This week I have been reading Tommy by Richard Holmes. It is a hefty paperback that examines the lives and actions of the men who fought the Great War in both broad and minute detail.Holmes is well known from his television appearances, notably his “War Walks” series. His credentials as a scholar and historian are well known: Cambridge educated and rising to the rank of Brigadier in the TA, long term lecturer at the Department of War Studies at Sandhurst, becoming Assistant Head of Department in 1984. He has been the Professor of Military and Security Studies at Cranfield University since 1995 and co-director of Cranfield’s Security and Resilience Group since 1989. As an aside he is a local lad, having lived for many years in Alton.
For an interview with him in 2004 ( shortly after the publication of Tommy) click here
Tommy begins with an examination and an explanation of the changing attitudes and emphases shown in histories of the conflict written from the immediate aftermath to the present day. Accepting that, with few exceptions, the Blackadder/Oh What a Lovely War “lions led by donkeys” view prevails today the book sets out both to disprove that simplistic message and to detail the complex and far reaching changes forced upon the army and on tactics by the ever increasing scale of the war and the technological advances.
Though such a subject is expertly and convincingly argued by Holmes it is in his detailing of the minutiae of the life (and death) of those involved in the fighting on the Western Front that this book excels. Illustrated throughout by extracts from letters and diaries of all ranks this book brings life to and an understanding of the trials and hardships of life both in the front line and behind. Speaking of illustrations the one area where this book does fall down is in the size and quality of the photographs; Holmes may invite us to notice a detail that would be evident in the original picture but is lost by scaling and reproduction in print.
This is a weighty book, both in the breadth and depth of scholarship displayed and in its physical bulk, discounting the almost 100 pages of bibliography, glossary and index the text runs to almost 650 pages. Whether you read this from page one to the end or dip in and out of subjects by picking from the index you will gain a deeper understanding of a war that shaped the twentieth century and the repercussions of which still bear upon our lives today.