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Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front

Tommy is a composite cubist portrait of British soldiers on the Western Front during the Great War. The term Tommy is an iconic term, like G.I., but taken from the name of an 18th c. British soldier, Tommy Atkins. As drawn by Richard Holmes’s pen, however, the multi-dimensional portrait of Tommy depicts soldiers of all ranks (privates, NCO’s and officers, including generals). Holmes’s cubist approach requires him to attempt a nuanced, complex creation if he is to achieve his ambitious intentions. By and large he succeeds.

What makes this history different from others about World War I? To begin with, it is not a campaign history of the Western Front. Tommy is not the place to read about national leaders, strategies and operations. Holmes keeps our attention on the soldiers’ individual experiences. To describe more recent times, a book similar to this one would use oral histories extensively. Of course, the veterans of the Great War are no longer available to interview. The last World War I British foot soldier died in 2009 and most had died by 1990. What is available is a mass of contemporary printed and manuscript material: private papers, letters, diaries, reports, manuals, trench journals, newspapers, magazine articles, memoirs, and poetry—much of it forgotten or seldom-used.

What Holmes does with the material contributes to Tommy’s differences from other works. He uses these sources to provide evidence in support of his overall perspective that diversity was what characterized the British soldier, diversity of class, attitudes, beliefs (including religious ones), behaviors, and ways, methods, and motives for fighting. Holmes’s Tommy is not a sociological work, however. He uses and accepts the sources on their own terms: when Robert Graves writes that German soldiers were as brave as their British counterparts, Holmes does not critique Graves’s view nor does he go on to say, for instance, that “twenty-three percent of all British soldiers shared Graves’s viewpoint.” What he does do is include the words of soldiers who have both similar and differing perspectives.

Holmes’ diversity theme is inclusive. His use of contemporary material examines how soldiers from all branches and ranks experienced the day-to-day reality of being on the front lines, everything from latrines to love, from killing to being killed, from mortars to machine-guns, from duty to discipline, from morale to medicine. It’s all here and it makes for fascinating reading, but not for sound bites.

Holmes has other reasons for his cubist portrait of Tommy. The author attempts to provide a corrective to the over-simplified view of the Great War that began coalescing about a decade after its cessation. That simplistic approach, in his judgment, has become widely accepted and often presented in other histories, movies, novels, poems—indeed has, at times, dominated the popular imagination. Such an outlook is largely antagonistic towards the war, its leaders, and how the war was fought. It is often found in the poetry of Wilfred Owen, as in his famous Dulce et decorum est. Common wisdom has it that a brave British army was led by “Donkeys” whose stupidity was exceeded only by their arrogance . . . wisdom that Holmes disputes. The same sentiment is contained in the acidic satire of Oh What a Lovely War and Black Adder, that the war was fought for no good reason and that it achieved largely disastrous results (communism, fascism, national socialism, economic chaos, moral disintegration, general barbarism, and World War II).

Richard Holmes’s attempt to combat the commonly held, simplistic view with Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front may be Quixotic—the windmills are too large for the size of his lance. Nevertheless, Tommy is an absorbing book. If you want to get beyond easy generalizations and desire to experience the Great War from the trenches and fox holes of the British army, then you will want to read Tommy: the British Soldier on the Western Front. – Neal Ferguson

Also available by Richard Holmes: The First World War in Photographs; Acts of War: Behavior of Men in Battle; Battle (DK Eyewitness Books); Sahib: The British Soldier in India; Wellington: The Iron Duke; Churchill’s Bunker: The Cabinet War Rooms and the Culture of Secrecy in Wartime London; The Second World War in Photographs; Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket; D-Day Remembered: From the Invasion to the Liberation of Paris; The World at War; Marlborough: England’s Fragile Genius; Soldiers, A History; D-Day, The Files; The Western Front; Shots from the Front: The British Soldier 1914-18; Firing Line; In The Footsteps of Churchill: A Study in Character; The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French; The Napoleonic Wars Experience; Complete War Walks: From Hastings to Normandy; Riding the Retreat: Mons to the Marne 1914 Revisited; Fatal Avenue: A Traveller’s History, Northern France and Flanders 1346-1945; Dusty Warriors: Modern Soldiers at War; Battlefields (of the Second World War)p; Epic Land Battles; The Bitter End: Fall of Singapore 1942; Army Battlefield Guide:Belgium and Northern France; Civil War Battles in Cornwall, 1642-46.


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