Sheer Misery: Soldiers in Battle in WWII

Univ. of Chicago. Apr. 2021. 208p. ISBN 9780226753140. $23. HIST
Roberts (WARF Distinguished Lucie Aubrac Professor of History, Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison) aims to re-create the physical and mental world of World War II soldiers, focusing particularly on British and American infantryman on the Western Front. Roberts reconstructs the soldiers’ experience from the ground up, with chapters detailing medical conditions such as trench foot, which results when one’s foot is wet for too long. Perspectives from medical officers provide context for the different types of wounds that soldiers endured, as well as the reality of lifelong disability. Notably, Roberts analyzes Bill Maudlin’s “Willy and Joe” cartoons, published in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. The cartoons were popular among soldiers, as they validated their daily experience, but they incurred the wrath of Gen. George Patton, who believed they were a threat to discipline. While Roberts could be criticized for focusing on a relatively small national and geographic subset of World War II participants, she juxtaposes her examples of the British and American experiences with references to German and French soldiers.
VERDICT This accessible account, based on a solid foundation of primary and secondary sources, offers a fascinating window into the world of combat soldiers, shorn of nostalgia. A welcome purchase for libraries, and a must for readers interested in firsthand perspectives of World War II.
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