422 p. & notes, 2001
I spent all of Anzac Day and most of the following day reading about soldiers. Not Australian ones, but British ones. I was originally spurred to read this book by a question in my mind about the wives of officers in the British Army, but I then realized that British regiments have been just off-stage in the three British colonies that I’ve been studying (Upper Canada, British Guiana, New South Wales). In fact, they’ve been ON the stage all along but I just haven’t been looking there.
Richard Holmes is one of my favourite biographers- as you can tell here and here. This book, however, is written by the OTHER Richard Holmes- the military history one (who died in 2011) . But his opening page certainly started well, and could well have been written by ‘my’ other literary-biography Richard Holmes:
He has not shaved this morning. And from the look of things he shaved neither yesterday nor the day before. Ginger stubble sprouts from a sun-tanned face, with red-rimed blue eyes and a mouth whose teeth stand anyhow, like a line of newly raised militia…. His name is Ezekial Hobden, Hobden to officers, NCOs and most private soldiers but Zeke to a favoured few….(p. 3)
Military history is most definitely not my favourite genre. I dislike the deference, the lionizing of ‘great’ men, the pernickity attention to details about battles and uniforms and regiments, and the “well done those men!” tone of it all. But as Holmes says in his preface
This is not a book about great, or even non-so-great generals, though both feature in it from time to time. And it is not about battles either, even if we are rarely very far away from them. Instead, its concern is for the raw material of generalship and the pawns of battle, the regimental officers and soldiers, (and their wives, sweethearts and followers of a less defined and sometimes rather temporary status) that served in the British army in a century when it painted the world red. p. Xv.
Holmes makes no secret of his admiration for the British Army- he even declares his love (and he uses that word) for “its sheer, dogged, awkward, bloody-minded endurance.” The army he describes in this book existed with relatively little change between 1760 and the eve of World War I. It had two functions: the continental one, with an emphasis on formalism in drill and dress and the scientific aspects of warcraft, and a colonial function where practicality outranked precedent, and dress and discipline were looser. It is this colonial British Army that I have been encountering in my studies without quite acknowledging it. Holmes examines both threads of the British Army, both at home and in deployments in the American War of Independence, the Peninsular campaign, in India and particularly the Indian Mutiny and finally in the Crimea.
His emphasis is on the experience of the officers and soldiers of the British Army, rather than the battles as such. He speaks of recruiting, food, clothing, camaraderie, punishment, equipment, wounds and drunkenness. It is a particularly human account, with only one section on weaponry and its use in battle that had me squirming a bit and wondering why I was reading it. He relies heavily on memoirs from soldiers of all ranks and campaigns, and there’s humour in there, alongside the waste, the waste, the waste. We meet several of his soldiers again and again in different chapters- perhaps he could have had an appendix at the end to remind his readers of who they were when you met them again. But perhaps they’re better left as living, talking men in their memoirs, rather than a cut-and-dried obituary. In fact, he says something like this in his closing pages:
There are moments when a memorial has come as an unexpected shock, for the man it commemorates has featured prominently in the memoirs that have formed so much a part of my working life for the past two years and, ridiculously, I know, it is hard to think of him as being dead. (p. 420)
This is a strangely emotional book for a military history with humour and love written into it. I enjoyed it a great deal.
I am not a big fan of military history but if I had to read one, this sounds like one that I might like. Reading about ordinary soldiers with all their flaws is more interesting than reading about mythical heroes.
Definitely! I really dislike all the glowing praise and stilted language in talking about soldiers in battle.