assigned to the European Theater and, it seems, was assigned the airborne aspect of the Normandy operation as a historian because everyone else was too busy. He was an early proponent of oral history, but his favored technique seems to have been interviewing entire companies at once. He relates in the epilogue to Night Drop that his interviews ended up being battalion-wide and, in the case of the La Fiere causeway fight, two battalions sitting for the interview at once. Marshall was Colonel Marshall at the time and I’ve read that junior officers, like Lieutenant Dick Winters, were generally a little intimidated by him. One can just imagine being interviewed by the Colonel in front of one’s own superior officers, with as much as two battalions of men listening in. While you might get a story that the senior officers could agree upon, it might not be what actually happened.

Though both men had been writers before the war, Ralph Ingersoll was a far different animal. While Marshall comes off as a solid “company man”, Ingersoll strikes me as a maverick. While Marshall worked as a war reporter for the Detroit News, Ingersoll published the leftist daily newspaper, PM, in New York City, which accepted no advertising whatsoever. Somehow, Ingersoll ended up a Major by the time of the Normandy invasion and get himself assigned as the Executive Officer of Raff’s force. After the war, Ingersoll wrote of his adventures in a series of books, with Top Secret including his time in Normandy.

Both men seem to sometimes embellish things for a good story and other times to simply get it wrong. Nonetheless, I mention them because of the drastic contrast in their reporting of the encounter of the Raff force with the Germans (well, Georgians in German uniforms) at Les Forges.

First, let’s look at Ingersoll’s account. Raff decides to send a scout car from Les Forges toward Hill 20….

Raff beckoned him up and said, “Go down and see what you can see.” The lieutenant got in the lead scout and it crept down over the brow of the hill. The tank engines were all silent and the rubber tires of the scout car whispered on the asphalt. It went down the far slope a little and halted to look around. Raff beckoned the sergeant of the nearest or our tank crews. “Go on down after him and cover him,” he said. The tankers climbed in and started their engine. The big hunk of steel lumbered up over the brow of the hill. Then it came close to the scout car and the latter began moving again and the two vehicles dropped down into the valley. In profile, the road made a very flat “U” through the valley. When the two vehicles reached the bottom of the “U”, there were two explosions in quick succession. Standing on the brow of the hill we could see the men piling out of the tank and out of the scout car and diving into the ditch on the right. Then everything was very still. And neither vehicle made a move or sound and nothing whatever happened.

What occurred next was a comedy turned tragic. The scout car and the tank which we had sent out ahead had been fire on all right, but neither had been hit and the crash we had heard happened when the scout car backed up suddenly and rammed its own tank. Both crews thought their vehicles had been struck by enemy fire and had piled out into the ditch. The first survivor was a terrified GI from the tank who had crawled all the way up the hill in the gutter. He reported that he was the sole survivor. Ten minutes later the lieutenant from the scout car came in, having circled through the fields. Sheepishly he explained what had really happened.

Ingersoll continues, describing further action that does involve tanks actually being hit, but the stark difference between Blair’s interpretation and Ingersoll’s first-hand account is shocking. So, of course, when I got my copy of Marshall’s book, that was the first thing I looked for. Marshall’s contemporary interpretation differs slightly.

Raff said to the lieutenant leading the reconnaissance platoon, “Take your scout car up the road and see what you can see.” Then he beckoned to the sergeant of his nearest tank and said, “Go on along and cover him.” The two vehicles advanced about 300 yards along the twisting highway. then Raff heard two explosions close together and saw the tank pile up on the scout car. A few minutes later the lieutenant returned afoot. He explained that one shell had hit his car dead on and, failing to explode, had driven it back into the tank with such violence that the track had been stripped away.

Since Marshall not only has a far different result of the German fire, but also uses slightly different quotes for Raff’s words to the lieutenant and the sergeant, I assumed he had other sources for his story. I was so excited because I thought I had found an account that SLA Marshall hadn’t included in his book. I remained that excited from June to August, continuing to search for more information and thinking I’d made a grand discovery. Then, I met Kevin Hymel, who has written an article about Raff in Normandy and I related the difference between the two accounts. He told me that he believed Marshall got it right, but I wasn’t convinced.

Then, I started to write this post and in the months it has taken me to write it… everything unravelled. Marshall quotes from Ingersoll’s book directly two pages later when describing the glider landings a few hours later. So, Marshall obviously read Ingersoll’s book and could have repeated his account. In Joe Balkoski’s Utah Beach, he doesn’t mention the incident, but he does quote from Ingersoll’s book as well. So, both of them read and disregarded Ingersoll’s account. The torture for me is that I don’t know if Marshall had access to other information (interviews with other men who were there or the after-action report from the tank company) because he doesn’t use footnotes, endnotes or even a bibliography. Balkoski does quote from the AAR of Company C, 746th Tank Battalion about the entire action, so I do know where I can look next. In all likelihood, I’ll never know exactly what happened, but it sure is interesting trying to figure it out….

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