Writing military history: Damien Lewis


10 November 2020
For Remembrance Day, Damien Lewis, author of SAS Band of Brothers, talks about why its important to remember veterans' stories, and how to write them
Writing military history: Damien Lewis Images

I’m writing this piece in the run-up to Remembrance Day, which reinforces in my mind why it is so important that we authors keep telling vital stories from World War Two. It’s a sad but inescapable fact that veterans are increasingly leaving us – there are so few left alive to relate their stories. With the events they can speak of being decades old, one might question the relevance of their first-hand accounts and recollections today; to the modern, frenetic, dizzying world we inhabit. But not a bit of it. George Orwell – famously perceptive and foresightful - remarked: ‘Whoever controls the past controls the future; who control the present controls the past.’  His words – and the lessons from both world wars – have never been more prescient.

That being said, if history ever becomes preachy or lecturing, it has to my mind lost the plot, not to mention the battle for relevancy today, and before it has even started. Good historic writing deserves to be - has to be – the most gripping, compelling and compulsive reading anyone could ever wish for. Why would it not be? We have characters and narratives and plots offered up from history – from WWII, for example - that would be nigh-on impossible for a fictional writer to ever conjure purely from his or her imagination alone.

As an example, I did an interview recently with a radio show about my new book, SAS Band of Brothers – which is unashamedly popular history telling. My mission self-avowedly is to bring history alive. The interviewer began by saying: ‘This is a quite remarkable tale. In June 1944, the SAS parachuted deep into occupied France, to wreak havoc and mayhem … to prevent Hitler from driving the Allies back into the sea. What happened next is worthy of a Hollywood movie …’ Those last words were music to my ears. The very best historical writing should be just that – worthy of the very best of movies you’ve ever had the pleasure to see.

So how does one achieve that? I approach each book by applying what are largely viewed as fictional techniques to the process of history writing. So, I choose my cast of characters very carefully. I select a sense of time and place very specifically. I identify a narrative and plot-line, and stick to it remorselessly; mercilessly. A reader recently said to me of SAS Band of Brothers: ‘There are so many heroic figures in the book, you could have branched off at any stage to follow their stories.’ He was absolutely right. There are. But the books sticks to the tale of one, twelve-man patrol – the band of brothers – so the reader gets to know and identify with and relate to and care about their wartime story and their fates.

Writers of history books so often approach the subject with the thought foremost in their minds: ‘I know so much about this topic and this era of history, I must get it all down and show how much I know.’ So often, that is their guiding precept. I even read books in which the author pretty much states just that. Good compelling narrative history writing should do the opposite: it should judiciously and rigorously select only those aspects of a particular time that the reader needs to know about, the crucial context to make the story knit together, and restrict itself to that alone. The same with characters, locations and key events.

Stick to these simple, golden rules. Cast of characters: make it small and manageable and crucially a truly memorable bunch. Narrative: make it compelling, make it unroll step-by-step and render it crystal clear. Plot – have as many twists and turns as you like, but make it knit together seamlessly. Historical background and context: be utterly rigorous and include only what the reader needs to bring the story alive and to make it comprehendible in the present day.

Finally, sources. With Coronavirus being the new normal, most archives are sadly closed. Or access is severely limited. But with WWII history, there are always the family members of those portrayed. And they invariably will have guarded and safeguarded their father’s, mother’s or grandparent’s wartime legacy very carefully, and have often listened to their stories at first hand. Reach out to them. I could not have written SAS Band of Brothers without the help of the relatives of all who were on that fateful patrol. Invariably, they want these stories told; they want the legacy to endure; for their loved ones courage and sacrifice to be remembered.

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But our mission as authors isn’t simple to do that. In ensuring the memory endures, we must also bring this history alive. A reviewer on Amazon recently said of SAS Band of Brothers: ‘Awesome, gripping, edge of the seat stuff. If you read nothing else read this!!’

That’s the kind of historical writing I would urge you to aspire to.

SAS Band of Brothers is published by Quercus.


Read more advice from Damien on writing modern military history here.