Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914–1918
reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914–1918
by Richard Holmes
Harper Perennial, 2004

Tommies After a Victory

Tommy is an interpretation of the personal lives of British soldiers during World War One. It addresses such wide-ranging issues as battle, rest, trench love affairs, the shooting of prisoners, barbed wire, rats, horses, nicknames, communal singing, and food. Because much of what we know has come through literature, it is important to provide a different story, argues Holmes, one that is not preoccupied with battles, political, strategic and operational issues but with "the men who actually fought the war" (xxiii). Tommy is based neither on interviews nor on memory but on what people thought at the time. Letters, diaries, and an assortment of ephemera are Holmes's most important sources. He illustrates, for example, that "there is something unutterably poignant about a diary entry written by somebody who didn't know whether he would be alive to eat his supper that day" (xxiv). Divided into six chapters ("The old front line," "Flesh and blood," "Brain and nerve," "Earth and wire," "Steel and fire," and "Heart and soul"), Tommy contains numerous personal accounts of soldiers of different ranks and from different social classes. A few examples are given below to show the range and poignancy of the material. With respect to diaries, Corporal John Lucy describes the retreat from Mons in August 1914 and the enormous pressure on the men:

I rate Tymble for lurching out of his section of fours, and he tells me to go to bloody hell. I say: 'Shut up, cover over, and get the step.' He tells me that bastards like me ought to be shot for annoying the troops and it would not take him long to do it. I get annoyed, and moving close to him ask him what he would suppose I would be doing while he was loading up to shoot me. His comrade nudges him. He twitters like a drunkard, wipes his mouth wearily with his sleeve, and says he is sorry. A bad business. Too much on the men when they begin to talk like that (31).

Order Now
Diary entries are highly evocative not only because the writer does not know if he is about to die but also because of their sparseness. An entry from Captain Rowland Fielding's diary, which covers two consecutive days in May 1915, is a case in point. The first day begins at 5 p.m. with Fielding's arrival in the trenches. This is followed by a series of messages (each outlined in brief); these begin at 6:45 p.m. and continue until 2 a.m. Fielding goes to bed at 3:30 a.m., is woken at various points during the night to respond to messages, orders the re-burying of "a Fritz who, owing to a night's rain, has suddenly appeared in Regent Street" (186), and receives an unexpected visit from the brigadier-general and staff. The brevity of the latter's order serves to emphasize Fielding's frustration — "everything that has been dug out [is] to be filled in and everything that has been filled in [is] to be dug out" (186). It is not clear to what extent this should include the body of "Fritz." When the brigadier-general leaves, the officers turn to "eating chocolates, writing letters home to children and picking flowers off the bank" (186), a temporary but clearly much needed retreat from the harsh reality of war.

Soldiers' letters are equally evocative. Holmes includes an extract by the war poet Wilfred Owen. The letter is dated 31 December 1917:

But chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be in England; nor can it be seen in any battle, but only in Etaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfolded look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit's (346).

The literary nature of the letter is in sharp contrast to the sparse diary entries, but both are evocative in their different ways. Holmes's study also contains letters from ordinary soldiers.

Chaplains' notes are also a valuable source of information about conditions at the front. Chaplains often took dictation from men who wanted to send letters home, they comforted the injured and helped with first aid. Holmes quotes notes by among others Julian Bickersteth, dictated by a young private:

The worst wounded seemed often to feel less pain than those who had slighter wounds. The shock of a shattered limb seemed to destroy the nerves in that part of the body. One lad said to me, 'Oh my leg is so stiff, Sir,' and the boy's leg was smashed altogether … But I heard no word of complaint, and scarcely a groan, 1 July 1916. (476).

Tommies Heading Down That Long, Long Trail A-Winding

Holmes concludes his story of the war with the comment that we can only "judge the men who fought the war by their motives and achievements, not by the conflict's origins or results" (631). He urges us to honor the memory of the men. The final sentence — "And let us do better for their great-grandchildren than we did for them" (631) — is a clear challenge. The first step is to ensure that we understand the extent of the sacrifices made by the British Tommy. Holmes's study is an excellent starting point with its numerous extracts from private documents, copious black and white photographs and illustrations, and its comprehensive bibliography. Tommy shows the best and the worst of men who took part in a struggle for which they were ill-equipped but where everyone did his best, in his own way. Such sacrifices shall not be forgotten.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam

1 comment:

  1. Richard Holmes's untimely death in 2011 at the
    age of 65 was a severe loss for military history. I was fortunate enough to be on four battlefield tours that he led including Blenheim, Mons, Loos and The Franco-Prussian War. His friendliness, wit and knowledge made these tours truly outstanding.