Military historian whose books and television programmes placed the ordinary soldier centre-stage
Richard Holmes' television documentaries brought to life the horrors of war and the daily lives of the ordinary front-line soldier in some of the crucial moments in Britain's bloody and turbulent history. An acclaimed military historian, he taught at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and Cranfield University and served in the Territorial Army for 36 years, achieving the rank of Brigadier, the highest by a reservist. He also wrote more than 20 books.
Holmes came to the public's attention with the BBC series War Walks in the 1990s, in which he toured the trenches of the First World War. His knowledge and enthusiasm and his focus on the ordinary soldier, whom he wanted "to put centre stage," soon established the bespectacled and military-moustached figure as a favourite among viewers.
Holmes was not in the business of glorifying war and sought to strike a balance between intellect and populism. His skill was recounting precise military detail in language that non-experts could readily understand. He once explained, "I don't really see myself as a TV presenter. I'm a historian who likes telling stories."
Edward Richard Holmes was born in Aldridge, Staffordshire in 1946. Educated at Forest School in north-east London, he won a scholarship to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he read history. In 1964 he joined the TA as a squaddie and became a commissioned officer while an undergraduate. He continued his studies at the universities of Northern Illinois and Reading, where he completed his doctorate on the French army during the Second Empire.
In 1969, Holmes joined the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst as a lecturer, rising to deputy head of the Department of War Studies (1984-86). In the TA, he was promoted first to lieutenant and then to major while teaching at Sandhurst, and in 1986 was invited to take command of the 2nd Battalion Wessex Regiment, a post in which he held the rank of Brigadier (1994). Working with a permanent staff of 30 augmented by 500 part-timers, Holmes was struck by the calibre of the people under his command.
As Britain's senior reservist, he worked at the Ministry of Defence in charge of all reserve forces, and from 1999-07 was Colonel-in-Chief of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment.
In 1989 he was appointed director of the Security Studies Institute at Cranfield University in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, and became Professor of Military and Security Studies in 1995, a position he held until his retirement in 2009. Cranfield is a postgraduate, research-orientated establishment with close ties to the UK Defence Academy and senior figures in the British forces. There are armed guards on reception, and in the grounds signs indicate the security-alert status.
While at Sandhurst Holmes was approached by ITV to make a series about the relationship between Montgomery and Eisenhower, and the success of War Walks prompted further series including Rebels and Redcoats (2003), about the American Revolution; Wellington: the Iron Duke; an acclaimed profile of Oliver Cromwell, whom he championed, as part of 100 Greatest Britons (2002), and In the Footsteps of Churchill (2005), which he accompanied with a book. …