Richard Holmes’ considerable talent as a military historian was to get inside the minds of soldiers and he was able to do this because he shared many of their experiences. Before he died this year, he was planning one last ride along the Scottish Borders to raise money for ABF, The Soldiers’ Charity. Not only did his horsemanship give him an insight into the methods of pre-mechanical warfare, but he was also a brigadier in the Territorial Army, having served most recently in Iraq. His empathy with the ordinary soldier is expressed brilliantly in his final book, Soldiers.
Holmes is less interested here in recreating great battles and campaigns than in evoking the everyday culture of the infantryman. He professes his love for “Tommy Atkins” but is under no illusion about the military character – individual soldiers can be cruel and vicious at one moment yet kind and gentle at another. It is the British Army’s ability to combine the natural and occasionally shocking aggression of young men with discipline and a sense of a purpose that makes it so effective in taming human nature.
Holmes begins with the birth of the uniformed British Army in the late 17th century. It should be noted that before the redcoat acquired its glamour, a uniform was the mark of servitude, worn by prisoners or domestic servants. The English people had just endured the agony of civil war and wanted to be assured that their military regiments were subordinate to civilian government.
In keeping with the book’s thematic approach, an early chapter on Parliament’s Army rapidly advances to explore the changing relationship between politicians and the military. Twenty-two MPs died on military service in the first world war, 23 in the second. But since 1992, no British defence secretary has had any military experience and only 43 MPs in the last parliament had some form of military service.
Further chapters on rank, part-time soldiers, military music, food, alcohol and sex succeed admirably in conveying the complexities of the military mind. Posted abroad, soldiers in the Victorian army would often form relationships with women who were not their wives but much more than prostitutes. One officer, arriving in the West Indies, was shocked to see two of his comrades living with mixed-race women, but his disapproval changed to understanding when he saw the lives of the young men saved by the women who tended them during near-fatal bouts of fever.
The popularity of Methodism in the ranks proved an antidote to rampant alcohol abuse, but the Duke of Wellington believed too much psalm-singing could be equally disruptive and demanded that sermons be kept short. “Say as much as you like in five and twenty minutes,” he instructed an army chaplain. “I shall not stay longer.”
Soldiers is a perfect book to mark the end of Holmes’s distinguished career. Tolerant of soldierly misdemeanours, he also reveals their moments of quiet pleasure and dogged service. When he writes: “There is a good deal of undiluted dandyism to soldiering, and the small satisfaction of a new step up the hierarchy’s long ladder should never be ignored,” he is clearly talking about about himself and his own experience of army life. Such candid autobiographical comments make this book both a pleasure and an education to read.
Tim Newark is the author of ‘Highlander: The History of the Legendary Highland Soldier’ (Constable)
Soldiers: Army Lives and Loyalties from Redcoats to Dusty Warriors, by Richard Holmes, Harper Press, RRP£25, 506 pages