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Sheer Misery

Soldiers in Battle in WWII

Marching across occupied France in 1944, American GI Leroy Stewart had neither death nor glory on his mind: he was worried about his underwear, which was engaged in a relentless crawl of its own. Similar complaints of physical discomfort pervade infantrymen’s memories of the European theater, whether the soldiers were British, American, German, or French. Wet, freezing misery with no end in sight—this was life for millions of enlisted men during World War II.

Sheer Misery trains a humane and unsparing eye on the corporeal experiences of the soldiers who fought in Belgium, France, and Italy during the last two years of the 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. Feet became too swollen to march, fingers too frozen to pull triggers; stomachs cramped, and diarrhea stained underwear and pants. Turning away from the accounts of high-level military strategy that dominate many WWII chronicles, acclaimed historian Mary Louise 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. As Roberts writes, “For soldiers who fought, the war was above all about their bodies.”

208 pages | 19 halftones, 4 maps | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Gender and Sexuality

History: American History, European History, General History, Military History


“A tightly focused, graphic illustration of the many ways that war is hell. . . . Roberts, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, pulls together brutal accounts from soldiers who participated in the “three campaigns [that] left high-water marks for infantry misery: the 1943-44 winter campaign in the Italian mountains, the summer 1944 battles in Normandy, and the 1944-45 winter battles in northwest Europe.” As the author shows with vivid detail, their trials went far beyond exposure to enemy action. . . . Roberts uses her sources to powerful effect, and the illustrations and photos, while sometimes disturbing, add to the narrative impact.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This accessible account, based on a solid foundation of primary and secondary sources, offers a fascinating window into the world of combat soldiers, shorn of nostalgia. A welcome purchase for libraries, and a must for readers interested in firsthand perspectives of World War II.” 

Library Journal

"In this concise study, Roberts does much to illuminate the responses of soldiers to the conditions of war. . . . Highly recommended."


Sheer Misery is a sheer masterpiece in a genre pioneered by the likes of John Keegan and Paul Fussell. Like them, Roberts writes not about commanders and their strategies but about ordinary soldiers and their sufferings. With a rare blend of warm empathy and cool detachment, she portrays war-fighting not as a romantic tale of guts, glory, and fame, but a wretched trial of tedium, pain, and fear. Gritty, intimate, and compelling, this book makes a major contribution to our understanding of the true character of warfare.”

David M. Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945

"Wonderfully rich. . . The reader is given a vivid sense of what it was like to endure a bombardment, see a dead body for the first time or suffer a wound and its subsequent treatment. By focusing on the everyday misery of the unwashed men on the ground, this study provides a timely reminder that, in the words of another US General, ‘war is hell’."

History Today

Sheer Misery offers a vivid, visceral, and often gruesome picture of battlefield Europe through soldiers’ own words. It stands apart from most books about battle in World War II in that it does not delve deeply into grand strategies or tactics or even follow a close chronological narrative of the campaign. Roberts instead creates 'a somatic history of war' to reveal how the soldier’s body itself became a site of conflict. . . .  Sheer Misery offers a compelling new perspective on battle in World War II and certainly sets aside any sanitized image of the infantryman’s experiences fighting across Western Europe.”

Canadian Journal of History

“Thoroughly researched and skillfully written, Sheer Misery is an extraordinary examination of how American, British, and German soldiers endured the rigors of combat and battled the forces of nature in the campaigns for Italy, France, and the Low Countries. Roberts thoroughly details the essence of fighting in nasty and brutish conditions, the struggle infantrymen faced to stay alive, and the impact of war on their bodies.”

Peter Mansoor, author of The GI Offensive in Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-1945

"An exceptional account of the common soldier's experience during war. The acclaimed historian delves into diaries and letters of enlisted Allied soldiers in Europe, to train her humane and unsparing eye on their corporeal hardship and misery."

The Bookseller

"[An] aptly titled and keenly insightful study of the experience of combat in the Second World War. . . Roberts is an uncommonly perceptive historian of culture, identity, and historically contingent sensibilities. . . . Roberts writes with sensitivity and empathy about common soldiers, and has delved deeply enough into their personal accounts to recreate their mental worlds."


"[Roberts] vividly evokes the horrendous sights of battle, its awful sounds, smells, and feel. . . Her perceptive and enlightening book will reward careful reading by both scholars and general readers interested in the world of combat troops in Europe during the Second World War."

Michigan War Studies Review

Table of Contents


1: The Senses

2: The Dirty Body

3: The Foot

4: The Wound

5: The Corpse


Notes Index

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