Letter from Military History – November 2010

The Shrinking Hill

One of the odd ironies of history is that it’s often regarded as a dead subject, due to its focus on presidents, generals and soldiers who died long ago and often far away. What happened, happened, goes the thinking. It’s sooo over.

True, every actor on history’s stage is, beyond a fixed span of years, surely dead. But history itself is not dead. Facts are stubborn things, but as elements of history, they are not immutable. Far from being static, the past changes all the time.

Case in point: In early August 1944, the German army in northern France, struggling to avoid encirclement by advancing Allied armies, staged a counterattack at the village of Mortain. Panzers and infantry attacked early on the foggy morning of August 7, surprising elements of the U.S. 30th and 4th infantry divisions. The high ground near Mortain was Hill 317, newly occupied by the 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment. A high-value artillery observation point with a view of all the roads around Mortain, the hill was repeatedly and fiercely attacked—and as fiercely defended for nearly six days by four U.S. companies that took 40 percent casualties.

While preparing an article on the heroics at Hill 317, we noticed the hill had apparently shrunk. Immediately after World War II, historical accounts—including the Army’s official “Green Books”—referred to the place as Hill 317 (in the Army style of naming a hill for its height in meters). But between the mid-1980s, in battle accounts published by such historians as Max Hastings and John Keegan, and 2004–09, in accounts published by historians John McManus and Antony Beevor, Hill 317 became Hill 314.

Did the hill itself subside? Did someone misread a map? A 3-meter discrepancy could scarcely affect the history of the battle, but the point is clear: Even facts as seemingly reliable as heights, names and numbers, published in reputable histories, can change.

The shrinking hill is a tiny reminder of how slippery history can be and how new information can alter it: Long hidden letters to a president are revealed. Long classified military secrets are made public. Journals long forgotten in a foreign archive get translated and published. A dedicated scholar spends years studying hitherto unavailable documents, connects the dots anew and emerges with a revolutionary understanding of even an event as well “known” as Napoleon’s failed 1812 invasion of Russia.

So history changes.
 

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