Tommy, p.85Richard Holmes
I am already casting my mind forward to think what I will do when Sahib is safely delivered. I might look at three separate battles, spread widely across British military history, perhaps starting with the Somme, or I might revert to my first love, the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71, and write something on the battles of August 1870, which unrolled on those haunted acres ‘between the spires of Metz and the bare uplands of Gravelotte’. But whatever my choice, it will, I think, be influenced by two things. Firstly, I do not think that one can write about battles without walking the ground that they were fought on: I am more and more struck by the importance of ‘microterrain’. Secondly, we ought to listen to what soldiers tell us. One of the real delights of working on the present trilogy has been going back to first-hand contemporary accounts. They are one of the things that always keeps the subject fresh for me. War, with its dark shadow and occasional flashes of bright sunlight, is indeed mankind’s most passionate drama, and many of the dramatis personae have left accounts that deserve reading. I could spend a lifetime in the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum or the Liddle Collection in Leeds and never get bored.
Q. The sweep of your expertise covers several centuries. How do you think British soldiers have evolved in that time?
A. There are strong patterns of change and continuity in the British army. Any army is a reflection of the society that produces it, and the British army has evolved as society has changed. But it has not moved in quite the same way or at quite the same pace, for it emphasizes qualities and virtues which are often seen as old-fashioned and traditional, and not always in accordance with the prevailing mood in the civilian community. Getting the balance right between tradition and modernization has been no easy task for the army’s leaders and if, at many times in its history, they have erred on the side of conservatism and caution, it is in part because of concern about sacrificing proven qualities for untested theories. As it happens I think they have often been too cautious, and at least one of the reasons for the British army’s painful ascent of the (ghastly phrase) ‘learning curve’ of 1914–18 was the difficulty its senior commanders had with managing change. Both the Canadian and ANZAC Corps were widely regarded as among the best troops fighting under British command on the Western Front in 1914–18. Both, by the war’s end, were commanded by ‘amateur’ soldiers who had not been pre-war regulars. Yet not a single British’amateur’ soldier commanded even a division, one level down the chain of command from corps. Can it be that Canada and Australia, with their far smaller populations, were unique in producing non-regular officers capable of commanding at high level? Or was it that the British army, much as I love it, persisted in producing generals in its own image?
The British soldier himself has obviously evolved since the formation of the regular army in the 1660s. He has become, over the years, less rural and more urban, and the Scots and Irish proportion of the army, which once far exceeded the proprtion of the Scots and Irish population in the United Kingdom, has steadily shrunk. He has often embarked upon military service because civilian jobs were hard to find. Although this is something of an oversimplification, for there were both gentlemen-rankers and commissioned ex-NCOs throughout the period, it is not unfair to see the regular army, for the first three centuries of its existence, as an army of poor men officered by rather more well-to-do ones. Soldiers have become more questioning and less inherently deferential, decreasingly amenable to codes of behaviour determined purely by discipline; and, as civilian life has generally become more comfortable and less hazardous, so the inevitable discomforts and randomness that chracterize military operations present, at least on the face of things, a greater challenge than they did in the past.
Q. The story of Tommy is ultimately one of endurance. Do you think today’s armies would be capable of the same fortitude?
A. We must be very very careful in trying to assess whether today’s soldiers could emulate their predecessors. It has often been suggested that today’s young are too materialistic, unfit and inherently ill-disciplined to make good soldiers. I do not believe it for a minute. I have just returned from Iraq, where I stayed with 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (‘The Tigers’.) The battalion is recruited primarily from south-east England, and most of its soldiers come from sprawling cities like Portsmouth, Southampton and the Medway towns. Their average age is around twenty. Over the past five months they have been engaged in a good deal of high-intensity war fighting. At the time of my visit they had fired some 73,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition in about 900 separate contacts with the insurgents, many of them in the searing heat of an Iraqui summer. Their positions had been regularly mortared and rocketed, and over forty soldiers had been killed or wounded. The excellence of their Warrior armoured vehicles and their helmets and body armour, coupled with prompt and effective medical treatment, meant that the proportion of dead to wounded was mercifully low; but for most of their tour these men had both risked death and had to kill their opponents, often at very close range. I was, by degrees, scared, proud and humble. The men of 1 PWRR were brave, comradely, good-humoured and restrained. There were few of the traditional distinctions between officers and soldiers: many of the former came from similar backgrounds to the men they commanded, and what set them apart was their education, training and leadership qualities. The battalion was welded together by an intensity of experience which I had often written about but never before seen at first hand.
