Tag Archives: Tommy Atkins

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

A Bloody Picnic: Tommy’s Humour 1914-18 by Alan Weeks

Alan Weeks is a very good social historian of the First World War on the Western Front. Having already reviewed his look at the Wipers Times, I have been looking forward a great to getting my hands on this book. First off, its a pleasure to read a book that isn’t big enough to sink the Bismarck! Given the book’s topic thats quite appropriate – wouldn’t it be ironic to read a book about Tommy hunour that was so big and wieldy that it could sink the Bismarck!

There are some fantastic stories here. Weeks has looked at virtually every aspect of humour at war, including general cheerfulness, comedy, officer-men relations, attitudes to commanders, pantomimes, humorous incidents, sex, weather, lice, rats, letters, songs, drinking, animals and the live-and-let-live system. This wide range of subjects gives us an indication of just how prevalent humour could be throughout life. It’s not difficult to imagine that humour actually made bearable what was quite a grim life. Humour could not win the war on its own, nor could it take away from the grievous casualties. But would the western front have been tougher without some light moments? Almost certainly.

There has always been something about the British Tommy that finds dry humour in even the most miserable of circumstances. And given the British military’s propensity for finding itself in miserable circumstances, this is no doubt a very useful trait. Its something that filters through to British society in general – dry British wit, as evinced by the archetypal Butler, has even been referenced in the Simpsons, of all places. I’ve read of examples of ‘Tommy humour’ during the Napoleonic Wars, which is appropriate given that the name ‘Tommy Atkins’ originates from this time.

This is a very important addition to the historiography of the western front – Alan Weeks must have spent years compiling these anecdotes. I won’t even begin to cover them all, but heres a few tasty morsels for you all:

Two of Private Webb’s comrades were killed by a grenade. An officer enquired as to what had happened… Private Webb was a good cricketer. ‘Blimey, whats happened sir’, he responded cheerfully, ‘is one over, two bowled’. Then he glanced down at the mess where he once had a leg. ‘And I’m stumped sir’.

One Sunday morning, Corps Command instructed Thorp to aim at four targets in quick succession. He chose Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The 6/Connaught Rangers were carefully coached before the arrival of a General to inspect them… they were particularly instructed on what their precise function in the Battalion was. The General asked one Ranger, ‘are you a Catholic?’, to which the man replied, ‘no sir, I’m a Rifleman’.

In front of the MO, one sapper was asked ‘have you been circumcised?’, to which he replied, ‘Oh no sir, thats just fair wear and tear’.

‘French girls are nice to sleep with, but not as good as you my wife. I miss you very much’.

A Bloody Picnic is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, social history, Uncategorized, western front, World War One