[lit-ideas] Re: Americans close with the Germans at last

  • From: Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 09 May 2008 16:48:00 -0700

Lawrence quotes from Atkinson's Army at Dawn

Terrified residents ran from the town. ‘The War,’ an American artillerist recalled cheerfully, ‘was on!’

This caught my eye because despite my time spent around artillery folks, I'd never encountered the word 'artillerist' and had to look it up (at first I wasn't sure it was a real word). Of course it is a word with a robust history, and was in use as late as WW I. However, it's an odd word to use to describe someone in WW II. 'Artilleryman' would have been a more natural term. In the context, 'artillerist' is just fancy writing.

“West of town, several British soldiers waited roadside to guide an American artillery battery into firing positions. At a fair distance, they spied a churning column of dust. Soon the column resolved into four bouncing howitzers and their gun teams hurtling up to and then past the frantically waving Tommies. Over a small rise they boiled, and down the forward slope overlooking Medjez, where they lurched to a stop in full view of the Germans. Shooting that had been brisk now became furious. A British officer reported ‘guns of all calibers firing.’

I'll bet that the howitzers were bouncing because they were being towed by trucks, very likely all-purpose 2 1/2 ton ('deuce and a half') vehicles. If you ever see a howitzer bouncing all by itself, take cover. Atkins doesn't say what size these howitzers were. If they were 75mm (a little-known gun of which I know nothing), they might have been towed by something else. I'm assuming they were 105mm. Artillery pieces aren't manned by 'teams'; they're manned by gun crews. If you're writing about combat at fairly close quarters, it's good to get the jargon straight. (A bayonet is not a saber.)

“British paratroopers and Derbyshire Yeomen hurried forward to extract their cousins. The melee subsided only when the truculent Yank gunners were persuaded of the merits of defilade.

This is perplexing. The very idea of a howitzer is that it's fired from a protected position (or at least one not directly visible). Its rounds travel in a parabola up and over some shielding barrier. In short, the 'merits of defilade' would have been an essential part of the training and instruction given to field artillery units equipped with howitzers. If you're within direct view of the enemy, you've in a seriously bad position, and every artilleryman would know that. Howitzers aren't meant to fire in a flat trajectory. 'Bore sighting' (looking down the barrel) is the name for such desperate last resort measures.

The British paratrooper commander, Lieutenant Colonel S.J.L. Hill, upon inquiring about the eccentric America approach, learned that the ‘gun teams had worked it out that one of them would be the first American to fire the first shot against the Germans in this world war. They had all started jockeying for position and racing each other down the road.’ Colonel Hill accepted this explanation philosophically, as he did the reply from a young American who, when asked why he was firing at a church steeple in Medjez, said it was because he could ‘see if he hit it.’ The answer, Hill concluded, ‘seemed fair enough.’”

Racing 2 1/2 ton trucks is an idea for a Hollywood war comedy; that it is taken seriously here (the evidence that it happened is rather second hand), especially if it's supposed to have taken place on a road, seems typical of Atkinson's love of striking anecdotes. The transition from this dubious account to 'a young American['s]' firing at a church steeple makes it appear that a single young American is firing an artillery piece. Never happen.

I hope Lawrence keeps sending us these excerpts.

Robert Paul
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