A Bridge Not Too Far

Travel Stories: On a sunny summer day, novelist Peter Ferry bikes to a Dutch bridge where hundreds of soldiers perished

03.01.14 | 1:25 PM ET

The John Frost BridgeThe John Frost Bridge (Photo: Peter Ferry)

I‘m biking along the Rhine River toward the Dutch city of Arnhem and the German border. There are great, cumulus clouds amidst the swaths of sunny blue in the late-summer sky. There are horses, cows and sheep in the pastures. There are orchards pregnant with fruit. Pears hang so heavily you think they’ll snap their branches. I stop at a farm stand and buy plums that are juicy and sweet.

There are a few signs of what happened here 69 years ago. There is a farm house named “de Aanval”—“the Attack.”  There is a modest memorial listing the names of 42 British soldiers. There is a historical marker.

It was in this quiet, idyllic place that the largest airborne operation in history culminated in a bloody fire fight to the death. The Allied forces hoped to take the bridge at Arnhem and with it, access to Hitler’s Reich. Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery hatched the ambitious plan, and studying it, his second in command, Lt. General Frederick Browning,  said, “I think we may be going a bridge too far.”

Browning turned out to be right. Operation Market Garden failed and the invasion of Germany had to wait until spring, and until after the bloody Battle of the Bulge that winter. In Holland, that period is called the Hunger Winter. Those who survived did so by eating rats and flower bulbs.

Flowers are everywhere around the handsome farms houses I am passing today. So are moored sailboats. The shouts and laughter of young voices emanate from neatly groomed playing fields.

But now from the bike path I can see a church across the river that was a German stronghold. On the beach where a man is throwing a ball for his dogs, a flotilla of small boats rescued more than 2,000 British soldiers who had been pinned and bombarded by two S.S. Panzer divisions. And there, just through the trees, is the bridge at Arnhem. Of course, it’s not the same bridge. The bridge on which so many soldiers from both sides perished was destroyed during the battle.

This one is now “occupied” by Dutch commuters and travelers. Visitors might be unaware of its legacy were it not named The John Frost Bridge after the British paratroop commander who captured and defended it for four days in September. During that time, more than 600 of his 750 troops were killed or wounded while they awaited reinforcements that never came. The wounded Frost surrendered only when he and his men had completely run out of ammunition.

For most of us, the world wars are now ancient history. But there is an argument to be made for visiting this place, or the battlefield at Verdun, or the beaches at Normandy. There is an argument to be made for measuring off in footsteps the places where soldiers have died.

When we do, we know that those soldiers were not very different from ourselves. Not very different at all.

Tonight, I sit beside the river watching the day fade as the lights on the bridge at Arnhem flicker. I try not to feel too proud of my long bike ride. I try not to enjoy too much the cold beer I am drinking. And I try for once not to wonder why we fight wars and kill each other.

Peter Ferry is the author of the novel Old Heart, which Dave Eggers says "has the power to change lives" and Book Week says is a "superbly written, life affirming novel about love and second chances." Ferry is also the author of the novel Travel Writing.

20 Comments for A Bridge Not Too Far

sonia 03.03.14 | 10:04 AM ET

I still have the urge to procrastinate even after reading the blog. There are some—good tips especially about the grants for businesses.Thanks

soniamirja804 03.03.14 | 10:15 AM ET

This is—blog is ok. It is not a wealth of info like I assumed it would be.

Dennis Gino toppin 03.04.14 | 8:23 PM ET

What a great article. I love the way you discribe Arnhem !!

Dennis McCleary 03.05.14 | 3:51 PM ET

Great article.  Painted a beautiful inviting picture, especially being the “biker” that i am.  Love the history of the area.

Lizzie 03.05.14 | 7:37 PM ET

Descriptive and thoughtful. I love the question the author ends the article with and wonder why myself.

Nancy McCleary 03.06.14 | 9:00 AM ET

Lovely. It paints a picture and makes you think.

Dave M 03.06.14 | 1:35 PM ET

This is a nice, poignant little piece of art. To pack so much into (and paint a picture, as Dennis mentions) is difficult to do in a couple hundred words.  Thanks!

Tricia 03.06.14 | 2:09 PM ET

I love how the author ties the history in with this bike ride. Hope I can bike it someday myself to take it all in.

CPM 03.06.14 | 9:33 PM ET

This piece makes me think of so many places we take for granted.  I am sure that I pass important spots everyday and never give them a second thought.  The author makes me want to stop and appreciate history….look beyond the everyday commuting.  I hope to bike the Netherlands and think about those who sacrificed before me.

Pete Ferry 03.07.14 | 10:56 AM ET

Brilliant! This man is clearly a genius!

tohota 03.10.14 | 2:19 AM ET

I love the way to describe this article…

Lawrence Flynn 03.10.14 | 7:50 AM ET

I appreciate the relaxed yet thoughtful tone of this story.  The author subtley moves the reader from a lazy, sunny bike ride into an existential battle. I will visit this Bridge some day—even if it is a Bridge too Far (for me). Great Article. Sad history. Cool author.

Bob G 03.11.14 | 6:18 PM ET

I think this is travel writing at its best—a thoughtful, skillful, and poetic description of a place that inspires in the reader a desire to go there.

Sue 03.12.14 | 4:40 PM ET

If all the articles on WorldHum are as interesting as this one by Peter Ferry, then WorldHum has a new fan.  I’ve been a Peter Ferry fan now for quite a few years, and I hope he continues to share his travels this website.  This particular article inspires me to plan a trip to Holland, Germany, and France, and to get moving on my bike as soon as the snow departs Chicago.

Corinne Mostert 03.16.14 | 10:55 AM ET

Peter succeeds in painting a powerful picture of an important part in Dutch history. He captures the feel of the area really well and cleverly combines fun, facts and “fietsen” (=bikes/biking). It leaves you with a desire to go to Dutchie land to explore and with food for thought. I am looking forward to more travel stories.

Brenda 03.16.14 | 4:27 PM ET

Thanks, Peter.  Once again, your writing creates a world I actually feel I am sharing with you.  The scenes are vivid, and as you reflect upon them, I feel I am part of the conversation.

Kristy of Visa USA 03.19.14 | 8:53 PM ET

I also dream of having a house in a farm where in I can plan as many vegetables as I want and provide fresh food for my family.

Hans Pijlman 03.24.14 | 11:35 AM ET

Thanks Peter for your lively description of a sad story. Not many Dutch people today could tell it more precisely or in a better way. Enjoyed being with you at this spot.

Bre Power Eaton 04.07.14 | 2:31 AM ET

When I travel, I often think of the layers of history I’m walking through. It’s much easier to walk, run, or ride on through the tragedies of our past. I will carry this line with me on future travels—“There is an argument to be made for measuring off in footsteps the places where soldiers have died.” Thanks for sharing.

Tamilnadu Gazette Name Change 04.10.14 | 6:04 AM ET

Awesome post .i hope everybody will like your post

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