Trail of Hope
The Anders Army, an Odyssey across Three Continents
Osprey, New York, 2015, 600 pages
Book Review published on: July 14, 2017
Poland is often overlooked in World War II history. After the German and Soviet invasions of 1939, Poland faded from western consciousness as the dramas of the Battles of France and Britain took precedence. However, much happened in Poland between the fall of the country and Operation Barbarossa two years later. Among other things, four hundred thousand Polish citizens from the eastern half of the country were forcibly moved to Soviet labor camps—the Gulags—for being anticommunist, aristocratic, too connected to foreigners, or for being a teacher, officer, politician of any party, or a state employee of any kind. Norman Davies, an accomplished and beloved English historian of Poland, tracks these deportees on a remarkable journey.
Once Germany went to war with the Soviet Union in 1941, this massive Polish community became a potential source of soldiers. Some eighty thousand would join what would eventually become the Polish II Corps under Gen. Władysław Anders and fight in the Middle East and Italy before scattering across the world. Trail of Hope tracks this Polish army, along with its tens of thousands of civilian hangers on, through its recruitment and mustering in Central Asia, training and equipping in Iran, fighting in North Africa and Italy, and afterlife in Britain, Poland, and elsewhere with rich detail, personal stories, and deep sympathy and admiration for the suffering of Poles during World War II.
The Anders army began recruiting in 1941 after Stalin decided to allow the formation of a Polish army. Recruitment took place in the vast Soviet Gulag system and required Poles to travel thousands of miles to assembly points, often forced to leave family and other loved ones behind in the inhospitable Soviet Union. Davies uses dozens of lengthy excerpts from diaries, letters, memoirs, and other personal accounts to drive home the heartache and courage involved with the army.
Once his army was assembled, Anders was able to take it to Iran, which his soldiers and the family members who managed to accompany the army saw as a paradisiacal refuge after their time in Russia. After recovering from the ordeal and travel, Anders’s corps was attached to the British army for the invasion of Italy. It was in this capacity that they were involved with their most notable feat of arms, the capture of the Monte Cassino monastery, possibly the most difficult military operation during the Italian Campaign. As the war wound down, Anders and his soldiers found that they could not return to Poland, as Stalin and the new Soviet-influenced Polish government viewed them as suspect and unwelcome. As a result, they scattered to South America, New Zealand, Africa, and Great Britain, eventually integrating into those societies.
Davies is an extremely sympathetic and insightful historian, with a commanding knowledge of Polish history and culture. Trail of Hope is something of a passion project for Davies, who traveled through central Asia, the Middle East, Italy, and Britain for research and to find the Polish diaspora community the Anders army left in its wake. Davies’s enthusiasm comes through clearly, though he could use a clearer argument for his book. Still, the broad scope of this work, richly illustrated with historical and contemporary pictures and maps, makes Trail of Hope is extremely enjoyable. It is a must read for those interested in Polish history, World War II, or diaspora communities.
Book Review written by: John E. Fahey, PhD, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York