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on 1 May 2004
Is nothing short of a masterpiece - it will be viewed as the last word on the experience of the British soldier in the Great War by one of the first rank of military historians.
Richard Holmes had a hard act to follow - he has dominated popular military history on television ever since his 'War Walks' TV series in the 1990s. More recently, he achieved best seller status with a brisk, populist but highly readable biography of Wellington. This followed closely a deserved triumph for his volume 'Redcoat', detailing the ordinary soldier in the age of the musket.
Well, this new volume carries on the story of 'Tommy Atkins' who Holmes so touchingly personifies in the opening chapters of 'Redcoat' and 'Tommy'. This is the story of the greatest army the United Kingdom has ever placed in the field - by 1918 over 5 ½ million men were serving in the British Army, and Holmes takes as his subject their motivations, their hardships, their resilience, their morale, and their enduring sacrifice.
If you know Denis Winter's book 'Death's Men', then you have some idea of the content, but Holmes goes so much further than Winter. He narrates the entire story of the Army in the Great War, drawing on the expertise shown in his series and book 'The Western Front' by giving an efficient digest of battles and actions, before moving on to giving the men of the Great War their own voices, by drawing on a huge array of accounts and sources.
But this is no a 'veteran's accounts' book like Lyn Macdonald or Max Arthur. Holmes rightly leans his book closely to the values and ideologies that motivated these men at the time, rather than accounts heavily tailored by a world far more interested in the view of the war as 'futile', than the spirit that sent millions to volunteer in 1914. Holmes treads carefully through the 'revisionist' minefield, giving due credence to both sides. I feel he pins his colours to the mast by revealing the limitations of the popular view of the Great War given undue weight by the war poets, men who never intended to write history, but whose views so often stand in the place of more revealing historical accounts.
The Great War resonates still, and the world in many ways lives in its shadow. How many families were touched by dread hand of the Great War? This is obviously a book which takes a very British perspective, but I feel there is a classic in the making here. Holmes' account deserves to endure, as his outstanding scholarship and crisp, witty humanistic prose pays a loving tribute to the thousands of men who survive still as polished medals, neatly folded letters, faded photographs and names on innumerable war memorials.
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on 25 May 2004
Richard Holmes is by far our most famous and readable contemporary military historian. The strength of his writing is not so much his grasp of strategy and tactics as his understanding of the soldier. Holmes understands what makes the fighting man - and especially the British fighting man - tick. He knows all about the recruitment, training, equipment, doctrine, leadership, organisation of the Army through the ages. He understands the character of officers, NCOs, and most of all of the enlisted men - the Tommies of whom he writes in this account of the fighting man's experience in the trench warfare of the Great War.
"Tommy" is a long book, but Holmes is, as ever, impeccably readable. Rather than presenting a history of the Great War, he describes different aspects of the military experience through a dense web of reminiscences, official documents, and academic research. The structure of the book is somewhat reminiscent of Holmes' earlier "Redcoat", although the historical focus is much tighter.
As the veterans of the Great War diminish in numbers there is a very real need for a comprehensive portrait of them, of their experiences, and of their fates. I believe that this compelling and understated book commemorates the extraordinary experiences of that generation.
Unreservedly recommended.
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on 21 September 2004
Many people will already with the works of author Richard Holmes, in particular his very fine 'War walks' series on BBC Television. Tommy is fantastically researched and provides an insight into the daily routine and ultimately horror that became a reality for the British soldier serving on the western front.
Ninety years after the outbreak of the Great war, this book and its material is a must for all historians and not just for war buffs. Over fifty black and white prints show some shocking and unusual views of the many battles.
The book itself is structured around many interesting personal accounts of the war with some incredible annecdotes providing light relief.
The names of the men mentioned throughout the book show the multi national makeup of the British lines at the time and will be of historical and human interest to all.
A great read and very useful refference source.
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This isn't a history of the First World War. It doesn't explore battles and origins, major combatants, motivations, rations, bombs. What it does do is explore the experience of the British soldiers in the trenches - who they were, why they fought, how they felt, what they did. It's broken down into thematic sections - about battalions, about weapons, about motivations for and against fighting, about relationships between ranks, about lives pre- and post-war. It's a very well-written book, with a natural feeling for the soldiers that really flows through the pages. Rather than using material that was often written well after the war and coloured by the bitterness of the peace that followed, Holmes used contemporary material, written by the men while they were there, and it really makes you realise that our view of the war as a useless, wasteful mess is a much later view, that the men in the trenches knew why they were there and what they were fighting for. At the time they would have been offended and insulted by the notion that they were 'lambs to the slaughter', mindlessly following orders into a war that had no meaning.
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on 11 February 2005
A quite astonishing compendium of the man in the trench, his background, direction and the minutiae of his experience. There were times when I suspected that Holmes was slapping down all he knew, and even some repetition, but it was a thoroughly informative and profoundly moving experience to be so immersed in the subject and to have a number of well worn preconceptions effectively subverted. Fascinating pictures: small but plentiful.
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on 10 January 2012
Anyone who wants to "feel" what life in WW1 was really like should read this book. Holmes as usual has covered just about every aspect of the soldiers existence on the Western Front.
I found the time line a little difficult to follow at first but soon worked out that as each subject is covered the author was correct to format the book his way.
It is informative, emotional, educational and entertaining.
I would highly recommend it.
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on 23 December 2011
An excellent book but i would urge anyone who has a printed copy to keep it. Yet again Amazon and the publishers fail to notify potential kindle readers that this book has no plates/illustrations as in the print edition, this is not only easily solved but is I think a slap in the face to those people who download the book in good faith. It is in others words an incomplete book and customers should be alerted as it is misleading to sell it in its current form. Come on Amazon get it right.
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on 20 October 2011
I enjoy Richard Holmes's books. They are based, as far as I can tell, on primary source material. This gave Holmes the opportunity to refute some of the more imaginative descriptions and accounts of people and events of WW1, particularly verbal accounts of 'eyewitnesses'

