on 8 May 2012
When Professor Richard Holmes left us prematurely at the end of April 2011, he had - as he put it - several books in 'holding pattern' that he was trying to complete. I gather now (from his wife's Acknowledgements on the final pages) that he knew his days were numbered and therefore put his remaining energy into 'Soldiers: Army Lives and Loyalties From Redcoats to Dusty Warriors'.
We should be enormously grateful that he did, as he literally wrote from his sick bed, and 'was allowed out of hospital twice by his cancer specialist to work on the book', which (one suspects) contributed to his early death. One needs to remember this when reading 'Soldiers', for it does admittedly contain a few irritating repetitions, its structure is occasionally loose, and some chapters are more rounded than others, but these are minor niggles that a medically fit Holmes would no doubt have polished to his customary very high standard.
The volume's sub-title tells us much about the contents, as the 65 year-old Holmes was drawing on his earlier corpus of writing on the British soldier, including his Redcoat (2001), Tommy (2004), Sahib (2005) and Dusty Warriors (2006). The years of publication give an idea of his prodigious output - one and sometimes two very good books in most years, totalling over 35 volumes, written over a 40 year period.
What of 'Soldiers'? This is no less than an expression of Richard Holmes' love affair with the British soldier - Thomas Atkins - warts and all, about whom he spent most of his working life observing and writing. As Professor Holmes, he was an academic lecturer at Sandhurst, the Army Staff College and later the Defence Academy, Shrivenham, teaching officers their trade throughout his adult life. But he was much more than that; as Brigadier Holmes CBE, he served from private to brigadier in Britain's reserve forces, which he commanded in the late 1990s. In retirement, he was Honorary Colonel of the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment (PWRR), whose dramatic 2004 tour in Iraq, resulting in Johnson Beharry's VC, he described memorably in Dusty Warriors (2006). Additionally, as a Justice of the Peace (part-time magistrate), Holmes occasionally had to lock-up wayward soldiers. Few, therefore, have been better qualified to write objectively on the British soldier than Holmes with these awesome credentials.
Drawing on his earlier writing about battlefields or men in and out of combat (Firing Line, 1986), and his biographies of Oliver Comwell (2002), the Dukes of Marlborough (2008) and Wellington (2002), Field Marshal Sir John French (1981) and Winston Churchill (2005), Holmes takes us through the origins of the rank structures, the uniforms and the history of the land force.
Most chapters are a self-contained delight of anecdotes and hard analysis, each a miniature doctorate, for dipping into over a quiet afternoon or evening. Examining the regulars and reserves (from the early militias to today's Territorial Army), 'Soldiers' then moves us on by way of boy soldiers, conscripts, foreign levies (like the King's German Legion or the Gurkhas) and women soldiers, to look at 'Tribes and Totems', his overview of military custom, tradition and martial music, from the happy and moving to the ugliness of punishment and execution. We finish with soldiers' habitats - from being quartered in Georgian pubs to Victorian barrack blocks and Edwardian messes - even soldiers' wives (or partners in today's world) make their presence felt.
Four points will strike the reader about 'Soldiers'.
First, no matter how well you thought you knew your military history (and I count myself a serious student), Holmes unearthed plenty of new material, which he deployed to good effect: even recent academic research at universities around the world is included in the mix.
Second, Holmes could WRITE. Though 600 pages long, this is NOT a dense book, or a difficult read. His prose sparkles on every page; there is wit aplenty, puns, and you can certainly hear echoes of the Professor who entertained the nation for many years with his 'War Walks' and other TV series. This is a man who enjoyed communicating and wrote to a very high standard indeed.
Third is the sheer range of historical examples his uses, from the Restoration period to the present day. And 'Soldiers' is very current: he discusses the merits of women soldiers in combat, the arrival of gay soldiers, and analyses the regimental amalgamations, mergers and disbandments of recent years that caused so much anguish in Scotland and elsewhere. His source material comes from old diaries, letters, memoires and newspapers, but also interviews and current internet chatrooms and blogs.
Finally, for those familiar with Holmes' other work, this is NOT a rehash of his writing to date. This book is a feast, and value for money. Writing against the clock, aware of an impending appointment with the Grim Reaper, Richard Holmes had given us a superb valedictory, an important interpretation of his own life's work and a fitting climax to his career of watching and understanding the British soldier, as no other.
Dr Peter Caddick-Adams, Cranfield University.