Among the ingredients of their success I would put training, notably a month spent on the Canadian prairie living out of their Warriors, and mutual regard: lots of soldiers wanted to tell me how good the boss was and officers constantly spoke about the sheer bravery of their boys. What military sociologists would call primary groups like infantry sections were extraordinarily powerful, but there was also much pride in belonging to good companies and good platoons. Lastly, although the regiment has existed in its present form for twelve years (it is an amalgamation of the Queen’s and Royal Hampshire Regiments), there was a very strong esprit de corps. One private, summming up the impact that it has all had on him, concluded that he now knew who he was: ‘I am a member of the best armoured infantry battalion in the world. I am a Tiger.’
What I cannot tell you is how well all this would survive the impact of a long war with far more serious casualties and, dare I say, a growing realization that the conflict is not popular at home. And, at the risk of restating a truism, there is widespread agreement that the indirect fire of guns and mortars, which makes one feel helpless, is more unsettling than the direct fire of small arms or rocket-propelled grenades. The First World War became a gunner’s war, and that imposed very severe strains on the men who fought in it. I suspect that today’s army may not have the long-term resilience of its ancestors, partly because the impact of those social changes I talked about earlier is probably impossible to resist. But, at least for the medium term, I have to say that young Tom is a formidable soldier. ►
Q. Did Tommy differ from his German and French counterparts? How did this affect the outcome of the war?
A. The essential difference between the British army and its French allies and German opponents is that the French and German armies were conscript. From long before the war they were a social melting-pot, taking fit young men from all social classes, and providing not simply military training but, so many politicians argued, a firm foundation for future social and political responsibility. Young conscripts today: responsible fathers of families tomorrow. In contrast, the British regular army tended to fill its ranks with men who had enlisted as a last resort. The Territorial Force did a good deal to make soldiering more socially respectable, and some of its smarter battalions – the London Rifle Brigade and the Artists’ Rifles are two cases in point – had a high proportion of middle-class men serving in the ranks.
British soldiers no more relished being called Tommies than French soldiers liked being called poilus or Germans enjoyed being addressed as Fritz: Fren
When considering the British soldier in the war I often use expressions like ‘enduring’ and ‘durable’. He was generally less liable than his French counterpart to bursts of large-scale elation or depression, more likely to turn sullen than to panic. He avoided the depths of despair, though Third Ypres tried him sorely. He usually retained a remarkable sense of humour, dark or cynical though it was. Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoons could only have appeared in the British army. It is said that the Germans produced a know-your-enemy booklet which included the Bairnsfather cartoon of two soldiers in a ruined house. The ‘young and talkative one’ observes a large hole in the wall, asking: ‘What made that ’ole?’ The ‘old and fed-up one’ replies drily: ‘Mice.’ The pamphlet added guidance for its readers: ‘It was not mice. It was a shell.’ The war on the Western Front eventually became a sheer battle of endurance, won as much by the staying-power of its combatants as by any other single factor. It was here that the British army’s long-term ‘bottom’ really showed. Despite the terrible damage done by the German spring offensives of 1918, this army of 18-year-old privates and 25-year-old battalion commanders rallied to play its distinguished part in the war’s last Hundred Days.
Q. The First World War began ninety years ago yet it is still a fascinating subject for readers and authors. Why is this?
A. It is generally true to say that the First World War attracts disproportionate interest in Britain. That is partly because, for Britain at least, it saw far more men serving than any other conflict before or since, and saw more of them killed or wounded. The first day of the Battle of the Somme is still the bloodiest in British history, and 1914-18 was the only time in history when the British army confronted the main power of a major continental adversary in a war’s main theatre for the whole of the conflict’s duration. There is also a feeling that, as far as British society is concerned, the First World War is a pair of iron gates separating the present from the past. In strictly objective terms, this is not wholly accurate: for instance, it was not simply a case of the war bringing about the decline of the landed aristocracy or giving birth to the labour movement. Yet I always find something unutterably poignant about the Somme, which did not just do awful quantitative damage (with around 420,000 British casualties) but also inflicted a terrible qualitative loss on a whole generation. The burgeoning fascination with family history has, in its way, increased interest in the war. My postbag bulges with letters from people anxious to know what grandfathers and great-uncles did in the Great War; what they meant in their letters by a Blighty One, and how a leave-roster actually worked.
