A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge; by Charles B. MacDonald; Harper Perennial (March 19, 1997); ISBN-13: 978-0688151577

I bought my own copy of ‘A Time for Trumpets’ shortly after the book first appeared back in 1985. At the time, I knew very little about the author, Charles B. MacDonald, but I was intrigued by the fact that all of the extensive ‘Order of Battle’ information printed in the back of the book had originally been compiled by the wargame designer Danny S. Parker, with the assistance of several other people whose names I also recognized: Shelby Stanton, Victor Madej, and Bruno Sinigaglio. Moreover, a brief glance through the text revealed an extensive collection of highly-readable situation maps. Those two features alone, I decided were enough to justify the purchase of the book. As it turned out, I ended up buying one of the best, most thorough, and best-documented works that I have ever read on the German Ardennes Offensive, and I probably did so, at least partly, for the flimsiest of reasons.

General Omar Bradley

As 1944 staggered to a close, the Allied commanders on the Western Front were confident that Hitler's Third Reich was on the verge of military collapse. The once dreaded German army, now short of fuel and increasingly forced to draw on old men and boys to fill its decimated ranks, seemed just about finished. This bit of wide-spread conventional wisdom, of course, was wrong. Just how wrong, the Allies would discover on 16 December 1944 with the start of the German offensive that would soon come to be popularly known as the 'Battle of the Bulge'.

The fact that there was a Battle of the Bulge, at all, was grim testimony both to the absolute hold Hitler still exerted on his generals, and to the resilience of the German army and its General Staff. The fact that the Allied commanders in the west were completely surprised by the German attack, on the other hand, was disappointing evidence of General Eisenhower’s and his staff’s supine overconfidence regarding either Hitler's suicidal determination to continue the war, or the enemy’s true military capabilities as 1944 tailed into the New Year. The war against Germany, the Allied generals had convinced themselves, was almost won. And after the Wehrmacht’s defeat in Normandy and the rapid Allied breakout and pursuit of the shattered remnants of Germany’s Army Group B across France during the summer and fall of 1944, the commanders of the swiftly-advancing Allied armies all believed they had good reason for optimism. It had really seemed as if one or two more offensive blows would be sufficient to break through the Siegfried Line and sweep east all the way to Berlin. British Field Marshall Montgomery was so confident that victory was near that he even bet American General Omar Bradley a five pound note that the war would be over by Christmas, 1944. Unfortunately for those ordinary soldiers shivering in the cold near the German ‘West Wall’, the British field marshal would lose his bet. Instead, events would prove Montgomery’s triumphalism misplaced, and the Allied infantrymen, artillerymen, and tankers in the Ardennes would face some of their bloodiest and most difficult fighting just when their generals had confidently predicted that the war would finally be winding down.

The broad historical facts surrounding the Battle of the Bulge are, of course, generally well-known even to most casual students of military affairs. This iconic battle was the last major German offensive on the Western Front; it was fought during the coldest European winter in fifty years, and it came as a complete surprise to the American troops who first felt its fury. The battle began when, at 0530 hours on 16 December 1944, 1,900 German guns shattered the winter quiet with a violent barrage against a thinly-manned, hitherto mainly quiet eighty-five mile section of the American front that ran through the forested Ardennes region of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. After a few minutes, the shelling shifted to targets farther to the American rear, and the Germans — with searchlights illuminating their way forward in some sectors — began to advance west. The attack jumped-off so quickly, in fact, that it was still dark when the 250,000 men and 1,100 armored vehicles of field Marshal Walter Model’s Army Group ‘B' smashed into the easternmost American outposts. Hitler’s last gamble, the Ardennes Offensive, had begun.

