Stalingrad by Antony Beevor Viking, £25
THERE is a dearth of good military history at present, for inexplicable reasons. The readership is enormous, but publishers seem content to supply it with trash and trivia. Perhaps the universities are to blame. History dons shrink from teaching anything as nasty as the reality of warfare, preferring to turn strategy into a branch of political science. Their undergraduates emerge with a detailed knowledge of war theory or civil-military relations, but absolutely no understanding of how battles are fought. No wonder there are so few writers who can tackle the subject. Those who want to make money recycle SAS stories. Those who try to be serious achieve little better than their final-year theses.
What a pleasure it is, therefore, to welcome a real book by a writer who truly understands the drama and tragedy of great operations. Antony Beevor, a former officer of the 11th Hussars, cut his teeth on a history of the Spanish Civil War, which remains the best account in English of the war as a war. He has now turned to the study of a single battle of the Second World War, Stalingrad. It is certainly the best narrative of the battle yet to appear and is not likely to be surpassed in our time.
Stalingrad was the battle that beat the Wehrmacht. Launched by Hitler in the summer of 1942, following the terrible setback before Moscow the previous autumn, it was intended to destroy the Russian armies in the south and assure direct access to the oilfields of the Caucasus. Their output would have fuelled the Luftwaffe and the panzer divisions for the campaigns by which Hitler planned to win the War. Had it succeeded, the Red Army might have been broken and Europe perhaps never liberated from Nazism.
The first half of the book is a fairly conventional account of the fighting on the steppe that carried the Sixth Army to Stalingrad and of the subsequent and bitter house-to-house struggle in the city. "Verdun on the Volga" has become a catchphrase, but with reason. The inch-by-inch advances, behind earth-churning bombardments, the corpse-filled trenches, the repeated claims of final victory, the repeated failures to capture decisive points, the systematic devastation of territory until the battlefield lost any recognisable shape - all the characteristics of the Franco-German battle, which so appalled participants and observers alike in 1916, were each repeated in the hot Russian summer of 1942.
Then, as did not happen at Verdun, the defenders were able to launch a battle-winning counterstroke. Choosing sectors of the line held by Hitler's unenthusiastic allies, the Romanians, Hungarians and Italians, Zhukov, Stalin's implacable military executive, struck as winter began to close in and, in a few days of lightning advance, encircled Stalingrad from the rear and cut the Sixth Army off from the outside world.
It is at this point that Antony Beevor cuts himself off from conventional military narrative and finds a new voice. Up to the encirclement, he has been dealing with quarrels between generals, with subalterns' battles for scraps of the field, with the bravery of sergeants and common soldiers. Once the ice-hard ring is drawn around the Sixth Army, he carries the reader into the minds and hearts of the contestants.
There is no doubt where his sympathy lies. He has already painted the German leadership and many of its followers blacker than black and willed us to wish for a Russian victory. Once the aggressors have become the prisoners of their stinking, lice-infested dugouts, once they begin to starve, to weep for distant loved ones, to share their scraps of frozen bread, to patch up their wounded comrades with paper bandages, to continue to fight out of desperation mixed with soldier's honour, he achieves the extraordinary effect of making us feel the depth of the German army's tragedy.
He has an eerie understanding of how men behave at the end of their tether. He also seems to have some private way into the utterly un-English substrata of German culture. We know that the SS encouraged the inmates of the concentration camps to celebrate a happy Christmas. No one who reads Beevor on the sentimentality of the Sixth Army's fr?hliche Weihnachten is likely to forget the picture he paints. Whole divisions persuaded themselves that the season of carols and makeshift presents - tiny carved Christmas trees, drawings of the Virgin and Child - could not long antedate breakthrough and rescue by the F¸hrer.
Hitler authorised a breakthrough in December, but had no intention of allowing the Sixth Army to break out to meet it. Whatever the Sixth Army hoped, he would not leave the Volga. Beevor convincingly demonstrates that a break-out would have failed. The Germans in Stalingrad were too enfeebled to undertake the march across the frozen steppe. The duration and privations of the siege had condemned them to entombment in their bunkers. When their commanders at last conceded defeat in January, many were too weak to join the march into captivity. One of the Russian officers who took their surrender amid the ruins remarked: "That's how Berlin is going to look."
He was more right than he knew. Perhaps Antony Beevor will follow this magnificent book with another on the other great city battle of the Second World War.