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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 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 20 July 2017
This is a very thorough book. It often reads like a military textbook rather than a book for the casual history reader. There is a rather brilliant (if macabre) section on muskets, swords, horses and cannon and the effects these had on the human body, something which has always fascinated me purely because I've always thought that these conflicts must have been just the goriest affairs (turns out they were). Otherwise the book is chock full of intricate detail on things like pay, uniforms, ranks, et cetera, which would probably deter the everyday reader. In fact I thought the best bit of the book was the opening few pages, which describes, in the second person, a typical battle as if the reader were the eponymous redcoat.

My takeaway would be, buy this book if you are conducting research for a historical novel, or if you are something of an anorak for this period of history and love minutiae.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 28 March 2011
What a fantastic book! Wide-ranging, detailed, well-written, exciting, and packed with material that educates and entertains.

The format of the book is, I think, a great success; eschewing the straightjacket of strict chronology, Holmes subdivides his very broad subject according to his own schema, dealing in broad strokes with different areas, and yet maintaining focus and interest with myriad details, and plenty of contemporary first-hand material.

First situating the whole project in it's times, he then brings the political and practical structures into focus, before zooming in on the respective arms, and then panning out across the landscapes of home service and foreign campaigns, all the while stuffing his erudite narrative with pithy and frequently entertaining quotes, from original sources (it leaves me wanting to read more of Holmes' sources: e.g. the memoirs of individuals like rifleman Harris), that are really very engaging.

The book is also pretty well stocked with evocative illustrative imagery, as well as several rather basic maps of the main theatres covered during Holmes' chosen period. One omission I'd like to see made good in future editions would be a glossary. It's also worth being aware that whilst Holmes doesn't shy away from the more macabre aspects of his subject, from brutal and duplicitous enforced conscription, through corporal and capital punishment, to the horrors of war itself, it's clear that this is the work of someone in love with his subject (an ex-military man himself). I.e. don't expect this to be a clinically impartial look at war and warriors, it's clearly both passionate and partisan.

All told, this is a hugely compelling and enjoyable read, and I'd recommend it unhesitatingly.
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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 10 July 2010
Richard Holmes presents an account not of military history, but of a history of the military over almost two centuries.The ordinary soldier, the " old snotty " is at last given his deserved mention in our military annals.

This book lists in chapters the ways of life for soldier and officer over many conflicts, in some aspects there seemed little change in the armys administrative policy, with shameful conditions expected to be endured by the lads. Officers often ( but not always ) fared better, depending on where the action took place and the demands of local terrain, obviously the climate also played a large part in affairs.

The section on disease and medicine, Doctors and Surgeons, and wounds recieved,i found very significant, particularly the appalling conditions of ' field hospitals '.

This book is a must for anyone who wishes to understand soldiering,the American war of independence, the Napolionic wars , the Indian mutiny, the Crimea are all covered with letters, memoirs and official correspondence from the periods. I found it difficult to put this one down, ' Holmesie ' does'nt leave much out.

A good book at a very fair price.Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket
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on 9 January 2002
This is a very well researched book written by one of the masters of Military History. It is in many ways a complete reference of all of the military books about the age of the Red Coats cleverly pulled together by Prof Holmes.
It is not a book for the "Military Spotter", as in it does not go on and on about minute differences in dress or what Regiment formed into another. It is about the Red Coat and contains something for both the historian and enthusiast. Apart from the life of the Red Coat it also covers the history of the time, which of course affected the role of the Red Coat.
Prior to reading this book I thought that Red Coats were a poor bunch of souls constantly flogged by aristocratic bullies. This book shows that many of our perceptions of the Red Coats are incorrect and that most of the unnecessary pressures put onto them came from the Government/London of the time and not from the Army.
I highly recommended this book.
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