American soldiers, Ardennes Forest

‘A Time for Trumpets’, despite its Hollywood movie-style title, is without a doubt the best single reference that I have ever seen on America’s greatest battle: the ‘Battle of the Bulge’. Charles MacDonald, in spare but carefully-crafted language, begins his story of this critical engagement with a description of the initial German planning and preparation for the offensive — code named ‘Wacht am Rhein’ — and then follows with an unflinching critique of the sorry failure of Allied intelligence to detect any sign of the rapid concentration of almost 300,000 fresh German troops and nearly 1,400 armored vehicles in and near the weakly-manned Ardennes sector in the days leading up to the battle. All this, however, is only prologue: a way to introduce the main cast and characters of the Ardennes drama. MacDonald’s real project is to present a carefully-structured and unimpeachably accurate study of the evolution of the entire battle; this he does by examining each battlefield sector in turn, from both the American and the German perspective. This detailed part of the author’s narrative describes how the beleaguered Americans, at first dazed by the ferocity of the initial artillery bombardment and stunned by the masses of German men and armor surging against and around their positions, pulled themselves together and stubbornly began to fight to slow and then to halt the Wehrmacht’s western drive. The author continues his story as fresh Allied troops at last begin to pour into the battle area, and the reinforced and resupplied American GI’s finally commence the unrelenting counterattacks that slowly and bloodily battered the remnants of the German divisions in the ‘Bulge’ all the way back to their starting positions in the Siegfried Line. No important detail is left unexamined: all of the small, but consequential elements are included along with the major events in ‘A Time for Trumpets’. Thus, Otto Skorzeny’s English-speaking commandos, the paucity of winter clothing for many of the American units in the line, and the several atrocities committed by SS units are all described accurately and within the appropriate context of the developing battle. MacDonald’s cast of characters includes cowards, incompetents, villains, and heroes; and, interestingly, all of the heroes did not wear uniforms.

The author brings a special authenticity to this work, not just because of his impeccably detailed research, but also because Charles macDonald was an actual participant — as the commander of a rifle company — in some of the historical events that he describes. This is no small matter. It gives the author a special sense of time and place; it also helps him to sniff out and discard the inevitable exaggerations, accidents of memory, and even outright fabrications that written recollections and personal reminiscences often bring forward when they emerge long after a historical event. This ability, I believe, to winnow the factual ‘wheat’ from the invented ‘chaff’ is particularly important when an event occupies as important a place in American history as does the Battle of the Bulge.

Gun Position on Elsenborn Ridge

At almost seven hundred and twenty pages, this is not a short or an easy read; in fact, it is exactly what it claims to be: an exhaustive, meticulously-detailed work of military history. As such, it is not a book that will probably suit the tastes of the casual reader. Moreover, for all of Charles MacDonald’s many virtues as a military historian, his obviously American style of writing is workmanlike, accurate, and clearly constructed; it is not, however, particularly artful. In short, he is no John Keegan. Despite this fact, however, for those who are truly interested in the unadorned facts of the Battle of the Bulge, I can think of no better source. In my own case, in fact, after I first read ‘A Time for Trumpets’, it was several years before I felt the need to look at another book about America’s greatest battle. It should also be noted that MacDonald’s work does differ from other well-known treatments of the fighting in the Ardennes in one significant way. Unlike Stephen Ambrose’s ‘Citizen Soldiers’, or John Toland’s ‘Battle’, ‘A Time for Trumpets’ does not attempt to weave the events of the battle into an hour-by-hour narrative whole; instead, MacDonald carefully analyzes one sector of the battlefield at a time. Some readers, of course, will find this literary construction a little confusing. Speaking as a wargamer, however, I found MacDonald’s focused approach extremely coherent and useful; in the end, I suppose that the individual reader’s reaction to the author’s choice of narrative pathways will inevitably come down to a matter of individual taste. finally, to help readers visualize the different characters described in his book, the author includes sixteen pages of period photographs; even more important, at least from my standpoint, there are also a large number of clearly-drawn, easily-readable maps covering the ebb and flow of the battle as it developed along each sector of the front.

Finally, this work by Charles MacDonald, I would argue, probably belongs on the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in 20th century military history. Thus,‘A Time for Trumpets’, despite its unexciting prose is a solidly-written, impeccably-sourced, and wonderfully-detailed examination of the Battle of the Bulge. It is my opinion that even today it remains the single best one-volume treatment of the battle ever published. For this reason, I recommend it highly, particularly for those readers with a serious interest in the military events of World War II. In fact, I submit that if a person has time to read only one book about the winter battle in the Ardennes in 1944, this should be that book.


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