Friday, October 07, 2005

Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, by Richard Holmes, Harper Collins Publishers.

The typical British soldier has long been called "Tommy" – much like "Johnny Canuck" or the American "G.I. Joe." Most famouslyknown via Rudyard Kipling's sardonic poem:

"It's Tommy this, And Tommy that, and 'Tommy go away!'
But it's 'The Savior of 'is country,' when the guns begin to play."

The term originated from "Thomas Atkins," a for-instance example provided in military clerical instructions. Now this traditional nickname is used as the title of a magnificent new historical tribute to the millions of ordinary soldiers who fought in the First World War. "Tommy," by Richard Holmes.

Reviewed by Simon Heffer, Country Life Magazine.

Richard Holmes here takes a radically different approach, and in doing so has cast a fresh perspective on a catastrophe that becomes harder and harder for successive generations to comprehend.

Tommy describes almost every aspect of the life of the British soldier in France and Flanders. Starting with how he was recruited and trained, we follow him to the trenches. We learn how the trenches themselves were dug and maintained, and the minutiae of his routine, whether as private soldier, non-commissioned officer or officer. We hear how he spent his leisure time, how his spiritual needs were catered for, and how he conducted relationships with his comrades, superiors and inferiors.

Most poignantly, we are told how he was treated when wounded, how he died and what happened to him after his death. The result is a riveting, thorough and detailed picture of everyday life that goes way beyond the description of dates, politics and military manoeuvres typical of much other history. Prof Holmes has delved into the published and un- published diaries, letters and memoirs of soldiers of all ranks to find his basic information: and another of the fine qualities of this book is the way in which the soldiers speak for themselves. He also uses the facts he unearths to lay to rest some myths about the First World War.

For example, for all the hell of the trenches, many men enjoyed it. Some were properly fed and clothed for the first time. Many discovered a comradeship that, if they survived the conflict, would last for decades beyond it. The supposed rigidities of the class system, with officers distant from men, were far from the truth: the affection each felt for the other is manifest in many of the extracts Prof. Holmes quotes. Both officers and men were judged on their merits: cliche though it be, the war was a great leveller. Another myth was that generals had cushy wars while the men they commanded did all the suffering. In fact, a high proportion of generals — nearly 60 — were killed on active service.

The author explains the culture that grew up as a result of the war: the marching songs, the slang, the food. If you seek the origins of the words 'chat', 'Blighty' or 'bully beef' you will find them here. He also continually presents the reader with astonishing facts: such as that the most decorated other rank of the First World War was a stretcher bearer, L-Cpl Bill Coltman, whose principles would not al low him to bear arms. Happily, this Victoria Cross winner survived and returned to his peacetime job as a gardener.

While the author catalogues the horror of life for the Poor Bloody Infantry and the artillery, he also records the acts of heroism of engineers, signallers and tank crews. Nor will many readers have been aware of the use of the cavalry charge in what was an increasingly mechanised war, but the feats of that branch of the service are well recorded, too.

Prof. Holmes deserves his reputation as a great military historian. This, like his other books, is a serious work of scholarship that is also eminently readable and utterly fascinating. It is perhaps the finest book on the First World War that I have ever read. -- Simon Heffer.

The book also reflects the dissatisfaction he feels at the way we still remember it. Too often we approach World War I through the literature it inspired. The poems of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and others have their own truths to offer, but Holmes would dispute the assumption that they represent the experiences of the majority of those who endured the trench warfare of the Western Front.

To discover new voices and new perspectives on the war he has trawled through the rich archives of letters, diaries and memoirs that still exist, most of them written while the fighting still continued. From these he has constructed an extraordinarily vivid and moving picture of what it felt like to be one of the millions of men who served in the British army during the four years between August 1914 and the armistice on November 11, 1918.

The Tommies, whom Richard Holmes rescues from obscurity, prove powerful witnesses to the diverse realities of the war. Beneath the stereotyped images of the First World War that we all carry in our heads, the real lives of the men who fought it are still there to be discovered and Holmes’s book brings them forcefully to our attention

Richard Holmes is by far our most famous and readable contemporary military historian. The strength of his writing is not so much his grasp of strategy and tactics as his understanding of the soldier. Holmes understands what makes the fighting man - and especially the British fighting man - tick. He knows all about the recruitment, training, equipment, doctrine, leadership, organisation of the Army through the ages. He understands the character of officers, NCOs, and most of all of the enlisted men - the Tommies of whom he writes in this account of the fighting man's experience in the trench warfare of the Great War.

"Tommy" is a long book, but Holmes is, as ever, impeccably readable. Rather than presenting a history of the Great War, he describes different aspects of the military experience through a dense web of reminiscences, official documents, and academic research. The structure of the book is somewhat reminiscent of Holmes' earlier "Redcoat", although the historical focus is much tighter.

