Tommy: the British soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918, by Richard Holmes

Some telling tales from the trenches
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The Independent Culture

Even after 90 years, the First World War continues to be a major source of inspiration. In Tommy, a historian with the flair of a novelist lovingly recreates the British Army of 1914-18, often letting the soldiers speak through their own words. This technique is not new, but what sets Richard Holmes apart is the sheer quality of his writing and his empathy with his subjects.

Even after 90 years, the First World War continues to be a major source of inspiration. In Tommy, a historian with the flair of a novelist lovingly recreates the British Army of 1914-18, often letting the soldiers speak through their own words. This technique is not new, but what sets Richard Holmes apart is the sheer quality of his writing and his empathy with his subjects.

While it is easy to identify with the Poor Bloody Infantry, it is altogether more difficult to show sympathy with staff officers and generals, supposedly skulking in chateaux. Holmes points out that more British generals were killed in a single battle in 1915 than in the entire 1939-45 war, and one outstanding feature of Tommy is a rehabilitation of the Staff. As the Army underwent massive expansion, many regimental officers, whose courage and battlefield leadership could not be doubted, had to adjust to the different demands of staff work, often feeling guilt at their escape from the front line.

One of Holmes's themes is that the army of 1914-18 was a remarkable organisation, the largest then created by the British state. In many ways it was a typically British body, largely improvised, in which vast numbers of amateur soldiers were grafted on to a hard core of professionals. The wonder is not that Haig's army suffered bloody setbacks, but that this army became highly effective and played a leading role in the defeat of Germany in 1918.

Holmes's expert marshalling of detail brings this long-vanished army to life. The infliction of Field Punishment No 1 (tying offenders to a gun-wheel) shows the army at its harshest. The often tender relationships between officers and men shows the army at its best. But the core of the book is Holmes's evocation of service in the trenches: barbed wire and bully beef; Lewis Guns and comradeship; box barrages and rum.

In such a dazzling performance, it is easy to lose sight of why the soldiers were there in the first place. Tommy has a very short section on the origins of the war, in which Holmes states, entirely correctly, that a German victory leading to military domination of Europe would have been disastrous for Britain. The conflict ended as a trial of strength between militarist autocracy and the democracies. However, in a book of nearly 700 pages, it is easy for this all-too-brief section to be overlooked, which is presumably why at least one non-specialist reviewer has used the "F" word - futility.

Whatever else the Great War might have been, it was not futile. It was undoubtedly tragic. Holmes's compassion for the men who endured and died movingly underpins the book. The inherent tension between stark military imperatives and heart-rending stories of suffering makes for powerful reading. Tommy will stand as a classic of First World War history.

The reviewer is the author of 'Forgotten Victory' (Review)

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