Marching across occupied France in 1944, American GI Leroy Stewart had neither death nor glory on his mind: he was worried about his underwear. "I ran into a new problem when we walked," Stewart wrote, "the shorts and I didn't get along. They would crawl up on me all the time." Crawling underwear may have been a small price to pay for the liberation of millions of people, but in the utter wretchedness of the moment, it was quite natural for soldiers like Stewart to lose sight of that end.
In Sheer Misery: Soldiers in Battle in WWII (U Chicago Press, 2021), Mary Louise Roberts focuses on the corporeal experiences of the soldiers who fought in Belgium, France, and Italy during the last two years of the Second World War. In the horrendously unhygienic and often lethal conditions of the front line, their bodies broke down, stubbornly declaring their needs for warmth, rest, and good nutrition. Turning away from the accounts of high-level military strategy that dominate many WWII histories, Roberts instead relies on diaries and letters to bring to life visceral sense memories like the moans of the "screaming meemies," the acrid smell of cordite, and the shockingly mundane sight of rotting corpses.
Told in inimitable style by one of our most distinctive historians of the Second World War, Sheer Misery, published by the University of Chicago Press, gives readers both an unprecedented look at the ground-level world of the common soldier and a deeply felt rendering of the experience of being a body in war.
Douglas Bell is a historian who focuses on American military history, American foreign policy, German history, and European Studies.
Douglas Bell is a historian who focuses on American military history, American foreign policy, German history, and European Studies