I was with the British Expeditionary Force in France in May of
1940, and if you are prone to reflection, that was about the
worst time and place anybody could have picked if he'd had a
choice — and I did.
I had earned my undergraduate degree in Military History at a
North Carolina University the previous December, and was
contemplating going on to earn a Master's. I had this harebrained
notion I wouldn't make a very good teacher if I didn't have
combat experience. Of course, I was disregarding the well-known
truth that the last person to know what's
really going on is the soldier in the field.
But then I was only twenty-three. I even talked my best friend
from home, Mickey Carelli, into going with me.
"America isn't in this war — the only chance we're gonna
have is in England," I said. "Maybe they'll see the light and
make us officers."
No way was this going to happen, regardless of my education. They
let us in, and we ended up as low in rank as you can get. But we
trained with the best and we went over with the others and we
frequented the pubs and we dated the girls with the gorgeous
complexions. Our first lesson about the army is what happens to
I had studied French, so I was a step ahead of Mickey, who hadn't
even gone to college. French was the best language for my field,
because I could read Marshall Saxe and Napoleon without resorting
to translations — a little German would have been helpful
too, but you can't do everything.
I had a German professor in my senior year. "Military Strategy is
an art, not a science," he would say, at least every other day.
It's difficult to understand how those static axioms which hold
true throughout the ages are not science, especially
when it takes four years to learn them, but once you realize how
complex a battle is, you also begin to realize that knowing the
rules isn't everything. A good commander senses when to use them,
when to combine them, when to discard them, how to take advantage
of what's happening, and how to seize the moment. And at the same
time, always bearing in mind that he can't afford to ignore those
axioms or to forget them, no matter what. It's kind of like what
Chamberlain did on Little Round Top. He saw the box he was in,
and regardless of what his colleagues thought, he was smart
enough to fall back on the most basic axiom of all — the
best defense is a good offense.
Lily Burnham had green eyes and soft brown hair and a bust so
large that slow dancing with her could in no way be termed
casual. Dancing with Lily involved body and mind in one
thing, and it comes in pairs. The weekend before Mickey and I
left for France, I tried my best to get her to sleep with me. "I
love you," I told her, knowing full well I didn't. "When I get
back maybe we can get engaged. Come on, Lily, can't you give me
something to remember?"
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it,
Lily had more sense than I did. "I'll write," she whispered.
"My birthday's in three weeks."
"If they let me, Tom, I'll send you a package. Mickey too."
Mickey too, I mimicked mentally and stifled a groan of
The high drama I was expecting wasn't waiting for us. What was
waiting for us was waiting. Little did I suspect that something
else more important was also waiting — for me. A latent
shield, so ancient in its meaning, was hovering in the future,
ready to manifest itself when it was needed most.
"What are we here for, anyway?" Mickey complained. "If the
Maginot Line is impregnable, there isn't gonna be any action.
Everybody says the Maginot Line is impregnable."
I had a funny feeling about this. "So was Troy," I said. "But it
was defeated. Besides, this war seems to have taken on a new
character. Look how fast Hitler overran Poland — in only a
"Nothing's goin' very fast in France. I'm already tired of the
food. And the landscape."
Every night I read. We weren't allowed to carry much in the way
of personal items, but I had a couple of condensed books that
contained the major writings of Sun-Tzu, Vegetius, Saxe,
Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and von Clausewitz. I read and I
thought — a great deal.
"Hindsight," I mumbled aloud one evening.
"Huh?" Mickey grunted looking up from his solitaire game.
"It's strange — Sun-Tzu said —."
"Sun-Tzu. A famous Chinese strategist. I'm lucky to have some of
his book; it's real rare. He said every battle is won or lost
before it begins. But the only way you can see that is by
looking back after it's over. I guess if you can see the answer
ahead of time, you'd be a great general. Only they didn't always
do it right either. Lee screwed up at Gettysburg."
"Yeah?" Mickey shrugged. "What's it to us? We aren't generals.
Hell, Tom, we aren't even officers."
