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VINE VOICEon 28 October 2002
Hint: please, DO read the introduction.
Arranged in chapters dedicated to a particular theme, this book gives the history of the British Army during their busiest era when the Empire covered most of the world.
In describing the social conditions which forced a good number of Britons to join up, rather than suffer the civilian hardships, we get a brilliantly concise history of the period. This was a time of the greatest change that Britain had ever seen; canals, metalled roads and railways improved communication and access; mechanisation and imports undermined the traditional workers' jobs; a series of wars caused a terrific drain on the economy; expansionism was pushing back the boundaries of the Empire; and the Government was beset by constant calls for reform. Little surprise that the Army had its hands full, both at home and abroad, with the consequent need to increase its strength and change its mode of operation.
Written for readability rather than minutely describing the trappings of military dress, it succeeds admirably - we get in a few paragraphs a potted history of the major military (including naval) actions in the Georgian era - the rest of the book is dedicated to specific aspects of soldierly life, for which Prof. Holmes gets his information first-hand from letters and memoirs of the common soldier, as well as from the officers - both are quoted freely. But it goes beyond the bounds of military life, to describe the many outside influences which affected how the Army was recruited, clothed, fed, trained, punished, doctored and entertained.
Very readable, full of anecdotes, and probably the best condensed history of the period, both social and military, that I have come across. A must for any fan of military fiction. *****
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on 6 June 2003
History lessons in Irish schools feature redcoats quite a lot - how they put down rebellions and killed loads of Irish people. I was very surprised to find in Holmes' book that 40% of the British army was Irish at certain times!
This book is very skillfully written from the point of view of the ordinary soldier. Holmes has researched his book in meticulous detail and I found it a fascinating read. There's no attempt to rewrite history, justify or condemn the actions of the army or Empire - we're told how life was.
I also liked the description of weapon's used - especially the Brown Bess musket. Now I know where the expression "Flash in the pan" comes from.
The only thing missing for me is what it was like in battle for the Redcoats. Some describe the horror and bloodbaths - but I've often wondered how soldiers get posted in the front of a rank or column where they are more likely to be killed - or are they?
The ordinary soldier comes through here and this book is well worth reading.
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on 3 September 2002
Rarely does one read a history book that brings its subject alive with such vivid narrative and anecdote. Rather than plodding through a chronology of campaign and battle, Holmes takes broad topics such as uniform, armament, tactics, welfare, punishment, health, etc. and tracks their evolution (or lack thereof) through the 18th and 19th centuries. In each area he supports his narrative with a rich sprinkling of contemporary source material. Unlike many histories that draw on contemporary sources, however, Holmes tends to favour "personal" anecdote. This humanises the history and adds significantly to its relevance. The question that remains unresolved for me, given the grim picture painted of life in the British Army in this period, is why would anyone ever want to do it? Perhaps the answer is that the army of that time was largely peopled with misfits and the socially excluded. This being the case, the achievements it made are all the more impressive. Even if you are not really interested in military history, Holmes's enthusiasm, knowledge and insight will tell you a lot about some of the foundations of the British character, will entertain you and will leave you wanting to learn more.
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on 2 September 2002
Holmes is a master at bringing the experience of battle to those of us fortunate enough never to have been involved in it and in this book he covers a vast amount of ground - the life and work of the British soldier in the era of musketry, infantry squares and red coats (roughly, 1700-1850). Holmes covers all aspects of military life - recruitment, drill and training, life in garrisons, campaigning, battles, uniforms, food, weapons, medical facilities - from the perspective of both officers and the NCOs and men that served under them.
Much of the book consists of extracts from the memoirs and diaries of soldiers and those close to them, linked by analysis from Holmes. Because the chapters are organised thematically rather than chronologically, there is a certain degree of jumping around in time and a slight degree of repetition between them, although this is not obtrusive.
Holmes does much to dispel the myth of the private soldier of the eighteenth and nineteenth century as an illiterate drunkard - many of the extracts from soldiers' reminiscences are very well-written and perceptive. Similarly, he contrasts the courage and professionalism of some officers with the rapid rise through the ranks of those who were willing to trade in commissions.
Holmes paints a vivid picture of an army in transition throughout the period - showing how campaigns, social changes and technology combined to form the force that helped build an empire.
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on 31 January 2002
I thought this was an excellent source book on the subject, pulling together a huge amount of anecdote, mostly taken from first hand diary entries, memoirs, or correspondence, from soldiers across the period - from the Marlburian wars to the first Boer war. Interestingly, there is almost SO MUCH original anecdotal material included, that I found myself craving a rather greater proportion of commentary, insight, and interpretation from the author, rather than hurtling from one diary extract to another throughout. Curiously, the main focus is on the period 1750 to 1860 - curious, because the book would have been that much richer, I felt, by including a greater spread of earlier and later material relating, for instance, to the redcoats of the early C18th and later C19th. Actually, the focus on the Peninsular Wars and the Crimea becomes a little oppressive after a while, and whilst the 100 Days, the American Revolution, the Indian Mutiny, and a tiny bit of the Seven Years War also get an amount of coverage, there are several other significant conflicts of the era which do not get a look in. Presumably this is simply owing to the proportion of diary material available from the particular conflicts which seem to provide so much of the focus of the book. I also felt the positioning of the book slightly disingenuous - it is set up very much as 'the view from the common footslogger' but actually, an awful lot of the content (fully 50% I would estimate) revolves around the officer class. Perhaps this is not altogether surprising, given the relative literacy of the officer class and the non-commissioned classes in the era, but it is not quite the expectation the book initially sets up.
I am bound to make one other criticism, which may or seem trivial to some, but I found pretty annoying, although it almost certainly reflects no discredit on the author himself. He has been badly served in the production quality of this book. It looks good, has a beautiful set of colour and black and white plates, and is pleasingly substantial in the hand - but it is absolutely riddled with elementary typos, spelling mistakes, incorrect words, and related gaffes. In a work of high quality historical writing, retailing at a not unreasonable, but still tidy £20, it's a great shame that more care was not taken in the preparation of the finished product, which gives every appearance of having been rushed.
Overall though, pretty good. I would certainly recommend it, although the clumsy typography really irritated me!
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on 15 April 2007
Professor Holmes has written a thematic sociological history of the British redcoated soldier in the age of the Brown Bess musket, i.e from the time of the First Hanoverian kings to the Indian Mutiny, with a focus on their experiences during the main conflicts, i.e the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimea and the Indian Mutiny. It is built as a narrative. The style is very fluid and the text is full of quotes and anecdotes, it is well structured in chapters on specific themes.

