July, 1944: St. Lô

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Three decades ago a battle was fought for St. Lô , Normandy, France, in the second of the great world wars of this century. To have been young at St. Lô and now to be old is a matter of personal amazement, for the time lapse seems instantaneous. In rank, the battle is in that heavily populated tier of major bloodlettings that have determined the course of campaigns, as opposed to the few decisive Gettysburgs and Waterloos on which history itself has turned. In keeping with this stature, St. Lô     seems destined for the footnotes of history, unlikely to be remembered beyond the memory span of the First United States Army and Seventh German Army veterans who fed its flames so prodigally, of those who anxiously followed their fortunes, and of the Normans whose lives and homes were in its path. Further in perspective: St. Lô     was an essential objective of the First Army’s offensive launched during that fateful month of July, 1944, to gain the terrain and road net on which Operation COBRA could coil and strike to break out of the Normandy beachhead. The overall offensive involved twelve divisions in four corps attacking on a twenty-five-mile front. It was bitterly contested at every point; losses were uniformly appalling. In this general holocaust St. Lô     caught the public’s attention, possibly because the town had the largest population (eleven thousand) in the offensive and was a provincial seat of government. Even more, it acquired a symbol, “the Major of St. Lô    ,” whom I knew. To the allied command the town was important as the hub of a network of seven roads and because the high ground to its east and west commanded the Vire Valley, in which tanks could operate. Both factors were essential to COBRA . The German command had an equal appreciation of road nets and terrain and, in addition, had a captured American field order designating St. Lô     as a primary objective. This determined that it would be defended with all the resources that the enemy would be able to muster on its accommodating hills and ridgelines.

Presuming to speak for those who fought there but knew nothing of COBRA or of captured field orders, I recall the battle only as a boiling caldron that no man entered without dread or emerged from without being marked.

In the end, of course, St. Lô     was taken. Operation COBRA was launched, and a general advance was begun that with some setbacks, notably the Battle of the Bulge, ended in less than a year with victory in Europe. The cost was high: in three weeks over forty thousand Americans killed, wounded, or missing—the same price, incidentally, as at the Bulge six months later. The Germans, who fought with courage and skill, had losses perhaps half again as heavy. St. Lô     was knocked apart, and about a thousand citizens were killed before it was finally evacuated. Conservatively speaking, well over a hundred thousand human beings died or suffered wounds in the brief time and space that bounded the offensive.

My memoir is that of a foot soldier groping through this hurly-burly. Its scope is the few hundred yards’ front of the 2nd Battalion, 116th Regiment (the Stonewall Brigade), 29th Infantry Division. I was aware of other mighty blows being exchanged across Normandy; but being fully occupied with my own microcosm of Armageddon, I paid them little heed.

A memoir is a public appearance, and one is inclined to stand straighter and present the best profile. Mitigating this tendency, there are no deeds of personal daring to relate, and no action of mine affected the battle one way or the other. This is personally regrettable, but it also lessens the self-consciousness of narrating in the first person. I was there; I endured, and not so well as some, also regrettable. Otherwise, I was a bookishly inclined amateur soldier with some ability at dissembling the uncertainty and irritability that the war inspired. At the battle’s start I was a captain commanding the and Battalion’s headquarters company and battalion adjutant; during its course I became battalion executive officer and a major.

My account is not thirty years of faded memories and afterthoughts. It was originally written directly after the war, when the sights, sounds, and smells of St. Lô     were sharp and clear. My aim then was a history of the battle through the 2nd Battalion’s story. The result was predictably far short of the mark; I found that the great ebb and flow of St. Lô     cannot be encompassed by one of its parts. Disappointed, I set it aside.

Now there is the delayed second thought that while a battalion affords a limited view of field armies locked in battle, it is unequalled for observing those who fought it personally and directly. The soldiers of the 2nd Battalion were assembled through largely random selection to perform the irrational acts of war. We were fairly representative of all battalions similarly assembled in this offensive.