This is one of those books I've picked up numerous times and regardless of the page I open to, I always find myself engrossed. Ellis explores in fascinating detail the experience of the front-line Allied soldier in WW2. His particular focus is on the combat but he also looks at the many elements that affected the lives of a soldier. These include the often extreme conditions of the various theatres, discipline, morale, attitudes and even relaxation.
In terms of examining the combat experiences, Ellis looks separately at the three main fighting arms; infantry, armour and artillery. All had tough wars but it is clear the infantrymen had the hardest job of all. Ellis has many sobering accounts and statistics which demonstrate that being a casualty in this branch was almost inevitable. The figures also highlight how few men actually served in rifle companies and how horrendous the casualty rates in these were.
A major strength of this book is the personal recollections the author has selected from the men who did the fighting. They are very powerful and leave the reader in no doubt as to the danger and day-to-day difficulty of the job. Living in a wet, cold (or hot) hole with poor food and inadequate clothing was just the start. In addition, most Allied troops fought their war attacking their enemy and were frequently exposed to high volumes of deadly fire as they made their final assaults. Ellis notes that most men managed to do their duty but many found it too hard. The experience of replacements was particularly wrenching.
Ellis keeps his examination to the experiences of US and British Commonwealth troops. While the bulk are from British and US sources there are also many contributions from Canadians, Australians, Indians and others. These allow a very widespread look at the many diverse conditions encountered. Most extracts are taken from letters, diaries and memoirs but Ellis has also identified some remarkable passages in unit histories and a host of material from official surveys taken during the war. It is all very well chosen and extremely informative. In many respects the awfulness of combat in WW2 is told in the words of the men who fought it, with Ellis very skillfully weaving them together by theme. He also makes clear that WW2 was at least as deadly, and sometimes even more so than WW1. Overall, this is a superb examination of what it meant to be a front-line soldier in WW2.
This particular edition has an extensive postscript where Ellis incorporates material published following his first edition in 1980. He is particularly impressed with Sledge's `With the Old Breed' and Manchester's `Goodbye Darkness' but there are others too. The book is strong in the first instance but these additions make this particular edition even better. Very highly recommended!