11 Days in December
Stanley Weintraub
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Buy *11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944* by Stanley Weintraub online

11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944
Stanley Weintraub
Free Press
224 pages
November 2006
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Many books have been written about the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. There have been broad histories, stories of individual areas (like the siege of Bastonge), or histories where the Bulge is only a small part. Stanley Weintraub's 11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge takes a closer look at the battle, mainly concentrating on individual stories of soldiers on both sides on that fateful Christmas 1944. It's an interesting look at the whole battle, though diluted by much information that can be found better-told in other sources.

Initially, Weintraub spends a great deal of time with the generals, detailing the ongoing conflicts between Eisenhower, Patton, Montgomery, and Bradley. He also looks at the German side and how some generals felt that the "Watch on the Rhine" plan to attack the Allies and sweep to Antwerp was vastly overreaching. Hitler was adamant, however, that all generals buy into the plan, and he wasn't above replacing (either administratively or violently) anyone who doubted that the plan would work. We see the Christmas preparations made by those at the front line who were confident that they would have a peaceful holiday, despite the fact that the war wasn't actually over like everybody had thought it would be after the Normandy invasions and breakout.

While much of the information on the battle itself (troop movements and attacks) can be found in other sources (in much more detailed, if perhaps less readable fashion), I did find Weintraub contributing quite a few facts of which I hadn't been aware. These include the fact that Marlene Dietrich was entertaining the troops in the Ardennes at the time of the attack and had even contracted frostbite that affected her hands for the rest of her life, as well as the fact that she had an affair with Patton. Also, Ernest Hemingway and his wife were war correspondents in the Bulge, though he never did get to Bastonge (I'm sure he would have loved being under siege).

Little facts like this keep the beginning of the book interesting despite it covering old ground. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the conflicts among the generals. Weintraub really doesn't bring anything new to the party, and the animosity between them, especially Eisenhower and Montgomery, are dealt with in almost every book about the European (and even the Italian) campaign. I appreciate the fact that he needed to cover it because it was important to the attitudes displayed during the battle, but it definitely detracts from the interest level.

This changes, however, as we near Christmas. Weintraub begins concentrating on individual soldiers telling their stories about what was happening, the terror they felt when the Germans rolled through them, as well as more close-up views of some of the atrocities, such as the Malmedy massacre. He demonstrates that Malmedy was only the most egregious occasion of the mass execution of prisoners; it's not the only case. I found these close looks fascinating, especially those told from the German side.

One notable instance is when a group of German soldiers attempt to take refuge in a civilian household only to discover some American troops already there. The matriarch of the family takes them all in, forbids any talk of violence on Christmas night, gives them all a great dinner (despite being short of food for her family), and they all spend a night in peace and comfort before leaving the next day to continue the killing. Weintraub acknowledges the probably apocryphal nature of this story (unlike the "Christmas truce" of 1914, this story has no real source) but states that it demonstrates "hope in defeat. Families would survive somehow, despite Hitler."

Another interesting aspect of the book is how it deals with the POWs resulting from the attack. Weintraub describes in harsh detail (without being terribly graphic) the trials and tribulations that they went through as they were shipped to the rear - the stench and stink of the railcars, and how many of them died on the way. What makes this even sadder, other than the fact that it happened around Christmas, is that these men were obviously only in captivity for a few months since the war would end five months later, yet many of them still died.

One major fault with the book is that there are few maps and no notes. The two maps consist of one at the beginning of the book giving the situation on December 15 (the day before the attack), and the other a detailed look at German attacks on the surrounded Bastonge on December 25 and 26, before the weather cleared enough for resupply drops. There are no maps of the main German attack or anything like, which is a shame. If you're going to give information on the whole thing, then maps would greatly help the reader keep everything straight.

As for the notes, there are neither footnotes nor endnotes in the book. Weintraub includes a section at the end called "Sources", where he states that "many sources are embedded in the narrative itself" and then proceeds to list the remainder of his sources. Of course, this involves a lot more back-and-forth than even endnotes would require, so it's rather annoying. There are a few starred notes at the bottom of pages for items that need major explanation, but that's about it.

11 Days in December is definitely a good popular history of the Battle of the Bulge. Weintraub's prose style is readable and interesting, and the general information can be useful to those who have no familiarity with the battle itself. The personal stories keep your attention, and the short length of the book means you won't have to spend a lot of time on it. Any World War II buff should enjoy spending Christmas at the Bulge with Weintraub. He makes a good host.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Dave Roy, 2007

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