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The definitive history of British soldiers in the Great War
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.