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

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Tommy: Best Reads on the British Soldier of World War I

Clark Shilling, Reviewer

The BEF Arrives, 1914

Students of the Great War received a wonderful gift this year with the release of Peter Jackson's movie, They Shall Not Grow Old. Digitizing film footage from the Great War and converting it into color, sound, and 3-D, has given us a remarkably modern view of what life was like for British soldiers in the trenches of the Great War. (One of the lasting images from the movie left in my mind was how many of the men had very bad teeth!)

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.

My first recommendation would be the book Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914–1918 by British military historian Richard Holmes. In a very interesting interview included at the end of his book, Professor Holmes stated that it was not his intent to write an operational history, describing battles and "tracing lines on maps." Instead he wanted to author a social history of the British soldier 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.

Holmes covers training, deployment, life in the rear areas as well as what it was like to serve in the front lines. There are chapters devoted to such details as trench construction, the equipment soldiers carried into the trenches, and how the front lines were supplied with food and drink. The author devotes chapters to the individual branches of the army including the infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers, and medical services. Professor Holmes describes how morale was maintained and punishment administered. In a very interesting chapter, Holmes relates how various religious denominations attempted to provide for the spiritual needs of the Tommy.

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.

Passchendaele, 1917

At 631 pages, it is not a quick read, but it is an encyclopedic description of almost every aspect of serving in the British Army in World War I.

My next recommendation is the work of historian Lyn MacDonald. Her books were written over a 20-year period, starting in 1978. At that time, there were still many thousands of surviving British veterans, and MacDonald was able to conduct interviews with many of these former Tommies and incorporate their stories into her books. Some of her books are devoted to a specific year (1914: Days of Hope, 1915: The Death of Innocence) while others focus on specific campaigns (The Somme, They Called It Passchendaele, To the Last Man: Spring 1918). One of her early books, The Roses of No Man's Land was written about the medical services and the nurses who served the BEF. While she includes many details of life in the BEF, in contrast to Holmes's Tommy, MacDonald utilized her interviews with survivors of the war to build operational histories of the campaigns of the BEF.

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
Van Emden continued his work with veterans and in 2005 published Britain's Last Tommies: Final Memories from Soldiers of the 1914–1918 War in Their Own Words. In the years before 2005, van Emden interviewed the last 30 or so survivors of the BEF, and this book records their reminisces, their experiences, and their perspective on the war. The vast majority of this book's 368 pages are filled with these fascinating interviews.

My final recommendation is Max Arthur's book Last Post: The Final Word from Our First World War Soldiers. Also published in 2005, outside of the introduction, the entire work consists of the interviews with the last 21 surviving British veterans of the Great War. It is logical that many of the same contributors to van Emden's book Britain's Last Tommies also contributed to this volume. The works of the other authors listed above are almost exclusively concerned with what the veterans experienced while serving King and Country. What is unique about Last Post is that the veteran's interviews are more autobiographical. The veterans not only comment on their role in the war, they also relate what their lives were like both before they entered the service as well as what they did with the balance of their very long lives after the war. The book includes interviews of soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

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


  1. Very useful review.

    Agreed on Lyn MacDonald. I reviewed her To the Last Man: Spring 1918 here.

  2. Yes, a very useful list indeed--and nicely described. Thank you, Clark!

  3. Richard Holmes has written two other books similar to Tommies: Redcoats (soldiers in the musket era) and Sahib (the British soldier in India) if you want to complete the set.

  4. Thank you for these. I recently discovered that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a six volume history of WW1. I can't review it because I've just started it, but it was a $.99 download on my Kindle.

  5. You are welcome. Sounds like you got quite a deal on the Kindle book.

  6. ‘Chats’ was the nickname for lice. The soldiers huddled together in groups and used a lighted candle to burn off the lice from the seams of their clothes. Hence the word ‘chatting’.

  7. Thank you for this article because it’s really informative, I love reading your article and I hope that I will read some more about this stuff, it’s really informative and very entertaining. Thanks a lot and have a great day.