Q. Why did it produce so much great literature?
A. I have a long-standing gripe that we generally come to the war through literature rather than through history, so I answer this question with some ambivalence! But I think the war produced such a huge amount of good (not to mention bad and indifferent) literature because it propelled more men into uniform than any previous conflict. It took volunteers and conscripts from across the whole social spectrum, and confronted them with a range of experiences that most could never even have dreamt of. And this was a generation used to expressing itself in writing: many men, not just middle-class officers, kept diaries, wrote long letters home, and contributed to ‘trench newspapers’.
The sheer variety of the contemporary literature is a constant delight. I am particularly fond of the diaries of Ernest Shephard, an NCO in the Dorset Regiment for much of the war, and killed as a newly commissioned officer in early 1917. Although he had left school at fourteen, he wrote a good hand, and his diaries are both descriptive and thoughtful. After the war, people wrote books and poetry for a whole mix of motives, and the conflict’s status as ‘the Great War’ inspired a stream of literature until well into the 1930s. Even the Second World War did not staunch the flow, and there was another burst of writing in the 1960s. C. P. Blacker’s wonderful Have You Forgotten Yet? came out as recently as 2000.
However, I often feel uncomfortable about novels set during the war. This is, I am sure, largely my own fault: having steeped myself in the subject for so long, I am always too ready to detect inaccuracies (real or imagined!) and to become irritated by stereotypes. I suspect that most policemen probably don’t enjoy crime series on the television. But the continued success of First World War literature is, I think, evidence that this huge and terrible war still casts its chilly shadow over our own times.
Q. People always hope that some good can come from conflict. Did anything good come from the First World War?
A. It is impossible to prove a negative: we cannot tell what the world would have been like without the First World War, and quite what might have happened had conflict not broken out in 1914. Nor can we blame major figures in history for lacking our own knowledge: we can censure them only for making poor decisions on the basis of what they knew at the time. I believe that, although the war’s outbreak might have been averted by more astute diplomacy, and the peace which followed it might have been better managed, it was not unreasonable for Britain to go to war in 1914.
Britain’s participation did much to prevent a German victory, the consequences of which would probably have had dire results for the rest of Europe. The real pity of war, to borrow from both Wilfred Owen and Niall Ferguson, was that the victory of the men whose efforts this book examines was wasted. They did not return to a land fit for heroes to live in, and a whole host of factors – economic as well as political – ensured that the Treaty of Versailles was merely a twenty-year truce. So as we look back at the war now, ninety years on, I am not sure that much good did come from it. Many British soldiers were far more optimistic in November 1918, and in that shortfall between their expectations and the hard realities of the twenties and thirties lies the real tragedy.
Q. What would you say is the greatest popular misconception about the war?
A. From the British viewpoint, it concerns the way it was fought on the Western Front. First, generals did not attack there because they were stupid, vain bullies with no idea of the power of modern weapons – though doubtless some were! They attacked because the Germans had taken a great slice of territory belonging to our principal ally, France, and they did so at a time when weapons technology had made defence the stronger form of war. So battles like the Somme, which had sound strategic logic, nevertheless faced serious tactical obstacles. And it is important to remember that if means of killing h
This is emphatically not a book about British generals, although some reviewers evidently felt that it ought to be. And this, really, is the last element of the misconception. British generals (about whom I remain distinctly ambivalent) managed to perform no better and not much worse than their allies or opponents, which ought, perhaps, to give us some pause for thought, given the fact that the rapid wartime expansion of the army resulted in wholly unexpected promotion for many senior officers. The men who fought under them were neither untrained cannon-fodder nor a pitifully cowed herd, though we can find examples where men were indeed inadequately trained or where discipline was unfeelingly applied. They brought into the army all the strengths and weaknesses of the society that had produced them. They suffered and endured, joked, smoked and (when they got the opportunity) drank. Most, given the chance, would probably have never have become soldiers, and many, though certainly not all, looked back on the war with horror. But, unshaven and lousy, grumpy and cynical, they formed the greatest popular army in British history, and should be remembered for that, not cast as bit-players in a drama they would never recognize.
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