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Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front (2004)

by Richard Holmes

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310361,588 (4.08)8
The first history of the First World War to put the British soldier who fought in the trenches centre-stage. This superb and important book tells the story of this epic and terrible war through the letters, diaries and memories of those who fought it. Unmissable. The First World War is deeply dug into the consciousness of the British. The images it conjures are of blood, barbed wire, shell-holes filled with dead bodies; of subalterns with wispy moustaches who never had the chance to grow old; of soldiers with faces vacant with shell-shock; of great aunts who never married. Holmes, one of Britain's foremost military historians and TV presenters, broke new ground when he published Redcoat: his history of the British soldier 1750-1860. Now in the same inimitable style, Tommy tells the story of the First World War through the experiences of those who fought it. Over 6 million men served in the British army (22% of the adult male population). Nearly one million lost their lives and over 2 million were wounded. completely unseen letters, diaries, memoirs and poetry of 1914-1918 to complete his picture of the generation that fought and died in the mud of Flanders during the First World War, the life and character of Sgt Tommy Atkins is cast. Richard Holmes quotes many who wrote at lunchtime and died before tea; of women who lost husbands and brothers in the same afternoon and those who's mental health was destroyed for ever by shell shock. He examines their motivation, the impact of their service, their attitudes to war and to the enemy, and ultimately the legacy of their experience. This book covers completely new ground and the result is a moving testament to the courage and sacrifice of a generation. It tells -- for the first time -- the real story of trench warfare, the strength and fallability of the human spirit, and the individuals behind an epic event. It is an emotional and unforgettable masterpiece from one of our most important historians.… (more)
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In 1914, five major powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand, Russia, France, and Britain on the other, went to war over the small nations of Serbia and Belgium. The Austro-Hungarian army lost the capacity for independent action by the end of 1914. The Russian army collapsed into revolution and the French army succumbed to mutiny in 1917, thought it recovered somewhat by the following year. The German army was defeated in 1918. Alone among the original five powers, the army of Britain and it’s Empire went through the war intact. How did it manage this? The late [a:Richard Holmes|3002506|Richard Holmes|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1249593865p2/3002506.jpg] sets out to answer that question in this fine book.

This is not an arrows on maps history of the war, but an examination of the British army on the Western Front. We learn what motivated its soldiers to fight, how they fought, what happened to them when they didn't, what they did between fights, how they felt about each other, how they felt about their enemy, how they felt about the war, and much else besides.

These were men who might experience the following;

"One day...a shell hit the officers' latrine, sending the screen flying. I was shocked to see a man still sitting there on the throne and I thought he must be dead. I ran as hard as I could and arrived to find Ellison up and adjusting his trousers. He said with a grin, 'It was lucky that the shell came when it did as I was feeling a bit constipated'"

"(One soldier remembered) the sight of a Saxon boy crushed under a shattered tank, moaning 'Mutter, Mutter, Mutter,' out of ghastly grey lips. A British soldier, wounded in the leg, and sitting near by, hears the words, and dragging himself to the dying boy, takes his cold hand and says 'All right, son, it's all right, Mother's here with you'"


One great grandfather of mine went into the trenches in late 1914, made it through to the end, and lived until 1979. Another joined up in 1914 and was one of the Sheffield Pals, losing an arm and an eye in his first and only day of combat on the Somme on July 1st, 1916. His brother in law likewise joined up in 1914 and fought until September 1918 when he was killed, two months before the end of the war. I never met any of these men, but after reading this book I feel as though I know them a little better. ( )
  JohnPhelan | Nov 9, 2015 |
Richard Holmes at his best. Excellent description of life for a British soldier in the First World War. He writes with technical proficiency, good scholarship, and underlying it all, strong sentiment. ( )
  RobertP | Jan 29, 2011 |
A good read and a great resource for those interested in the intricacies and nuances of the British military, especially the average "Tommy" during the First World War. Chock full of quotes, photos and annotations; well worth the effort to locate this seemingly hard to find book. I will absolutely seek out his Wellington book. ( )
  BruderBane | Mar 27, 2007 |
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[None]
Dedication
For Lizzie, with love and admiration.
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In 1815 a War Office publication showing how the Soldier's Pocket Book should be filled out gave as its example one Private Thomas Atkins, No. 6 Troop, 6th Dragoons.

(Prologue : Tommy Atkins)
Contemporaries instinctively called it Great: La Grande Guerre, Weltkrieg, and we can easily see why.

(Introduction)
Even his white cotton long johns, the last resort of comfort and dignity, are soaked by the mud he has been lying in for the past half hour.
Quotations
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that
An "Tommy, 'ow's your soul?"
But it's "Thin red lines of 'eroes"
When the drums begin to roll.

RUDYARD KIPLING
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The first history of the First World War to put the British soldier who fought in the trenches centre-stage. This superb and important book tells the story of this epic and terrible war through the letters, diaries and memories of those who fought it. Unmissable. The First World War is deeply dug into the consciousness of the British. The images it conjures are of blood, barbed wire, shell-holes filled with dead bodies; of subalterns with wispy moustaches who never had the chance to grow old; of soldiers with faces vacant with shell-shock; of great aunts who never married. Holmes, one of Britain's foremost military historians and TV presenters, broke new ground when he published Redcoat: his history of the British soldier 1750-1860. Now in the same inimitable style, Tommy tells the story of the First World War through the experiences of those who fought it. Over 6 million men served in the British army (22% of the adult male population). Nearly one million lost their lives and over 2 million were wounded. completely unseen letters, diaries, memoirs and poetry of 1914-1918 to complete his picture of the generation that fought and died in the mud of Flanders during the First World War, the life and character of Sgt Tommy Atkins is cast. Richard Holmes quotes many who wrote at lunchtime and died before tea; of women who lost husbands and brothers in the same afternoon and those who's mental health was destroyed for ever by shell shock. He examines their motivation, the impact of their service, their attitudes to war and to the enemy, and ultimately the legacy of their experience. This book covers completely new ground and the result is a moving testament to the courage and sacrifice of a generation. It tells -- for the first time -- the real story of trench warfare, the strength and fallability of the human spirit, and the individuals behind an epic event. It is an emotional and unforgettable masterpiece from one of our most important historians.

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