Book Review: Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front

Many books on the First World War tell the story from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 to the Germans’ humiliation at Versailles exactly five years later. Richard Holmes here takes a radically different approach, and in doing so has cast a fresh perspective on a catastrophe that becomes harder and harder for successive generations to comprehend.

Tommy describes almost every aspect of the life of the British soldier in France and Flanders. Starting with how he was recruited and trained, we follow him to the trenches. We learn how the trenches themselves were dug and maintained, and the minutiae of his routine, whether as private soldier, non-commissioned officer or officer. We hear how he spent his leisure time, how his spiritual needs were catered for, and how he conducted relationships with his comrades, superiors and inferiors.

Most poignantly, we are told how he was treated when wounded, how he died and what happened to him after his death. The result is a riveting, thorough and detailed picture of everyday life that goes way beyond the description of dates, politics and military manoeuvres typical of much other history. Prof Holmes has delved into the published and un- published diaries, letters and memoirs of soldiers of all ranks to find his basic information: and another of the fine qualities of this book is the way in which the soldiers speak for themselves. He also uses the facts he unearths to lay to rest some myths about the First World War.

For example, for all the hell of the trenches, many men enjoyed it. Some were properly fed and clothed for the first time. Many discovered a comradeship that, if they survived the conflict, would last for decades beyond it. The supposed rigidities of the class system, with officers distant from men, were far from the truth: the affection each felt for the other is manifest in many of the extracts Prof Holmes quotes. Both officers and men were judged on their merits: cliche though it be, the war was a great leveller. Another myth was that generals had cushy wars while the men they commanded did all the suffering. In fact, a high proportion of generals ? nearly 60 ? were killed on active service.

The author explains the culture that grew up as a result of the war: the marching songs, the slang, the food. If you seek the origins of the words ‘chat’, ‘Blighty’ or ‘bully beef’ you will find them here. He also continually presents the reader with astonishing facts: such as that the most decorated other rank of the First World War was a stretcher bearer, L-Cpl Bill Coltman, whose principles would not al- low him to bear arms. Happily, this Victoria Cross winner survived and returned to his peacetime job as a gardener.

While the author catalogues the horror of life for the Poor Bloody Infantry and the artillery, he also records the acts of heroism of engineers, signallers and tank crews. Nor will many readers have been aware of the use of the cavalry charge in what was an increasingly mechanised war, but the feats of that branch of the service are well recorded, too.

Prof Holmes deserves his reputation as a great military historian. This, like his other books, is a serious work of scholarship that is also eminently readable and utterly fascinating. It is perhaps the finest book on the First World War that I have ever read.