From Italy to Dachau with Alex Kershaw
No matter how many history books or first-hand accounts you read through, chances are that you’ll never really be able to come close to truly understanding what soldiers experience on the frontlines. Naturally, going to war ourselves to find out isn’t exactly a bright idea, so we are mostly limited to movies and literature to try and create a construct of what it’s supposed to be like. In my opinion, too many authors and movie directors aren’t interested in telling a story objectively, as it really happened; there are always some sensationalizations or omissions of detail to fit a certain narrative, one designed to get a reaction from the audience. Thankfully, there are still authors like Alex Kershaw who aim to bring us stories from the war in as much authenticity and accuracy as possible, as he did in his book The Liberator.
To explain it briefly, this book chronicles the journey of the 157th Infantry across Europe, centred specifically on one individual: Felix Sparks. He and his men have carved a path for the Allies through Italy and made their way all the way through Europe into Bavaria, where they became the liberators of the infamous Dachau concentration camp. From July 1943 until the end of the war, we follow this band of brothers as they experience war in all of its maddening realism, telling a tale that is more grim and spiritually desolating than hopeful. This is war as it truly happened through the eyes of a few men who have seen more than anyone should. A word of warning, The Liberator is not for the faint of heart, exposing the horrific depths of human nature that are within reach for us all.
A Cruel Accuracy
Alex Kershaw has garnered quite a reputation for his books on the Second World War, and I believe it’s one he fairly deserves. To begin with, the amount of research put into writing this biography is nothing short of amazing. Whenever you feel like you have a question about why something happened or how something worked, it seemingly gets answered within a few lines of text. The amount of detail in describing the soldiers and life on the frontlines from their perspective is simply astonishing and basically leaves no stone unturned. We feel the creeping terror during those long periods of downtime, the heart-pounding intensity of engagement, and the absolute madness that can overtake any man upon seeing the horrors at Dachau.
Despite writing the book with a more conventional narrative (as an increasing number of historical non-fiction authors are choosing to do) for the sake of our entertainment, the truth always takes precedence over everything. As a matter of fact, Kershaw assembled an impressive collection of letters by Sparks and his men, as well as interviews with the man himself to recreate the odyssey he had travelled. I would actually go as far as arguing that this may be one of the, if not the most detailed account of the man’s journey through the theater of war.
An Uncompromising Portrait
Now lest you think that this book is only a chronicle of events, it’s actually just as much about painting a loyal portrait of Sparks who was nothing if not a special kind of man. He was the kind of man who always endeavored to lead by example and cared for the lives of each and every soldier under his command; for him, with each death came the loss of a brother. He was the sort of leader that other men would gladly follow into the deepest bowels of hell, even if they knew it was only a one-way-ticket. He inspired many, and despite suffering like everyone from the onslaught of a traumatic campaign, still persevered in his duty and remained an honorable soldier until the very end.
We get about as uncompromising a look as possible into his mind as it processes the eye-opening changes that come with the war, and especially the liberation of the camp. This isn’t the kind of story that has a happy and hopeful ending, nor does it seek to glamorize war in any way. It’s a story of deaths piled one on top of the other, of terrified and broken souls lost amidst the rotting corpses of human depravity. There isn’t really any glory or pride to be found, only the revealing account of what men do to each other for reasons that surpass them. It’s a study of the war as much as it is of the human condition, one that has undoubtedly shed light on people and battles that would have otherwise been forgotten forever.
The Final Verdict
To conclude, The Liberator is not only a biographical work of the highest quality in terms of research and writing, but also one of great importance as it will help preserve in the annals of history many stories destined to be forgotten. It’s perhaps the most complete portrait of Felix Sparks yet, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys non-fictional World War II biographies even a little bit.
Alex Kershaw is a British author whose subject of specialty is the Second World War, having published the best-sellers The Bedford Boys and The Longest Winter. He has also published numerous journalism reports and interviewed many interesting subjects including Frank Zappa, Garry Kasparov, and a large number of World War II veterans. His book The Liberator, detailing the journey of Felix Sparks, is being developed into an eight-part series by The History Channel.