For example I was particularly struck by the repudiation of the 'eyewitness account' of 2nd Lt Beadle, 33rd Div artillery F.O. officer of the 'charge into High Wood' on 14th July 1916 of the Deccan Horse and 7th Dragoon Guards.

Lt Beadle's account is quoted in Lyn Macdonald's book 'Somme' and in Prior & Wilson's account of the battle. Holmes identified the elements of Beadle's account which makes it implausable and thus unreliable. It does point up the danger of inaccuracy or plain, though unwitting, fantasy of verbal accounts summoned from the memories of participants of any event. Books based on accounts 'in their own words' are suspect in this regard.

Reliable is a word you can count on with Holmes's book. As a historian, lecturer at Sandhurst, Co-Director of RMC Sciences, Shrivenham and one time most senior officer of the Territorals, one would expect Holmes to be accurate and meticulous with his facts.

In certain sections there are too may facts . Anyone not personally interested in the make-up and evolution of a particular regiment, division and battalion will find that there are lengthy passages which describe in excessive detail the permutations of British Army units.

There are also repetitions of passages, not only from his book 'Redcoats' but also from chapters earlier in this book. There are passages I have read 3 or 4 times, in 'Redcoats', 'Tommies' [perhaps twice] and 'The Western Front'

I recognise that the history of the British Army soldier is a continuum. Changes to any aspect of the Army between wars are bound to be part of any book describing those wars. Thus, a considerable amount of description of many aspects of soldiering and soldiers between the end of The Boer War and WW1 are to be found in 'Redcoats' and 'Tommy'

Having said all that, 'Tommy' is excellent. There is no aspect of soldiering that Holmes has not covered, from the activities of Army chaplains, disciplinary and legal proceedings, medical and provisioning, morale and social attitudes. It could probably have benefited from a reduction by 100 pages or so - it's a big book - but it is full of interest, written in typical Holmesian crisp, unpretentious style and restrained humour.
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on 23 March 2005
This book could be purchased purely for the intelligence of the introduction alone. The arguement produced about the effects of time and social view upon the perception of the war by combatants and historians is excellent, as well providing a useful list of other sources to obtain. As in the opening section of 'Redcoat', the scene is set through a descriptive passage in which the observations of situation and character are highly evocative without losing sight of hard fact. The book is to be commended for identifying when it is hypothesising or using primary source to suggest reasons for an individual's actions. All this and well written too!
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on 27 November 2007
This book covers all you will every want or need to know about the British Soldier in the first World War. In the modern trend it is factual and balanced. It re-writes some of the preceived wisdom. For example following this book my opinions of the generals in the conflict were changed for the better (Holmes gives good reasons to think they were better than they are usually given credit for). In addition, my understanding of the motivation and commitment of the soldier was also improved. Holmes also makes the case (possibly well know now) that it was only in the late 20s and early 30s that disillusionment set in. At the time most soldiers were very commited and believed in the war as a just cause.

It contains lots of quotes from people writing at the time, which I enjoyed.

I thought it better than "Redcoat" -- it seemed to have a better structure and flow. So top marks becuase that was a good book too!
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