As the veterans of the Great War diminish in numbers there is a very real need for a comprehensive portrait of them, of their experiences, and of their fates. I believe that this compelling and understated book commemorates the extraordinary experiences of that generation.

Richard Holmes had a hard act to follow - he has dominated popular military history on television ever since his 'War Walks' TV series in the 1990s. More recently, he achieved best seller status with a brisk, populist but highly readable biography of Wellington. This followed closely a deserved triumph for his volume 'Redcoat', detailing the ordinary soldier in the age of the musket.

Well, this new volume carries on the story of 'Tommy Atkins' who Holmes so touchingly personifies in the opening chapters of 'Redcoat' and 'Tommy'. This is the story of the greatest army the United Kingdom has ever placed in the field - by 1918 over 5 ½ million men were serving in the British Army, and Holmes takes as his subject their motivations, their hardships, their resilience, their morale, and their enduring sacrifice.

If you know Denis Winter's book 'Death's Men', then you have some idea of the content, but Holmes goes so much further than Winter. He narrates the entire story of the Army in the Great War, drawing on the expertise shown in his series and book 'The Western Front' by giving an efficient digest of battles and actions, before moving on to giving the men of the Great War their own voices, by drawing on a huge array of accounts and sources.

But this is no a 'veteran's accounts' book like Lyn Macdonald or Max Arthur. Holmes rightly leans his book closely to the values and ideologies that motivated these men at the time, rather than accounts heavily tailored by a world far more interested in the view of the war as 'futile', than the spirit that sent millions to volunteer in 1914. Holmes treads carefully through the 'revisionist' minefield, giving due credence to both sides. I feel he pins his colours to the mast by revealing the limitations of the popular view of the Great War given undue weight by the war poets, men who never intended to write history, but whose views so often stand in the place of more revealing historical accounts.

The Great War resonates still, and the world in many ways lives in its shadow. How many families were touched by dread hand of the Great War? This is obviously a book which takes a very British perspective, but I feel there is a classic in the making here. Holmes' account deserves to endure, as his outstanding scholarship and crisp, witty humanistic prose pays a loving tribute to the thousands of men who survive still as polished medals, neatly folded letters, faded photographs and names on innumerable war memorials.

A superbly realised history of the ordinary British soldier in the First World War. Richard Holmes deploys his outstanding skills of historical analysis to tell the human story of the men that comprised the British army. Richard Holmes, one of Britain's foremost military writers and popular TV broadcasters, combines incisive historical analysis with a broad social history to paint a profound picture of common men in a brutal war. Building on his magnificent REDCOAT, Richard Holmes draws on letters, diaries, memoir and poetry of the war to complete his picture of the 6 million men, 22 percent of the adult population and often as young as 18, that fought in the First World War. He examines their motivation, the impact of their service, their attitudes to war and to the enemy, and ultimately the legacy of their experience. Similar in its concerns to the work of Niall Fergusson and Lyn MacDonald, ATKINS explores territory that grand histories seldom cover. What is achieved is a wonderful sense of the real story of trench warfare, the strength and fallability of the human spirit, and the individuals behind an epic event.

Richard Holmes has included in Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918, his important study of the Great War.

Using the method of his equally masterful Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket, a comprehensive and sympathetic scrutiny of correspondence and memoirs, Holmes assembles a compelling picture of the soldier's lot, from general to private. His book is not for those who like their history to be A Division going hither, B Division going thither and C Division operating some outflanking manoeuvre. Rather, through the accumulation of detail and experience, it examines minutely the everyday experience of trench life, with all the grimness that none of us today could hope to endure.

Detail such as rats. One unfortunate private woke up 'with a fully grown rat swinging from his nose with his teeth in the cartilage'. Lieutenant Roe continues: 'Clearly I could not shoot the rat with my revolver in such a confined space... there was only one solution, so I borrowed Appleford's bayonet and got on with the job.'

Detail such as the primitive defences soldiers had to adopt when first attacked by gas. 'French and Belgian chemists generously supplied sanitary towels for this purpose, with ear-loops already handily attached.'

Detail such as the primitive nature of weaponry in the early stages of the war, in this case a homemade grenade. 'Take a jampot, fill it with shredded guncotton and tenpenny nails, mixed according to taste. Insert a No 8 detonator and a short length of Bickford's fuse. Clay up the lid. Light with a match, pipe, cigar or cigarette and throw for all you are worth.'

Above all, Tommy is the story of the courage of ordinary men thrust into an extraordinary situation, summed up by a single sentence from Second Lieutenant PJ Campbell, an artillery liaison officer. 'We were all civilians who hated war, but knew that it had to be fought and would go on fighting until it was won.'