If Joseph Stalin was right about one thing it was his assertion that ‘the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’. Numbers don’t inspire empathy. They don’t tell stories. Nothing exemplifies this principle better than the second world war. The deadliest armed conflict in human history killed an estimated 70 million people or 3 per cent of the world’s population, and yet these numbers will make few people weep. They are difficult to fathom without faces.
James Holland’s greatest strength as a military historian is that he brings humanity to his work — a rare trait in a field of research that can sometimes feel dominated by those obsessed with numbers. Where others recite regiment numbers and calibre sizes, Holland is interested in the men behind the faceless facts.
In Brothers in Arms he invites his readers to follow the Sherwood Rangers, a British tank regiment, on their way from the Normandy beaches into Germany as the second world war came to its bloody conclusion. Drawing on a wide range of sources, he paints a remarkably vivid picture of what his subjects endured and achieved in the closing stages of the conflict.
Like a fly on the white-painted interior wall of the Sherman tank, we observe the hot, fume-filled air that makes the crew choke as the extractor fan struggles to clear the smoke. When the tank is not moving or firing, the stale air reeks of ‘food, sweat and piss’, Holland informs us in his matter-of-fact tone. There was nothing glorious about the slow-moving targets in which his heroes were making their way to the Rhineland.
In the tanks sat men such as the 24-year-old Captain Keith Douglas, possibly the finest poet of the war but a somewhat volatile character.