I am just finishing Max Hastings extraordinary history of the Second World War ‘Inferno: The World at War 1939-45, published as ‘All Hell Let Loose’ in the UK. It is extraordinary, because not only does it show his consumate gift for narrative, for historically balanced judgments, but it is a story largely from the ground up. It is the view of the victims, of the ordinary soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, often told in their own words and often told after their deaths in letters sent home or found on their bodies. And it is scathing about the strategic military incompetence of so many war time leaders who caused so many unnecessary deaths, not just be starting the war, but by pursuing it so incompetently and pointlessly in many cases.
Here is an example of the view from below:
This is a letter I hoped you would never receive…Tomorrow we go into action. As yet we do not know exactly what our job will be, but no doubt it will be a dangerous one in which lives will be lost – mine may be one of those lives. Well, Mum, I am not afraid to die. I like this life, yes – for the past two years I have planned and dreamed and mapped out a perfect future for myself. I would have liked that future to materialize, but it is not what I will but what God wills, and if by sacrificing all this I leave the world slightly better than I found it I am perfectly willing to make that sacrifice. Don’t get me wrong though, Mum, I am no flag waving patriot….England’s a great little country – the best there is – but I cannot honestly say it is worth fighting for. Nor can I fancy myself in the role of gallant crusader fighting for the liberation of Europe. It would be a nice thought, but I would only be kidding myself. No, Mum, my little world is centered around you and including Dad, everyone at home, and my friends in Wolverhampton – That is worth fighting for – and if by doing so it strengthens your security and improves your lot in any way, then it is worth dying for too.
Send by Ivor Rowberry 22 year old trainee accountant killed late in the war, while serving as a signaller for the South Staffordshire Regiment of the British Army.
And of course, by this stage the outcome was certain and German troops in the West were fighting in a way that resulted in even more of their country being devastated by the Red Army.
Tommies of the South Staffs, 1944: