Thursday, November 17, 2016

Book Notes: TOMMY: The British Soldier On The Western Front 1914-1918 by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes' Tommy is a huge book, which describes, in massive detail, every aspect of the experience and organisation of the British military campaign on The Western Front in The Great War. Its' 650+ pages contain chapters on recruitment, training, army structures, uniforms, trench life and warfare, military innovations, leave and entertainment, wounds, death and field hospitals, chaplains, communication, as well as the battles themselves.

Despite the fact that Holmes has an, at-times, rather pedantic eye for detail; this has been a profoundly sobering read. We paused, in our church for the two-minutes silence to remember victims of war this Sunday, almost exactly a hundred years to the day when the dreadful Battle of The Somme finally drew to a close. As we did so, I was almost at the end of this book, images from which pressed vividly on my mind. A century on from the war which was supposed to end all wars, the world looks more dangerous and volatile than it has in my lifetime. Putin seeks a renewed Russian Empire to the East, Trump has made noises about reneging on NATO commitments, leaving the Baltic States vulnerable and the possibility of a European ground war apparently more likely than at anytime since the early stages of the Cold War. Spending Sunday morning reading Holmes' accounts of the corralling of the teenagers of Britain into deadly trenches, then standing for a two-minute silence close to my two teenage sons was unnerving. I deliberately chose to read a WWI book during this centenary remembrance, and this volume is enormously  informative.

The book actually gets better as it goes on, some of the early chapters suffer from the repeated fault of being far too long, and overloading the reader with facts, at the expense of incisive analysis. One of the reasons that I have often struggled to read military history, is that the genre as a whole seems to suffer from this problem. All history writing contains facts; obviously! However, the best history writing has to be more than an archive of information presented in narrative form. The historian must analyse the vast reams of information, look for patterns and answers to debates, and then argue his or her point, using the information selectively; and footnoting rather than regurgitating huge amounts of data. To coin an unforgivably inappropriate metaphor, the chapter on military structures and reorganisations, was like wading through mud..

Thankfully, as indicated previously, the book improves as it goes on. The chapters on trench life and warfare were concise, and powerful. The discussions of military tactics and innovations were as well. Likewise the research and presentation of the life of the soldier away from the line, at play and at church, was also very well done, as were the sections on discipline, communication, the old and new army, horses, artillery, friendship, and aircraft. It is axiomatic that one of the major trends of the twentieth century was secularisation, from the high water mark of Victorian religiosity in the 1860s, through to the marginalisation of religious thought from the 1960s. There has been a long scholarly debate about both the causes of that process, as well as the starting point and rate of the secular advance. Holmes' analysis of the diaries of the trench soldiers, suggest that those who posit and early advance in secularism are closer to the mark - at least amongst this cohort of men. Fascinating too is his suggestion that the Catholic priests were more highly regarded chaplains than their Anglican counterparts, because Roman theology compelled them to wade through the battles to administer the 'last rites' to dying men in no-man's land, in trenches, and in shell-holes; often at huge risk to themselves.

Holmes makes a point throughout this work of debunking many of what he considers to be the myths which have grown up surrounding the Western Front, which he notes sometimes owe more to Blackadder than to historical fact. Such myths include the suggestion that the sons of the upper classes were shielded from loss, because the officers hid while the men went ''over the top'. This myth does not stand up to scrutiny at all, where the reverse seems to have actually been the case; with vast numbers of officers leading the fateful charges at Loos, Ypres, and The Somme et al. Likewise, Holmes is critical of the usual accusation that the planned advance across The Somme valley in the summer of 1916 (and the infamous worst day in the history of the British Army) was the result of sheer stupidity on the part of inept Generals. Holmes painstakingly points out that the battle was strategically necessary to stop German troops moving to other parts of the theatre where they could in 1916 have decisively overwhelmed several ill-prepared defences. 

Holmes also demonstrates that the appalling casualty rates on the opening days of that notorious conflict were not simply the result of a brainless attempt to overwhelm machine-gun fire by sending wave after wave of men to walk into it; but by a combination of the failure of the artillery barrage to clear the path for the infantry (of both enemy troops and physical obstacles), and of the army of of 1916 being totally unable to communicate effectively while in battle. Specifically, the infantry were supposed to advance on foot through areas of no-man's land, cleared of man and wire, towards German trenches behind a 'creeping barrage' of constant shelling. The line of devastating shelling was supposed to land only fifty or so yards in front of them, and the two lines were meant to advance in parallel synchrony. However, when the infantry were slowed down by the unexpected strength which the artillery had failed to knock-out, and by the deep muddy soil, they fell behind the 'creeping barrage' of covering fire. However, they had no effective means of communicating their actual position to the gunners behind the front line. The two repeatedly fell out of sync, leaving the infantry hopelessly vulnerable. The idea that fools in command posts were indifferent to such slaughter is also debunked, in truth, in mid-conflagration, they often had no idea what was going on in the line. 

Similarly, the idea that mentally ill soldiers were routinely shot for cowardice (when they were suffering from what we would now consider PTSD) is examined. There were, of course, some instances where this was undoubtedly the case. However, Holmes is careful to paint a picture of an army struggling to understand such matters, in what was the very early days of psychiatry, and making huge strides in addressing the issue as the war progressed.

Having said all that, Holmes is not simply an apologist for the British Army, nor for the pursuit of The Great War in general. He is often critical of the war, the politicians, and the way in which the war was pursued; but in this book 'Tommy', he is very careful to critique these things in their social, technological and broader historical context. Many of the most stringent criticisms made of the Army are made (quite accurately) but with the benefit of both hindsight and a century of cultural changes; which were completely inaccessible to the protagonists.

Tommy: The British Soldier On The Western Front 1914-18, is a enormously informative read, introducing the reader to all aspects of this defining conflict of modern history. The four photographic sections inserted through the book are fascinating, and rather haunting too. If its' 650+ pages could have been trimmed to around 400, with less repetition and fewer lists of facts and more analysis and summary instead, it would have been less exhaustive a guide, but a more compelling one.

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