Soldiers, p.1Richard Holmes
Army Lives and Loyalties from Redcoats to Dusty Warriors
I. Politics and Position
1: Chuck Him Out, the Brute
2: King’s Army
3: Parliament’s Army
4: Brass and Tapes
5: To Observe and Obey
6: Weekend Warriors
II. Gallant Gentlemen and Officers
7: A National Army: 1660–1914
8: Temporary Gentlemen: 1914–45
9: Sandhurst: Serve to Lead
10: Church Militant
III. Recruiting a National Army
11: Soldier Boys
12: The King’s Shilling
13: Pressed into Service
14: All Pals Together
15: Foreign Friends
16: Women Soldiers
IV. Tribes And Totems
17: The Regimental Line
18: Imponderable Entities
19: The Regiments Depart
20: Tribal Markings
21: Full of Strange Oaths, and Bearded Like the Pard
22: Tunes of Glory
V. Habits and Habitat
23: The Rambling Soldier
24: Barrack-Room Blues
25: Bullies and Beast-Masters
26: Oh! What a Time Those Officers Have
27: The Sergeants’ Mess Dinner is Worth Putting Down
28: Campaigners Straight and Gay
29: Officers’ Wives Get Puddings and Pies
Other Books by Richard Holmes
About the Publisher
RICHARD HOLMES WAS a professional in several fields. As an author he never failed to fulfil a contract, so it is ironic and tragic for his many readers that an untimely death prevented him from completing the final touches of this his last book. However, we are lucky that he left it in such good shape that only the odd addition has had to be made. This was typical of the man whose sense of duty meant that he always did what he promised. The trouble was that he frequently promised too much.
I was an unlikely friend to Richard Holmes, he an academic and I with not an A level to my name. It was a chance remark and a question that led us to be companions astride our horses, first in France and then in other parts of the world. Our love of the horse and history forged a friendship which coped with late nights, hangovers, and a good deal of snoring. To spend weeks on end in the company of this extraordinarily well-informed man was to me a great joy. On those days the modern world was far away, and only occasionally did outside communication interrupt our imagining of another age and another battle. Reading the pages of this book, I felt increasingly that he was beside me at the camp fire, enjoying a mug of local liquor, telling one more anecdote, one more yarn. On those trips we were a happy band; Richard’s repartee and amusing turn of phrase were an important part of the expedition even when things went wrong – ‘we have a bijou problemette’. Where there was Richard, there were also smiles and laughter.
Richard played many roles in his life but soldiering was at the heart of it. From those early days when he joined the Territorial Army and when he studied the Franco-Prussian War at university, he had a fascination for the history of warfare – but then so do many others. He was unusual in that his power of recall was quite extraordinary in its breadth and detail. While on a tour of a World War One battlefield, he stayed at a French nobleman’s house. After the introductions, he remarked in his particular style of French, that it was a pleasure to meet the descendants of a family who had fought against the English at Crécy. The family were astonished at his knowledge of French history, and could not do enough for him and his companions. His other notable quality was the way he made his subject so interesting to the reader or listener. One of his obituarists described how he captured the imagination of a group of sceptical soldiers to whom history was unimportant. It was this skill that made him such a brilliant teacher, and there are many of us who reacquired an appetite for military history through his involvement with the army’s Staff College. He had the trick of making that interest and knowledge relevant to today’s operational theories. There were 1,300 people at his memorial service; well over a hundred were senior officers who had sat at his feet at some stage or other. He became the professional head of the Territorial Army at a critical moment, and his passionate defence of that organisation – which played such a large part in his life – marked him out as a fine and selfless leader. The army and the country have much to be grateful to him for.
Richard was at his best on the very ground where a battle was won or lost. He had a good eye for ground and was able to describe in a matter-of-fact way what had occurred at a particular spot. He always related his account to the various hills, valleys, and ridges in front of us, so that you could almost smell and hear the action. His stories of the personalities involved and their unusual habits brought that element of humanity to the story, quite often causing a great deal of mirth. Written notes tended to be just a few headings; it was invariably the way he answered questions that held the crowd.
The soldier, with all his qualities good and bad, was a passion for Richard. He was deeply moved following his two visits to his regiment in Iraq where they had a particularly testing time. Dusty Warriors is his homage to the soldier of today and to the regiment which adopted him – a Territorial – as their Colonel; he was rightly proud of this unusual accolade. This book shows his devotion to the profession of arms at a very personal level. He much regretted that during his life he had not undergone that test of courage, and Dusty Warriors was, in a strange way, his penance.
