Reviewed by: Gary Sheffield Author: Richard Holmes Publisher: HarperPress Price (RRP): £25
Richard Holmes’s death in April 2011 at the age of 65 deprived us of one of Britain’s finest military historians. He combined learning with a wonderfully entertaining writing style and formidable communication skills.
He had an inside track on military life as well, serving as a Territorial for some 35 years, retiring as a brigadier and Britain’s most senior reservist. Holmes also held the post of
colonel of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment – itself a rare distinction for a Territorial.
For many years he taught at Sandhurst (on arriving there as a junior lecturer, he took me under his wing), and later at the Royal Military College of Science. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of military history, and wrote on subjects as diverse as Napoleon III’s army;
combat motivation; and French counter-insurgency of the 1950s.
But he was most at home when writing about British soldiers.
It is entirely fitting that his last book is an intimate picture of the men (and latterly, women) of the British army from the 17th century to the present day.
Soldiers starts with a warning: “It is useless to deny it. I have loved Tommy Atkins, once a widely used term for the common soldier, since I first met him.” Indeed, Holmes’s deep affection for the British soldier – and his NCOs and officers – shines through the book, but it certainly does not present the sentimental view implied by his opening sentence. His declaration of love is promptly followed with two anecdotes showing the less admirable side of soldiery.
This is a ‘warts and all’ composite portrait of the British soldier, in which Holmes combines extensive research in memoirs, letters and diaries with a deep knowledge of the secondary literature – this rich brew being topped up with his indefinable ‘feel’ for the army, whether in his own day or in Marlborough’s.
Through a series of chapters, Holmes gives an overview of the development of the army over 300 years before examining particular aspects in greater detail. Chaplains and military music; barrack life and boy soldiers; sexualities and recruitment; pals battalions and mercenaries: these are some of the many topics covered. Thankfully, Holmes was the sort of writer who could make even the minutiae of brevet promotions interesting.
The title, even including the subtitle Army Lives and Loyalties does not really convey the contents of the book. Holmes himself says that the bulk of the book is concerned with the social structure of the army; it is about belonging and group identity.
A passage towards the end of the book, which discusses the rituals of the dinner in the officers’ mess, gets to the heart of the matter: the British army is an agglomeration of individual tribes, each with its own traditions, loyalties, rituals, and hierarchy. The mess of an infantry battalion will be markedly different from a medical unit say, and altering one factor – an ambitious commanding officer taking over from one who had reached the top of his particular tree, for example – can lead to significant changes in atmosphere.
Covering a long book in a short review inevitably forces one to make choices, and my favourite section concerns the use of language: slang, nicknames, and above all, swearing.
Foul language is, Holmes argues, an instrument of socialisation into military life. He quotes a middle-class private of the Second World War to the effect that once a man began to swear incessantly, that is, use the army’s language, he had ceased to be a recruit, and was instead a trained soldier.
If Richard Holmes had lived to read the proofs of Soldiers, I have no doubt that he would have spotted and corrected one or two slips, none of any major consequence, but one would hope that the publisher will take the trouble to correct them in time for the paperback.
For all that, Soldiers is a tour de force, finished by the author under the most trying conditions, a book that will be enjoyed by Richard Holmes’s legions of lay admirers but will also command the attention of his fellow professional military historians.
That encapsulates his achievement: he was a fine scholar who was also, in the very best sense, a highly effective popular historian.
Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham. His latest book, The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army, has just been published by Aurum