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
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.