Daily Archives: 19 January, 2012

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

War Horse

War Horse (film)

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve just got in from seeing War Horse, so I thought I would post a review while it’s still fresh in my mind.

The film is set in Iddisleigh, a picturesque village in Devon not far from my better half’s place of origin. The scenery is absolutely stunning, and equally well matched by the soaring, classical soundtrack. Some of the action scenes are mind-blowing, particularly the cavalry charges. The battle scenes are not as bloody as say Band of Brothers or the Pacific, but I don’t really think that they needed to be horrific for the sake of it.

In historical terms, there were perhaps a few bloopers. The german accents are almost laughable, and I can’t think for the life of me why Spielberg didn’t make them sound better. And in the final scenes in France all kinds of random men in random units seem to mingle together freely, which seems a bit unrealistic. But apart from that, it seemed to ring true for the most part. It IS a completely unrealistic story – but then that is the beauty of a novel, it doesn’t have to be absolutely realistic, and we can forgive a little historic or artisitic licence if it serves the story.

My performing arts student girlfriend tells me that there isn’t any particularly great acting, in fact the real star of the film is/are the horse(s). This film is very much an epic rather than a drama. That said, there are some very touching moments – apart from the final reunion scene, when the main equine protagonist becomes entangled in barbed wire is likely to move even the most cynical of hearts.

Whenever a new war film or programme comes out, you can guarantee that there will be scores of internet ‘experts’, bemoaning the inaccuracies and claiming the moral high ground. Sure, no war film is ever 100% accurate. But they can never be – no one really dies in a war film, surely? We need to look beyond the historical inaccuracies of incorrect shoulder titles or weapons. They might matter to us geeks, but in the bigger picture a film like War Horse has got thousands of people interested in the First World War, which is something that no manner of scholarly articles or mediocre books will achieve. Neither geeks, enthusiasts nor academics have any universal ownership of war. War is a human experience that touches everyone when it occurs, so it is the right of everyone to be interested by it.

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Filed under western front, World War One