Everyone knows who Steven Ambrose is. No? Well, he’s the historian and author behind critically acclaimed World War II books like Band of Brothers, which inspired the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg TV miniseries of the same name. Ambrose also wrote Citizen Soldiers, a book which focused on the experiences of the Americans on the ground and in the trenches in the European theater. My father bought me this book nearly 10 years ago, and while I read it as a child, playing COH brought everything in the book back fresh as the morning dew. In fact, I reread it recently and just couldn’t put it down. That’s what happens with great WWII books and COH — one builds off the other, and it’s a testament to the fundamental truthfulness and authenticity of COH, a combination that has assured this game a place in gaming history. It doesn’t excuse Relic from any of their stumbles, but COH were less wonderful, we the fans wouldn’t care as much about it, nor would we be so impassioned by its imperfections.
But as usual, I digress. To understand why Citizen Soldiers is so unstoppably good for a COH player to read, just check out this excerpt: “Attack teams consisted of one tank, an engineer team, a squad of riflemen, plus a light machine gun and a 60mm mortar. The Sherman opened the action. It plowed … into the hedgerow, stuck the cannon through, and opened fire with a white phosphorus round into the corners of the opposite hedgerow, intended to knock out German dug-in machine-gun pits.”
You can picture precisely what this looks like in COH, and the game versions of such units are not far from the real deal.
Read on to learn about what white phosphorus is, and why Ambrose describes it as “horror.”
Well, I shan’t leave you hanging. “White phosphorus was horror. Lt. Robert Weiss got caught in a rare German barrage of white phosphorus shells (rare because the German supply was insufficient). He recalled the bursting of the shell, followed by ‘a snowstorm of small, white particles that floated down upon us. We looked in amazement, and our eyes filled with instant terror. Where the particles landed on shirts and trousers they sizzled and burned. White phosphorus! We brushed our clothing frantically, pushed shirt collars up. If any of the stuff touched the skin, it could inflict a horrible burn, increasing in intensity as it burrowed into a man’s flesh…”
It makes you wish white phosphorus was in the game, doesn’t? Perhaps available in rifle grenade form, to dispense in great numbers against those nasty tier 2 Wehrmacht Bunkers/Paks/Grenadiers/MG42 formations? Oh yeah… and Citizen Soldiers is chock full of anecdotes like this, descriptions of what the real deal is like.
But of course when it comes to the real deal, Ambrose doesn’t flinch when describing atrocities, and does so in an even-handed manner. The Americans’ sins aren’t left unwritten just because we’re on the right side of history. “In the November fighting, Lieutenant Fussell’s infantry platoon came on a deep crater in a forest where a squad or two of German soldiers, some 15 to 20 men, were gathered. ‘Their visible wish to surrender–most were in tears of terror and despair–was ignored by our men lining the rim,’ Fussell later wrote. As the Germans held their hands high, Fussell’s men, ‘laughing and howling, hoo-ha-ing and cowboy and good-old-boy yelling, exultantly shot into the crater until every single man down there was dead … If a body twitched or moved at all, it was shot again. The result was deep satisfaction, and the event was transformed into amusing narrative, told and retold over campfires all that winter.'”
Much of the book is composed of stories like this, with lengthy quotes from the diaries of real soldiers, or actual interviews with surviving veterans. There’s an authenticity here that matches COH’s and goes beyond the game into the pixelated little men who fight and die for you every time you start a match.
Citizen Soldiers is a perfect companion piece to COH and I highly recommend it. The paperback version is more than 500 pages long and includes more than 40 pages of black-and-white photographs, many showing historical versions of COH units. You can buy a copy for a mere $12 from Amazon.com via the Rifles Ready! Store, which will in turn help us out a lot. Once you click the link, look for our Amazon bookstore widget at the top right of the page.