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4.6 out of 5 stars45
4.6 out of 5 stars
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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 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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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 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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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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on 1 July 2010
This must be one the best books about the First World War . Mr Holmes tells what it was like to be a soldier in the British Army during this period ,from the lowest private to the highest general . He does go into detail about how units are structured and how orders are communicated and enforced . Also what day to day life was like and how they where taught to use their equipment .
He gives plenty of first hand accounts to add gravitas and although some do help you understand the shear hell , he does interdisperse this with lightheaarted ones .
It would help the reader if you have a basic understanding of the Western Front , I would read J Keegan's Excellent The First World War first .
I finished the book over a couple of days and feal that i have a much better understanding of the British soldier in this period .
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on 13 March 2008
A very long book looking at all aspects of the soldier's life, from training to hospitals, from trenches to home. One of Holmes' main aims is to put paid to some aspects of received wisdom - for example the "lions led by donkeys view of history". It remains a popular history from two points of view - firstly it is very readable. But secondly it lacks in places the rigour of a university work. For example, Holmes frequently complains loudly about the false views of "some historians"... but these historians are almost never named, which is a little disappointing.

Really Holmes book is extremely interesting, and is not afraid to deal with all sorts of controversial questions (homosexuality in the army, deserters, etc.) It is readable and exciting.

The negative point is that it is clearly written by a military man, and the lack of objectivity can be annoying in places. The vocabulary used (a battalion was "badly mauled" means that hundreds were killed), and the general attitude is partisan. Between the lines you see other possible perspectives. Groups of soldiers considered "unreliable" were four times as likely to survive the war than the more effectively patriotic. It can make one wonder which groups were the smartest...

Nevertheless on the whole indispensable writing, based on a huge mass of documentation.
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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 20 January 2007
The sense of loss and tradgedy of the Great War has led me to read many accounts to try and understand the reasons behind it, the events themselves, and the accounts (like this one) of the experiences of the (extra-)ordinary people involved. I've read many of Holmes's books and consider this the best, though perhaps that's in part down to my interest in the period. It's too close to our own era with the last few Tommies still with us to be merely dry history. This book is essentially the story of the individual experiences, tied together with explanations of how things were done, again as this affected the individual, with the great events providing a backdrop. Well-written, and terribly moving. Though not laboured in this book, it is clear that Holmes believes, as I do, that these brave men were fighting in a just cause. Well-written, not dramatised, as there's more than enough drama in the stories themselves, terribly moving and sad.
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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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