In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

20 Historically Speaking · November/December 2005 The British Soldier Then and Now: An Interview with Richard Holmes Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa Richard Holmes is one ofBritain s leading military historians. He has written over a dozen books on military topics. He isperhaps best knownforActs ofWar: The Behavior ofMen in Battle (1986) and Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle (1986), a companion book to the prizewinning BBC TV series with John Keegan. In 1993 he rode on horsebackfrom Mons to the River Marne, following the route ofthe British Expeditionary Force in 1914, which led to Riding the Retreat (1995). He was general editor ofThe Oxford Companion to Military History (2001). He has also written Wellington: The Iron Duke (2002) and In the Footsteps ofChurchill (2005). Professor Holmes is completing a trilogy on the history ofthe British soldier: Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket (2002); Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, 1914-1918 (2005); and Sahib: The British Soldier in India, 1750-1914 (forthcoming). He was a member ofthe department ofwar studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst between 1969 and 1985, when he left to command 2ndBattalion The Wessex Regiment. In 1995 he became professor ofmilitary and security studies at Cranfleld University. Professor Holmes has written andpresentedseveral televisionprograms, including two six-partBBC Two series, War Walks I and War Walks II, as well as a series on the Western front. He was appointed OBE (Officer ofthe Order ofthe British Empire) in 1986 and received the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1998. In 1999 he became Colonel ofthe Princess of Wales s Royal Regiment. Historically Speaking editor Donald Yerxa interviewed him on August 5, 2005. Donald A. Yerxa: You wrote Tommy at least in part because you were dissatisfied with the way the First World War on the Western Front has been remembered and narrated. What is the nature of your dissatisfaction , and how does Tommy address this? Richard Holmes: My first problem is that most of us here in the United Kingdom come to the war as literature before we come to it as history. And if I am talking to a school audience , I can be sure they have read Wilfred Owen's poems in EngLit before they've read any history on the war. The war has become a literary event more than a historical event, and that worries me. I happen to be a fan of the Siegfried Sassoon trilogy, but it postdates the war by quite a long time. The second problem is that we've tended increasingly to want a reason for the war and the loss of life. The war cost Britain and its empire 1 million dead. It's the first really big, costly war that we Brits fought—more costly even than the Second World War. We look at it like an iron gate that separates the past from the present. And we want a reason for how this happened and why our politicians and commanders let us in for it. So there has been a great tendency to see the war in terms of what I call the "donkeys school" ofhistoriography [from the cliché that the British army consisted of lions led by donkeys ]—that is to say generalship, for and against. There are writers who write perfectly respectable books about generals and never address private soldiers. The final issue has to do with the fact that this was a very literate army. Soldiers wrote letters; they kept diaries. These were often middle-class men who wrote about what they thought. It seems that ifwe want to understand the war, we ought to go back to what the soldiers told us about it. And in Britain there is no excuse for not doing that. There are two great burgeoning archives—one in the Imperial War Museum in London and another in the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds—full of material and expanding so quickly that a working historian can barely keep track of it. And I wanted to go back to what they told us about what they were doing. There are dangers in this because...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 20-24
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.