- Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, 1914–1918
Mud. Barbed wire. Tragic and weary infantry machine-gunned in futile offensives. Incompetent and callous leadership. Lions led by donkeys. Fields of graves. And the ultimate ignominy: a lost peace. While Paul Fussell famously argued that the "uniquely awful" circumstances of the British war effort in northern France and Flanders defied rational explanation—that, in [End Page 250] fact, it lay "outside history" proper (p. xviii)—Richard Holmes believes the contrary: that in British life, as in the memories of its survivors, the western front is a clearly discernible epoch, wholly understandable in historical terms. At the heart of this admirable tome are the papers, memoirs, and official unit histories of the participants.
There are many things that make this book an attractive piece of scholarship: its general even-handedness, its attention to detail, its illumination of obscure subjects, its effortless humanity. Indeed, one is as likely to learn about the special pleading of a young girl who asked Lord Kitchener to spare her pony during an early war requisitioning blitz (he did) as about the disposition of a division at the front (at full establishment of about 10,000 men, only 1,000 could be expected to be manning the parapet), the length of a communication trench (some as long as three miles), who received staff cars (divisional commanders and above), the social composition of the officer corps (by 1918, extremely heterogeneous), gas masks (effective, but never comfortable or easy to fight in), underground warfare (psychologically devastating), or about the development of new arms such as the Tank Corps (not entirely useful, but a harbinger of things to come) and Machine Gun Corps (extremely effective), to name only a few of the subjects on which Holmes sheds light. In the bigger picture, far from lambs led to the slaughter, the 1918 BEF had become a sophisticated fighting force, incorporating mixed platoons comprised of Lewis gunners, bombers, rifle bombers and riflemen. Without this evolution, which had had a painful teething period in 1916 and 1917, the victories of 1918 would have been impossible.
Holmes also weighs in on still emotionally sensitive subjects, including British generals (far less cavalrymen among them than hitherto thought; and the casualties they suffered were far heavier than in the Second World War), capital-courts martial (the benefit of the doubt usually went to the accused), and officer-man relations (extremely important, usually effective, and central to morale and discipline).
There are problems. Frustratingly, one soon realizes that even though the book bulges with 31 pages of endnotes, whether a sentence is documented or not is in fact purely at the whim of the author. On pages 545 and 546, for instance (there are many others), Holmes fails to provide citations for the passages mentioning Frank Crozier and the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers respectively. And the sources themselves are far from faultless. As Holmes is adamant that only contemporaneous sources will reveal the true "Tommy," not the memoirs or musings of the postwar authors (though plenty of these are cited), this is especially unfortunate. Censorship—both formal, by officers, and self-imposed, by the writer himself—prevented many letter-writers from speaking freely on a wide variety of subjects. Furthermore, because diaries were against King's regulations, they were often written up surreptitiously and hastily. Perhaps most damning, the majority of surviving documentation derives from the literate (and literary) class of officers and men, and not from the ordinary Tommy, many of whom remain in France, never wrote a letter beyond a few lines, and had they had the opportunity [End Page 251] to write about their experiences in a free and unfettered fashion, I suspect, may very well have elucidated the experience of the soldiers at the sharp end in different ways.
Most perplexing of all, there is little recognition of the basic fact that, though estimates vary, troops spent a majority of their time on the western front well...