It was Paul Fussell in his magisterial Wartime who picked out the pivotal moment when the American authorities realised what they were dealing with in the Second World War. They issued an edict that servicemen should no longer be issued with white underpants. The war in all its messy, scrappy detail – sniping and scuffling in the vegetable gardens of Western Europe by ordinary soldiers – has always been more difficult to convey than the grand strategies of the generals who sent them there.
John Gimlette has found a useful and novel way to do so. He accompanies an American veteran, Putnam Flint, as he retraces the US advance on the second French front, from Marseille to Germany. What could have been a laboured device is kept fresh by the clarity of Flint's memories, and his readiness to reveal what the poor buggers on the front line really thought.
Arriving in Germany was a relief to many of Flint's tank-destroyer companions, who had loathed the French: "The Germans were cleaner, more progressive and more ambitious. People like us." And they got sausage meat for breakfast.
Perhaps this was due to the fact that more Germans had emigrated to the US than from any other European country. The Americans were coming home, to a familiar land with Protestant, carnivorous inhabitants who drank beer. French rural women had failed to impress ("clomping around in their wooden shoes and slinging manure"), but German women were "nicely shaped, dressed and coiffured", like Hitchcock blondes.
Not even Paris had moved them. Despite sex being "cheaper than chocolate", they agreed with Isaiah Berlin's assessment of the city as "hollow and dead, like an exquisite corpse". Every soldier was issued with a guide to Parisian brothels. As General Patton put it: "A soldier who won't fuck won't fight." The whores would gather at army truck stops, running their hands through a man's hair to check for lice.
Gimlette has a gift for travel writing with details of the most intimate kind, the small change and ammunition of a soldier's life. The publishers have chosen an ill-advised and lurid cover. But Panther Soup – the title refers to the mud of Western Europe in which the armoured divisions brawled – is a subtle book, with telling testimony from the survivors of what it was actually like to fight a war with few rules – and in, of course, khaki-coloured underpants.
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