It covers:

-the nature of warfare in Europe and the colonies

-weapons and their effect on tactics, injuries and casualties

-recruitment, command and discipline

-attitude under fire and towards the enemy

-life in barracks and on the march

-differences in social origins, ethics, prospects and lifestyle between officers and enlisted men and their families

It gives specific treatment to the subjects of infantry, cavalry, artillery, specialist services, siege warfare. It is a book on the military culture of the times in all its aspects rather than on "events".

All in all a very readable and informative study. Fans of Professor Holmes or John Keegan will not be disappointed.
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on 27 October 2014
A first class and fully comprehensive account of what it was like to be a common soldier in the British army spanning more than a hundred years. Redcoat gives you all the stuff you'd expect about uniforms, orders of battle, discipline and arms. It covers the changes that happened in the span between the Seven Years War up to the Crimea. It covers the variations by regiment, the culture changes that the various high heid yins brought about (naturally, particularly Wellington). But it also gives the a real, very real feel for what it was like. How officers and men interacted. How Highlanders were viewed compared to, say, the Welsh or the Irish. The careraderie and the 'brothers in arms' spirit. The esprit de corps, and the suffering - there was a lot of suffering. It also has my favourite thing, gossip and funny stories and the kind of fascinating little factoids that you remember.

In fact, I only have one grip with this book, and it's the type face. I still buy all my research books in good old-fashioned print - I like to have them on the shelves. The print in this one is so tiny I couldn't read it without extra light. Now, I know, I probably do need reading glasses, and I shouldn't cling to having had 20/20 vision all my life when I probably don't now, and yes, my eyes get very tired after a day at the screen but really - not even 20 years ago could I have read this easily.

However, don't let that put you off. This is a book I'll go back to again and again. In fact, I'm using it right now. Highly recommended, though not exactly a light read!
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on 14 October 2012
This book creates a great panorama of life for the soldier of any rank serving in the British army during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It made me think about the lives and experiences of the thousands and thousands of men who drank, drilled, fought and died in campaigns in Continental Europe and all over the growing Empire (and the women who went with them). It is full of fascinating details and highly informative. I learned a lot about the national make-up of the army, uniform, hardships, weapons, drill, attitudes to discipline, bravery and battle formation (I now understand better why the change of direction manoeuvres performed at Trooping the Colour were once so important in battle). But - and this is why I gave four stars to a book that is more accomplished than books to which I would give five - the way the material is organised seems rather vague, with different sections covering separate topics, which I found difficult to follow. I haven't read anything else yet by Richard Holmes, so I'll have to read more to see if this really is a fault or the just way he puts his material togther. That said, I found the Introduction robust and clear, and the Epilogue a moving epitaph.
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on 25 April 2002
Many would consider this to be a stuffy read...but no! Richard Holmes tells it like it was..and that makes for a gripping read. Despised at home and hated abroad, what was life like for a redcoat? Read this and feel the weight of your red coat when it's soaking wet, cold and like all soldiers, all you want is home.
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on 19 February 2016
The British Army, imperfect sometimes badly led but they did win battles!
I unpacked this book and started reading .....
Bernard Cornwell makes a good case for being very proud of these men.
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