Soldiers is a typical Holmes product, full of detail usefully comparing modern soldiering with the echoes of the past. His technique of bringing perspective to the events of today through the prism of history is always leavened by that inimitable wit for which he was renowned. Having been a private soldier in the yeomanry at an early age he acquired an inner knowledge of how the dynamics of the barrack room worked; this always made him instinctively sympathetic to the plight of the ‘Tom’. His trilogy, Redcoat, Sahib, and Tommy are masterpieces of the social history of the British Army but Soldiers adds spice to the mix. Although many will be aware of the ‘lives and loyalties’ of the British army, few of us are able to describe them in such an amusing and readable way.
As I write this, I am about to embark on another ride in the Borders; we are calling it the Reivers’ Ride and the choice of country and period were Richard’s. He was once more to be our companion and resident historian, as we fundraise for his favourite charity ABF, The Soldiers’ Charity, a charity for which he raised well over a quarter of a million pounds underlining, perhaps, this book’s theme: that all soldiers deserve our sympathy, praise, and ultimately a ‘hand up’. In the weeks before his death, it was this expedition which provided some sort of goal. He will be much in our thoughts as we relive the English victory at Flodden or Cromwell’s annihilation of the Scots at Dunbar. Jessie and Corinna, his daughters, will be with us for part of the ride, making it all the more poignant. I, for one, will miss those tales – perhaps even excerpts from this book – which would have been so much better heard than read, but the time lords will have to work their magic before I can enjoy that old familiar voice.
IT IS USELESS to deny it. I have loved Tommy Atkins, once a widely used term for the common soldier, since I first met him. And love is the right
The door was answered by a small, rather timid man who invited us in. ‘We’re looking for some soldiers’, my colleague explained, giving their names. ‘Oh yes, they’re here,’ the man told us, ‘upstairs, screwing my wife.’ A few moments later, nine rather shame-faced soldiers appeared with the fattest and ugliest woman I have ever seen. She was quite clearly drunk and farted noisily as she came into the room … Later I asked one of the boys what he could conceivably have found attractive in the woman. ‘The more gopping the slag is, Sir,’ he replied, ‘the better she is at it.’2
The same author identified the moment he decided to resign his commission:
At 2 a.m. the Duty Officer’s phone rang and I lifted it, half asleep, ‘Guardroom Sir, we’ve got a tech stores man down here – he says he’s beaten up his wife.’ I got there in a few minutes to find a very drunk man who had apparently ended an argument with his pregnant wife by kicking her in the stomach. He had got drunk, he told me, because he was fed up with the job and ‘Anyway, that kid’s not mine.’ Neither the wife nor unborn child was seriously injured; but that night I decided to leave the Army.3
Some men look back on their time in uniform with huge satisfaction. One First World War veteran, Sergeant Adolphus ‘Dolph’ Jupe of the Hampshire Regiment, thought that:
I suppose that in our life we give our hearts unrestrainedly to very few things. I had given mine to the battalion and bore its three stripes on my arm with greater pride than I have ever experienced since. We had worn a proud uniform for over five years and with many others I was disconsolate at its putting off. For the sufferings, the sacrifice and the heroism of a million men of our generation whose bones lay at rest across the sea, had raised the prestige of our race to a height never before achieved, and even upon us, however faintly, was reflected the glory of their achievements.4
But another, Bombardier Ronald Skirth, like Jupe a wartime soldier, declared that:
My abhorrence of war equated with a detestation of the war-machine – the Army of which I was a member … it personified everything I despised. I was a cog in that machine, vastly more powerful than myself, so I was compelled to live a hypocrite’s existence5 … By the time the war ended, my prejudices had become so unreasoning and so deeply embedded that I resolved never to accept any honours, promotions, benefits or even monetary advantages from an Authority I both detested and despised.6
Author Colin MacInnes, who served in the Intelligence Corps in a later war, hated the whole thought of killing or being killed, but disliked military service itself almost as much:
Three-quarters of military discipline is mindless, obsolete and wastefully self-frustrating – apart, of course, from being highly irritating. No one can serve in any army for years without being to some extent an inbred malingerer and scrounger, irredeemably slothful.
Conversely, several of the National Servicemen interviewed by Trevor Royle for his book The Best Years of their Lives thought that military service had changed them for the better. ‘I sometimes wonder how different I’d have been without the discipline of National Service,’ asked one. I mean, what did a Teddy Boy graduate to? ‘Most if us did feel proud to be part of an army which had only recently won the war’, admitted another. ‘I feel sorry that modern youth cannot experience such feelings.’7
Tommy Atkins certainly has a capacity for extraordinary gentleness. Guardsman Gerald Kersh was abed in a Second World War Nissen hut when the rest of his squad of potential officers returned, heavy-footed, from the cinema:
Everybody clumped in … I breathed regularly, and kept my nose under the blankets. Then I heard a Potential Officer of a Rifle Brigade Sergeant say: ‘Take it easy. Have a little consideration. Man asleep here.’
