If you have not seen the movie, or if you have seen it and want to learn more about the British Army in the Great War, please let me recommend the works of several authors who wrote about the experience of the British Expeditionary Force in France in World War I.
One of Holmes's most interesting observations is that the BEF evolved through four distinct phases during the war. The first was the Old Army, the British prewar professional army that landed in France in August 1914. Known as "The Old Contemptibles", it was made up of long-serving soldiers and led by aristocratic officers with strong military traditions. This army was later reinforced by the second army, the Territorials, part-time soldiers whose original job was to protect Britain from invasion while the Old Army served overseas.
The third army was the New Army, also known as Kitchener's Army, consisting of the volunteers who answered Lord Kitchener's call in 1914. This was the army of the pals brigades, groups of men who volunteered together from the same businesses, schools, or neighborhoods and were organized together into units. Their baptism of fire was the Somme Offensive of 1916. The fourth army was the conscript army raised after conscription was instituted in 1916. The conscription army was a younger and more homogeneous army than the previous three, and by 1918, Holmes says, about half of the Tommies were 18-year-olds.
I found this book to be filled with hundreds of interesting small details about a soldier's experience in the trenches of World War I. Did you know, for example, that the King's Regulations until 1916 prohibited the shaving of the upper lip and that officers who did shave were sometimes subject to discipline? He also claims the term "chatting" originated from Tommies visiting while picking chats (lice) from their clothing. I did not know that.
My third recommendation is the work of Richard van Emden. In 1998, the BBC produced a documentary for the 80th anniversary of the end of the war entitled Veterans, the Last Survivors of the Great War. Steven Humphries was the producer of that program, and Richard Van Emden was the researcher. Together, Humphries and van Emden wrote a book by the same name to accompany the documentary. It consisted of interviews with the handful of surviving veterans still alive in the late 1990s. In addition to Tommies, the interviews included sailors, nurses and even a female munition worker. It is a brief book at 200 pages and has numerous photos of the veterans, both during the war as well as photos taken late in their lives.
|Sgt. Alfred Anderson,|
Last Surviving WWI
Veteran of the Black Watch
The title of the movie, They Shall Not Grow Old, is a line from the poem "For the Fallen" written in 1914 by the British poet Laurence Binyon. The line refers to the thousands of young men who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country during the war. But millions of their fellow countrymen served and survived the war to return home, to grow old and to die. Now all of them are gone. The last Tommy, Henry John Patch, died in 2009. There will be no more reunions, no more interviews, and no more pictures. This wonderful movie and the books listed here are the best opportunities I know of to learn what it was like to be a British Tommy in World War I.
Reviewed by Clark Shilling