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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.”

An audiobook version is available.

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


Marching victoriously across France with his infantry regiment in 1944, GI Leroy Stewart had neither death nor glory on his mind. Instead he was worried about his underwear. “I ran into a new problem when we walked . . . the shorts and I didn’t get along. They would crawl up on me all the time.” Complaints like Stewart’s pervade infantry memory of the European theater of operations during World War II, whether the soldier was British, American, German, or French. Wet, freezing misery with no end in sight—this was life for millions of infantrymen in Europe. Creeping underwear may have been a small price to pay for the liberation of millions of people. And yet, in the wretchedness of the moment, soldiers like Stewart lost sight of that end.
Like death, misery exercised perfect equality, taking no side. Officers planned the battles; foot soldiers suffered them. As a result, officers and infantrymen had different views of the soldier’s body. “Snow, ice and cold were more brutal enemies than the Germans,” noted Major General Ernest Harmon of the cold in the Ardennes. “By the end of the battle Jack Frost had put more than twice as many of my soldiers in the hospital as German guns.” Harmon sees the cold in strategic terms: as an enemy taking men off the line. By contrast, British tank driver Bill Bellamy described the same weather this way: “It was too cold to see without goggles and yet impossible to wear them as they froze on to your nose. If you took them off in order to have a clear view, your eyes filled with tears, which either froze to your face or failing that, your eyelids froze shut.” Bellamy knew his body as a source of sensation. His eyes were tearing; his eyelids were freezing; his vision was impaired. The major general, on the other hand, knew Bellamy’s body as an abstract unit of violent force. If a body suffered too much cold, it could be rendered nonviolent.
The difference was by no means clear-cut. Officers at lower levels of command—platoon leaders, sergeants—not only witnessed infantry suffering but experienced it themselves. As the war progressed, these officers gained commissions, rising through the ranks. Even when they had more authority, they could not forget what they had seen and felt on the front lines. In taking on intermediary command positions, they were forced to balance competing objectives: to keep everyone alive at the platoon level while completing missions at the division level and above. All commanders wanted their men to be warm, rested, and well-fed, for these factors favored victory. Visiting wounded soldiers in a Sicilian hospital, General George Patton told his diary that he had “emoted” out of admiration for their nobility of sacrifice. But in speaking of one badly wounded soldier, he warned himself: “He was a horrid bloody mess and not good to look at, or I might develop personal feelings about sending men into battle. That would be fatal for a general.” Patton claimed that leadership required abstraction of men’s bodies. But that did not mean he didn’t recognize or care for them as human beings.
Still many infantrymen complained that high command didn’t give a damn about their misery. Infantry soldiers resented the disparity between their dirty foxholes and the tidy beds of their superiors. GI George Neill remembered sitting with his buddy at Bastogne in December 1944. The cold went through their bodies as they each lay in a fetal position and shivered. While “turning, trying to find relief from the overwhelming discomfort,” Neill promised his friend he would write “a detailed account of this suffering after the war. The public and the rest of the army should know what this is really like.”
What was it really like? Answering that question is in one sense impossible. We can never really know how the war sounded or smelled, what misery felt like. War memoirs are notoriously subjective and often inaccurate, particularly those written several years after the war. And yet “what is remembered in the body is well-remembered,” as one critic has claimed. In the 1990s, Robert Conroy gathered testimonies of his company’s engagement in the Battle of the Ardennes. He noticed that while memory of the facts of various battles had dimmed, “the details with respect to record-breaking cold weather, inadequate clothing and equipment, body-weakening dysentery, frozen feet, horrific sounds of incoming shells and bullets snapping through nearby trees, hunger, bone-weary fatigue” were still sharp. It was “just as if it all happened yesterday,” wrote Conroy. “I consider these images seared on the brain.” While personal testimony is often unreliable, sense memories are indelibly vivid.
What we can recover are shared meanings about the sounds and smells of the battlefield; the taste of rations; the dirt, cold, and wet of the front; war injuries and wounds; the sight of a corpse. How, for example, did soldiers use their senses to make sense of new forms of artillery? What did dirt signify in basic training, and how did that change in the wet and cold of the Italian mountains? Why did some soldiers consider it unmanly to be treated for an injury? How did cold injuries such as trench foot come to symbolize both endurance and betrayal? What kinds of wounds did men consider the best and worst to get and why? Soldiers created a language of sense meaning in order to make comprehensible—and hence to negotiate—the alien world into which they had been thrown. As one historian has put it, “Meaning comes to a great extent through the senses.”9 How frontline soldiers understood their bodies—as well as the dirty, dead, and wounded bodies around them—shaped their experience of the war. Despite stark differences of ideology, language, and culture, such meanings showed remarkable consistency among soldiers of different armies. If misery transcended national barriers, so did the meanings made of misery.
What follows is a loosely structured set of essays that aim to recover these shared meanings. Together they compose a field of historical knowledge: a somatic history of war. The enormity of the conflict demands a limited focus; thus, this book attends to Europe during the last two years of battle during World War II. In that place and time, three campaigns 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.

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