Something clicked above my head. Looking out of the narrow slit of one partly-raised eyelid, I saw the Rifle Brigade Sergeant take my greatcoat off its hook, open it, shake it gently and approach me. He covered me with it, and then everybody went to bed.
It was not that I was ill, it was not that I was fragile and in need of protection. I was asleep.8
He has a harsh edge too. The capture of Goose Green in the Falklands by 2 Para in 1982 was a remarkable feat of low-level dogged courage, and earned a posthumous Victoria Cross for its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel H. Jones. Ken Lukowiak, who fought there as a private, admitted that one of his comrades carried a couple of pairs of dental pliers ‘to acquire gold’, and a handful of his comrades looking at a pretty girl’s photograph were soon speculating about her propensity for vigorous anal intercourse.9 The gallant victors neither expected nor received kid-glove handling, as Lukowiak, chided by Colour Sergeant Frank Pye for obeying an order to clear up after the battle, assures us:
‘What the fuck are you doing, you stupid cunt?’ said Frank.
‘If I told you I was sweeping the floor, Colour, would you believe me?’
‘Don’t get fucking gobby with me, you crow, or I’ll fucking drop you.’
Nor are officers always chivalrous gentlemen, as Lieutenant Colonel Edward Windus observed in 1761 when telling his colonel why he had thrown Lieutenant Meredyth out of the regiment:
When sober, he cannot keep away from a billiard table, or when drunk, out of a bawdy house, where he is very apt to draw his sword upon friends or foes, though he seldom meets any of the former there, or anywhere else. In short, he has made himself despised by the people of Cork, and this place; as much as he was disagreeable to his brother officers.11
Like a rich and time-worn tapestry, Atkins shuns easy analysis. There is an appetite for alcohol, sex, and casual violence. This is then interwoven seamlessly into a personality indelibly coloured by self-sacrifice, comradeship, generosity, humour, a tenderness for other men that owes little to sexuality, and the fiercest of pride in the primary group. A thick braid of decency is folded around the darker strands of self-indulgence, even though it can never quite conceal them. Whatever the controversies of the occupation of Iraq, Steve Brooks, who served there as an officer with the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, firmly believed that he was doing the right thing:
I have found that soldiers are simple people and in general are apolitical – not amoral. As such I deployed to Ulster to stop children having to walk to school between picket lines under a hail of missiles, to Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing of a population, and to Iraq to secure democracy for a people who deserved the right to it. By looking at the basic scars of Saddam’s regime I knew that we were doing right by the common man.12
Yet the judge advocate in the trial of officers and soldiers court-martialled for alleged involvement in the death in army custody of an Iraqi civilian, Baha Mousa, maintained that evidence within the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment had been impossible to secure because of ‘a more or less obvious closing of the ranks’. After his release from prison, former corporal Donald Payne, who had pleaded guilty to the inhumane treatment of Mousa, maintained that he had seen several of his comrades ‘forcefully kick and/or punch the detainees,’ and added that ‘he had previously covered up the extent of abuse by British troops out of misguided loyalty.’13 Part of the difference between the behaviour of two groups of soldiers, in Iraq at different times and places, is circumstantial. It owes a good deal to local mood, regimental and small-group culture, and the tone set by commanders, senior and junior alik
Rudyard Kipling, the first writer to get to grips with the British private soldier, could be penetratingly honest about the man’s complexity. His own research was carried out in the 1880s with the help of soldiers of the Northumberland Fusiliers and the East Surreys at Mian Mir – the great military cantonment outside Lahore. This allowed him to glimpse a world rarely seen by middle-class outsiders:
The red-coats, the pipe-clayed belts and the pill-box hats, the beer, the fights, the floggings, hangings and crucifixions, the bugle-calls, the smell of the oats and horse-piss, the bellowing sergeants with foot-long moustaches, the bloody skirmishes, invariably mishandled, the crowded troop-ships, the cholera-stricken camps, the ‘native’ concubines, the ultimate death in the workhouse.14
Alongside his heroes, like Captain Crook O’Neil of the ‘Black Tyrone’, stand tragic figures like Private Simmons, mercilessly bullied by Private Losson, who eventually shoots his tormentor and duly hangs for it. In the poem ‘Cells’, the narrator, locked up yet again for being drunk and resisting the guard, regrets that ‘my wife she cries on the barrack-gate, my kid in the barrack-yard’ but knows that ‘as soon as I’m in with a mate and gin, I know I’ll do it again.’15
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