Books: A Poignant Tribute to All the War's Tommy Atkins; Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, 1914-1918, by Richard Holmes, Harper Collins, Pounds 20

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard McComb

The life and death experiences of frontline soldiers during the First World War have been the subject of poetry, novels and drama.

The verse of Wilfred Owen, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and R C Sherriff's Journey's End, playing to packed audiences in the West End, have struck a chord with the public.

But historian Richard Holmes, the author of the monumental war tome Tommy, is sceptical, even dismissive, about the value of this great body of literature.

He joins other critics in guarding against the 'invention of memory' and seeks to lay bare the reality of trench warfare through the cold analysis of contemporary accounts.

His method makes for an uncompromising read, forensic in its attention to detail. Not surprisingly, the narrative is at its most powerful when recounting the grim reality of the trench and the battlefield, retold in the words of the men who were there.

Take this account from Lieutenant F P Roe, who describes of the menace of rats in a billet:

'Corporal Arthur Major [who had been asleep] was sitting up in the straw with a fully grown rat swinging from his nose with his teeth in the cartilage. We had already experienced rats nibbling away at the back of our hair . . . The lighting was elementary, a couple of hurricane 'butties' and a torch or two, and I was momentarily taken aback. Clearly I could not shoot the rat with my 0.45 inch revolver in such a confined space and equally clearly I could only open the teeth and free them from the cartilage if the rat was first killed. There was only one solution, so I borrowed Appleford's bayonet and got on with the job.'

The trench remains the most enduring image of the 1914-18 conflict and Holmes provides an exhaustive account of the conditions and construction of these fortified positions.

The concept of the trench was far from revolutionary and had provided a means of both offensive and defensive action in the American Civil War and the Boer War. What was different in the First World War was the extent to which the trench was deployed and developed on a front running for an astonishing 460 miles.

As Holmes writes, the conditions here were not worse than Gallipoli or the Italian front, and neither were they worse than the battle zones of the Second World War, including the frozen foxholes in the Ardennes and the 'putrid slime of Okinawaw'.

What sets the Western Front apart from all comparison is the epic proportions of the horror - 'its dreadful combination of loss of life, qualitative misery and its sheer mind-numbing scale, made somehow more strange by its 'ridiculous proximity' to Britain. …