We were situated below Lille between the First and Seventh French
Armies. The very name of the village made me grit my teeth
— Lille was a bit too much like Lily and
right now that name was anything but a pleasant memory.
When things started happening, they happened faster than Mickey
or I could have imagined. We were to move up to the Dyle River in
support — the Germans had broken through the Little Maginot
at Sedan, which wasn't even properly manned, and the Ardennes
Forests had not protected the boundaries in the least. Decades of
theory were blown apart in a couple of days.
I didn't know exactly what kind of movements were taking place,
being in the ranks, but it doesn't take brains to read a map. The
Germans were surrounding us, cutting us off, and I don't think
any army in that position is a happy army.
"They've turned us," I told Mickey, who looked at me with a blank
face. "They've gotten around us to the rear. They've turned the
damn Maginot Line."
"But Tom, I thought nobody could break through the Maginot Line."
"They didn't, Mickey. They turned it. They came by way of that
forest — the one they weren't supposed to be able to get
tanks through. Only they did."
"Huh. Okay. Say, Tom, there sure are a lot of rivers around
I looked at him, puzzled. "What brought that up?"
"Every time something bad happens we have to fall back to a
river. Another river. All with funny names."
And if I survive this, I'll have to know those names, I thought.
Every last one of them.
By May 13 there was panic and confusion, refugees were everywhere
— then an order came to retreat. Mud on our boots, on our
faces; insects chasing us in the evenings — my legs were so
tired I had cramps from my knees to my buttocks. "Don't let go of
your machine gun, Mickey," I kept saying, as if that one thing
could make all the difference.
I saw my first real action in a minor counterattack carried out
by the British on May 21. It was over so fast I don't remember
much about it except the exhilaration I felt over a victory so
insignificant we had to retreat again.
"Hell, Tom," Mickey said. "I thought we won."
"I guess it didn't do any good."
We were so worn out by then we couldn't do much more than trudge
wearily forward, following whoever was in front of us. I was
surprised I was still alive. I didn't feel alive — not with
all the strafing going on and the constant drone of German planes
that clung to us like a swarm of persistent mosquitoes.
I didn't read now; any chance we had we rested or ate or slept on
the ground. Mickey had ceased his endless solitaire games; a few
days before he had complained about being short a card. All I
cared about was keeping my hands on that machine gun.
Then we got what should have been good news, but wasn't. We were
going to be called home — to England. The Belgians had
"We're goin' home," a comrade crowed. "Keep your spirits up,
Yanks; they'll have boats for us."
"No kidding," I said. And we learned that while we were trying,
in poor order, to reach a little port called Dunkirk, the Germans
had gotten to the Channel and were in hot pursuit.
"Bloody hell. They're only ten miles behind us. I heard they're
already at Calais," a Brit said morosely.
"That ain't the problem," his companion interrupted.
"That's the problem," he said as he stuck
his finger up in the air. I gulped, realizing what he meant. The
Luftwaffe would be over Dunkirk, dive-bombing the
beaches and the boats.
"Goddam Stukas," I muttered. "We'll be sitting ducks."
"Our boys'll be up there too, Yank, giving 'em what for."
And our backs are to the sea, I thought, with nowhere to go but
on it — or in it.
That was the point at which I began to be afraid. Mickey, being a
regular guy, had been jumpy all along, while I considered myself
to be there to analyze, to soak up atmosphere. But I understood
what a serious predicament we were in by then, and I don't think
Mickey really did. If we made it to Dunkirk, would we make it the
rest of the way? And what then? I decided I had had
We were almost too tired to breathe, inhaling and exhaling in
shallow gasps. My knuckles were sore from holding my gun in such
a tight grip. But I wouldn't loosen it. If I did, I was sure
everything would be over.
