Tag Archives: Richard Holmes

Tommy by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes was, in my eyes, unique. As a military man and an academic historian, he actually managed to capture the public’s imagination with his work. I can think of no other academic military historian who has reached out to society at large like Holmes. And surely, that is a fine, fine achievement.

As Holmes himself states in his preface, his initial military history interests involved researching battles and generals. Note his accomplished biographies of Marlborough, Wellington and French. But along the way he developed an interests in the ordinary man at war, and this led to his series of books such as Redcoat, and this book, which I consider to be his greatest achievement.

It does not have the revisionism of a writer such as Corrigan, and historiographically it sits in between narrative and probing challenges of the perceived wisdom. It is emminently readable and makes prolific use of first hand sources. But what I think is the real achievement here, is that Holmes has examined pretty much every aspect of war on the Western Front, and successively passed them all under a historical microscope. He doesn’t fall into the trap of hindsight, but neither does he go for hero worship or a bland recasting of earlier works.

The subjects that Holmes covers are vast, and some are not for the faint of heart – crime, punishment, homosexuality, venereal disease, honours, ranks, officer-men relations, attitudes to the war, food, drink (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), uniforms, lice, mud, weapons, training, and so on. In fact no stone is left unturned; there is no literary no-mans land here.

Holmes’ progression from a soldier, to an academic military historian, to a social military historian, is perhaps the best example possible of how military history itself is evolving. Not only has the field opened up beyond career soldiers alone, but we are more and more interested in the experiences of the common man – the millions of Tommies – rather than the deliberations of a few middle aged men who sat at the top of the tree. Perhaps this is a reflection of a change in modern society overall. As a military historian with both feet firmly in social history, I can only hope that this movement continues.

This book is a military history tour de force, by the late great Professor. It is the kind of book that makes me, as a historian, hope that I could one day write a book 5% as good as this. This is exactly the kind of book to get historians in the right frame of mind for the centenary projects looming in the next couple of years. It’s going to sit on my bookshelf for some time to come.

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, western front, World War One

Obituaries – Claud Choules and Richard Holmes

Military has seen two sad passings in the past few days.

Claude Choules -  The last one of 70m

Image by Tram Painter via Flickr

Claude Choules (1901-2011)

The last known veteran of the First World War died last week. A former Tommy, Claude Choules later emigrated to Australia. Claude Choules was born in 1901, and joined the Royal Navy as a Boy Seaman in 1915. He served in the G

rand Fleet, and witnessed the scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919. In 1926 he emigrated to Australia, and then joined the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War. In the event of a Japanese invasion Choules would have been responsible for destroying ports in Western Australia. Later in life Choules became a pacifist, shunning celebrations which he saw as glorifying war.

Professor Richard Holmes CBE TD JP (1946-2011)

Out of all of the modern TV Historians, I have found Richard Holmes to be the most impressive. A former TA Officer who commanded a Battalion and finished up a Brigadier, he was ideally placed to write and present the popular War Walks series. I particularly enjoyed the programmes on Waterloo, Hastings and the Boyne – which led to my family calling me ‘Seamus a caca’, or in english, ‘James the shithead’. Later Holmes went on to write acclaimed Biographies of Wellington and Marlborough, the two men widely regarded as Britain’s best ever Generals. Both books were eminently readable and enjoyable. On BBC TV‘s Great Briton’s programme he championed Oliver Cromwell, not an easy task, and acquited himself rather well. Military History is a lesser field for his passing.

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