History: The Secret Life of the Poor, Bloody Infantry ; Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Richard Holmes HARPER COLLINS Pounds 20 Pounds 18 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
Fearn, Nicholas, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
How did the British fighting man of the First World War manage to put up with it all? Richard Holmes suggests that we often misunderstand the soldiers of the trenches because we "try to judge them by poems they never read, or cast them in dramas they would never have bothered to watch." The old orthodoxy of lions led by donkeys is now long gone, but receives an efficient reburial here. Whatever you have heard before is always worth hearing again from this author who, like all the best historians, never removes our fascination as he dispels the myths. The new material is also first- rate, with enough breadth and detail to sway anyone who feels there is nothing more they need to know about the First World War.
Words are born innocent. "Tommy Atkins" was the example given in an 1815 War Office publication showing how to fill in the Soldiers' Pocket Book. Though harmless when first used, the name inevitably took on the distrust long accorded to its object. Holmes' book shows how, during the Great War, the men of the British Army reclaimed and brought honour to their moniker. The general staff by that time sought - with some success - to raise the social status of the British soldier, but he showed in deeds that there was no need to also change his nickname. Though he still liked to drink and carouse, he was more civilised than the forebears described in the author's earlier volume, Redcoats. Tommy had become loveable in his way - long-suffering, but usually cheerful and able to cope with anything thrown at him. …