I saw myself dead on that beach, after trying desperately to
crawl to a boat; I recoiled at my sightless eyes open and fixed
on the destruction around me; I felt myself drowning in blood and
water in the Channel while our Spitfires engaged the German
fighters and the Stukas obliterated the vessels on the surface
That was my vision; the reality was standing in line for hours,
exposed to gunfire and explosives, and waiting our turn to cross
that beach to salvation. Meanwhile the enemy was busy destroying
We waited for days until it was finally time to go. We lifted our
feet methodically one at a time, wet granules clinging to our
boots, bullets making ridges in the sand on either side of us
Something thudded into the back of my leg and it went out from
under me. I was face down, my mouth full of sand and debris, my
right hand still holding that almighty machine gun. A solid body
landed on top of me — Mickey was yelling, "It's okay, Tom,
I'll cover you!"
"Mickey, no!" I screamed. My leg started to hurt; I could feel
blood running down it. Oh, God, Mickey's dead, I thought. He
shouldn't have done that — the idiot.
Then I heard a chuckle. "They can't hit nothing, Tom," Mickey
said. "Come on, I'll help you up."
I struggled to my feet, aware that the sound of gunfire had
subsided. Smoke from the remains of the port city covered the
beach, combining with fog. The Stukas couldn't see to fire.
"Let go of the damn gun, Tom," Mickey gasped. "You're heavy
enough as it is."
I ignored him as he half-dragged, half-walked me to the edge of
"That's our ride?" I asked, in astonishment.
"That little motor launch?"
"Shut up, Tom. Get in and lie down."
I obeyed. I lay there staring up at the dreary sky, hearing the
hum of planes, temporarily minus the continuous firing. Mickey
huddled next to me. I vaguely noticed he hadn't let go of
his gun either.
The boat slowly made its way to the waiting transport and all I
could think of was Sun-Tzu's writings; the part where he
discussed at length the advantage of sunlight, of facing
sunlight, of being in the sun, especially on certain types of
ground — like hills. You wanted the shields to reflect in
the enemy's eyes, rather than your own. Or was I confused about
the shields? Maybe it was the Roman Vegetius who said that. So
inapplicable in 1940 — and yet — wasn't it the lack
of sun that had saved my life? When we neared the larger ship, a
bit of bronze sunlight filtered through for a moment, reflecting
on the stern. I watched it while they lifted us from the small
boat, and I watched that little sliver of sunlight all the way to
I would be a good teacher. Not because I had experienced a taste
of combat, but because I had learned how unpredictable a battle
can be. Who could have foreseen the importance of an overcast
sky? ... a sky like a latent shield, waiting for the best
possible moment to protect me from the worst consequence of war
Then I began to wonder if everything Sun-Tzu said should be taken
literally. Maybe he didn't intend his writings to be taken
literally. Didn't he say "... as water has no constant form,
there are in war no constant conditions"? An interesting thought
— and an intriguing way to begin a discussion.
When the doctors said I would have a permanent limp, I was given
a desk job translating French. Mickey went to North Africa with
the Expeditionary Force. He fought at Tobruk, then re-enlisted
with the Americans and served with them in Italy. He survived the
whole damn war without a scratch.
I knew that someday I would study the amazing campaign I had
taken part in, and would conquer every detail. I would look back
and see every mistake, every wrong move, every miscalculation. I
would explain to my students why the blitzkrieg was so
effective. And I would recount the statistics relating to men and
tank and artillery and planes — and considering the loss of
so much equipment, express how glad I was that Mickey and I had
brought our guns back. And then I would tell the dramatic story
of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers rescued from that beach.
But what I would remember most was watching that slice of
sunlight breaking through the clouds and smoke and fog
late enough to keep me alive and get me first to
England and finally back to America, where Mickey and I were
reunited in 1945.
Two years later, Mickey enrolled in school under the GI Bill and
took my first World History class.
by Mary Brunini McArdle
... who is a freelance writer of fiction, nonfiction, poems, and
plays, with numerous awards and extensive publication credits;
she has also taught poetry and military strategy at the
University of Alabama in Huntsville. This story, in an earlier
iteration entitled "Hindsight", won the Second
Place prize in the Historical Fiction category of the 1999
Mid-South Regional Writers' Contest.