The Deserters, a Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass was published in 2013. As the title states, it is the true story of a part of World War II which most people today are not even aware of. We are so inundated with heroic stories of “the Greatest Generation” , that many readers will find it shocking to find out that over 150,000 American and British soldiers deserted in the European Theater.
However, do not dismiss these men as cowards. The deserters were not soldiers who refused to fight. They were combat hardened men who had seen huge amounts of fighting and death . The vast majority of the deserters came from the front line rifle companies, which had to bear the brunt of the war. The author notes a staggering statistic that, “the infantry, barely 14 percent of the total American Military presence in Europe suffered 70 percent of the casualties.” Infantry troops were sent back into combat again and again, with no “tours of duty” or rotation home. They were in combat until they were killed or the war ended. Most assumed they would not see the end of the war.
Many of the troops who deserted suffered from what today we would call “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”. The author focuses in detail on three of the men who deserted from different units, and who he was able to interview for the book. They all speak of being in a daze when they walked away from the front line and not really even remembering doing it. One of them walked away after he saw his fellow soldiers robbing the dead bodies of men from their own unit who had been killed in battle only a few minutes before.
What happened to the 150,000 deserters after they left their units became a major problem for the high command. They gravitated to the liberated cities like Paris, still had their weapons with them, and were tough as nails. Many joined criminal gangs and successfully robbed supply convoys. The replacement troops with no combat experience who were guarding the convoys were not a match for these men.
This is a fascinating, and well documented book which we highly recommend to any history buffs, or people who wonder what they would to in this same situation. Before you answer too quickly that you would never desert, read what these men faced and honestly ask yourself whether you could do the same.
Given the death and causality statistics the amazing part is not that some men deserted, but that the vast majority of the front line troops did not. Now an old man, one of the deserters actually tried to go the reunion of his unit last year. His rationale was that the amount of time he had spent in combat before his desertion more than qualified him to be part of the group. The other tough old veterans who made up the remaining contingent of his unit, made it very clear to the deserter that he was not welcome.