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Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front [Paperback]

Richard Holmes
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
RRP: 12.99
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Book Description

7 Mar 2005

The first history of World War I to place centre-stage the British soldier who fought in the trenches, this superb and important book tells the story of an epic and terrible war through the letters, diaries and memories of those who fought it.

Of the six million men who served in the British army, nearly one million lost their lives and over two million were wounded. This is the story of these men – epitomised by the character of Sgt Tommy Atkins – and the women they left behind.

Using previously unseen letters, diaries, memoirs and poetry from the years 1914-1918, Richard Holmes paints a moving picture of the generation that fought and died in the mud of Flanders. He follows men whose mental health was forever destroyed by shell shock, women who lost husbands and brothers in the same afternoon and those who wrote at lunchtime and died before tea.

Groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed, this book tells the real story of trench warfare, the strength and fallibility of the human spirit, the individuals behind an epic event, and their legacy. It is an emotional and unforgettable masterpiece from one of our most important historians.

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Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front + Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket
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Product details

  • Paperback: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; New Ed edition (7 Mar 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007137524
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007137527
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 13 x 5.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 93,201 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Holmes was one of Britain's most successful historians and television presenters. Author of the best-selling Tommy, Redcoat and Wellington: The Iron Duke, he has also written and presented television series for the BBC. As well as serving in the TA, he taught military history at Sandhurst and, latterly, as Professor of Military and Security Studies at Cranfield University and the Royal Military College of Science. Richard Holmes died suddenly on 30 April 2011 from pneumonia, aged 65.

Product Description

Amazon Review

Tommy is Richard Holmes's tribute to the ghosts of the millions of ordinary soldiers who fought in the First World War. The book also reflects the dissatisfaction he feels at the way we still remember it. Too often we approach World War I through the literature it inspired. The poems of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and others have their own truths to offer, but Holmes would dispute the assumption that they represent the experiences of the majority of those who endured the trench warfare of the Western Front.

To discover new voices and new perspectives on the war he has trawled through the rich archives of letters, diaries and memoirs that still exist, most of them written while the fighting still continued. From these he has constructed an extraordinarily vivid and moving picture of what it felt like to be one of the millions of men who served in the British army during the four years between August 1914 and the armistice on November 11, 1918. From Private Albert Bullock rejoicing in the discovery of 200 Woodbines in the pack of a fellow soldier who had fled the front line, to Private Eric Hiscock describing the horrors of finding himself entangled in barbed wire. The Tommies, whom Richard Holmes rescues from obscurity, prove powerful witnesses to the diverse realities of the war. Beneath the stereotyped images of the First World War that we all carry in our heads, the real lives of the men who fought it are still there to be discovered and Holmes’s book brings them forcefully to our attention. ––Nick Rennison --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


‘Holmes is one of our foremost military scholars and a skilled writer who knows his audience well. This is excellent popular history: scholarly, highly readable and utterly absorbing.’ Daily Telegraph

‘Monumental … Every page of this is worth reading.’ Time Out

‘Where Holmes’s book comes brilliantly to life is in his use of first-hand accounts of the trench experience … It is Holmes’s achievement to make this familiar landscape come alive with the humanity of those who fought in it.’ TLS

‘Holmes has produced yet another fascinating, balanced and original book of a highly emotive subject. ‘ Sunday Telegraph

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
78 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving, detailed, comprehensive and compelling 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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138 of 142 people found the following review helpful
By Withnail67 TOP 1000 REVIEWER
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 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.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book... 19 Mar 2009
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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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding achievement 21 Sep 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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Fantastic read as usual from Richard.
Published 13 days ago by Billy Browne
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A present but was well recieved
Published 1 month ago by jofri
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful and heartfelt
There are many books that tell the soldier's story, often with lengthy excerpts from interviews, diaries or letters. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Jonathan F. Vernon
4.0 out of 5 stars The sadness of the First World War
It is a very detailed description of the First World War- a historian's description. Great detail about battalions, corps,etc. -too much for the ordinary reader. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Jonathon Swift
5.0 out of 5 stars TOMMY by Richard Holmes. Recommended by Ian Hislop in The Week
Richard Holmes in depth understanding and treatment of the British Soldier on the Western Front during the First World War has at last helped me to sense for the first time the... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Ronald J Eitel
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book
If you want an introduction into the life of a British soldier during WW1 then go no further. A truly excellent book.
Published 20 months ago by Lord Chod of Bin
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece
In this massive (over 700 pages) and unique book the late Richard Holmes gives us a picture of the British soldier on the Western Front. Read more
Published on 14 April 2012 by Willyum R
4.0 out of 5 stars Terrific read
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... Read more
Published on 10 Jan 2012 by frankie5angels
3.0 out of 5 stars Tommy by Richard Holmes
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... Read more
Published on 23 Dec 2011 by Kindle Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read
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... Read more
Published on 20 Oct 2011 by C. Nation
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