Professor Richard Holmes: Military historian whose books and television programmes placed the ordinary soldier centre-stage

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:01

Richard Holmes' television documentaries brought to life the horrors of war and the daily lives of the ordinary front-line soldier in some of the crucial moments in Britain's bloody and turbulent history. An acclaimed military historian, he taught at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and Cranfield University and served in the Territorial Army for 36 years, achieving the rank of Brigadier, the highest by a reservist. He also wrote more than 20 books.

Holmes came to the public's attention with the BBC series War Walks in the 1990s, in which he toured the trenches of the First World War. His knowledge and enthusiasm and his focus on the ordinary soldier, whom he wanted "to put centre stage," soon established the bespectacled and military-moustached figure as a favourite among viewers.

Holmes was not in the business of glorifying war and sought to strike a balance between intellect and populism. His skill was recounting precise military detail in language that non-experts could readily understand. He once explained, "I don't really see myself as a TV presenter. I'm a historian who likes telling stories."

Edward Richard Holmes was born in Aldridge, Staffordshire in 1946. Educated at Forest School in north-east London, he won a scholarship to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he read history. In 1964 he joined the TA as a squaddie and became a commissioned officer while an undergraduate. He continued his studies at the universities of Northern Illinois and Reading, where he completed his doctorate on the French army during the Second Empire.

In 1969, Holmes joined the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst as a lecturer, rising to deputy head of the Department of War Studies (1984-86). In the TA, he was promoted first to lieutenant and then to major while teaching at Sandhurst, and in 1986 was invited to take command of the 2nd Battalion Wessex Regiment, a post in which he held the rank of Brigadier (1994). Working with a permanent staff of 30 augmented by 500 part-timers, Holmes was struck by the calibre of the people under his command.

As Britain's senior reservist, he worked at the Ministry of Defence in charge of all reserve forces, and from 1999-07 was Colonel-in-Chief of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment.

In 1989 he was appointed director of the Security Studies Institute at Cranfield University in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, and became Professor of Military and Security Studies in 1995, a position he held until his retirement in 2009. Cranfield is a postgraduate, research-orientated establishment with close ties to the UK Defence Academy and senior figures in the British forces. There are armed guards on reception, and in the grounds signs indicate the security-alert status.

While at Sandhurst Holmes was approached by ITV to make a series about the relationship between Montgomery and Eisenhower, and the success of War Walks prompted further series including Rebels and Redcoats (2003), about the American Revolution; Wellington: the Iron Duke; an acclaimed profile of Oliver Cromwell, whom he championed, as part of 100 Greatest Britons (2002), and In the Footsteps of Churchill (2005), which he accompanied with a book.

Holmes said of his TV work, "Isuspect that one of the reasons I enjoy it so much is that filming has similar characteristics to a military operation. You've never got enough men, you're always under-resourced and the only thing that keeps you going is the thought of a good dinner at the endof the day. Not for nothing is it called a 'shoot'."

Holmes was also an accomplished author. Influenced by the BBC series The Great War (1964) and ITV's The World at War (1973) with their archive footage and discursive interviews, he wrote mostly on the ordinary British soldier and his experiences, with extensive use of letters and diaries. Holmes read Siegfried Sassoon's description of the First World War in his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, and said the book changed his life: "I re-read it every two or three years and it never fails to move me to tears."

Holmes felt that there had been too many books on the generals and treaties and felt the ordinary soldier had been marginalised. He tended to avoid drawing on the reminiscences of veterans, mindful of the frailties of human recall: he had found that first-hand reminiscences differed widely, only 10 years after the event, from those written down at or near the time: "The closer we get to events, the better our chance of finding out how people really felt." He made extensive use of the extraordinary collections at the Imperial War Museum in south London and the veterans' records at King's College London (the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives).

Holmes's subjects ranged from the soldier armed with a musket in the Napoleonic era (Redcoat, 2001), to tramping the Grand Trunk Road in India (Sahib, 2005), and the British soldier in First World War trenches (Tommy, 2004), a work that won him high acclaim. Dusty Warriors (2006), described the experiences of the 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, in Iraq; they were involved in the longest period of sustained fighting experienced by any British Army unit since the Korean War.

Holmes was also a keen horseman, maintaining a large grey called Thatch, who he rode when re-tracing military routes. The first, in 1993, was that of the Retreat from Mons, following the fighting retreat of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914; his book Riding the Retreat ensued in 1995. He rode more strenuous routes, from the Northern Cape to Zululand, and along the border of Pakistan and Afghan-istan, following the path of the 1895 Chitral relief expedition. He also rode from Liverpool to York, following the route of Prince Rupert's Civil War army of 1644, to raise money for his favourite charity, the Army Benevolent Fund.

Martin Childs

Edward Richard Holmes, historian, author and broadcaster; born Aldridge, Staffordshire 29 March 1946; ADC to the Queen 1991-97; OBE 1988, CBE 1998; married 1975 Katharine Saxton (two daughters); died Hampshire 30 April 2011.

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