IN PRAISE OF THE MEN WHO SERVE US; SOLDIERS: ARMY LIVES AND LOYALTIES FROM REDCOATS TO DUSTY WARRIORS by Richard Holmes (Harper Press, [Pounds Sterling]25)

Article excerpt

Byline: OLIVER POOLE

AT Emmanuel College, Cambridge there is a memorial stone in the main court headed "These sons of this House fell in War". On it are 123 names, casualties from one of Cambridge's smallest colleges in the Great War.

It is a marker to which the late Richard Holmes admits he "gave less thought than I should have done" while an undergraduate there, for those names were "tiny tesserae in a huge mosaic". It is a mosaic that told not only the story of industrialised carnage but that of all the men who had been part of the institution to which Holmes would dedicate his life: the British Army.

This book rectifies that youthful oversight. In it he focuses not on the Army as an institution but on the men who serve in it, taking the reader from the uncomfortable mix of Royalists and Roundheads following the Restoration to the technologically expert body fighting the Taliban today.

Holmes's career was perfectly suited to such a task. As an academic, he taught at Sandhurst. As a writer, he became expert in the history of Britain's wars. And he served for more than 35 years in the Territorial Army, retiring as a brigadier and the country's most senior reservist.

This meant he knew soldiers warts and all: their strengths and weaknesses, their terrors and triumphs, their barbarity and their sentimentality.

Holmes admits he "loved Tommy Atkins since I first met him. And love is the right word, for my affection goes beyond illusions. I know that he is capable of breaking any law imposed by God or man, and whenever I allow myself to feel easy with him, he smacks my comfortable preconceptions hard in the mouth".

Here he tackles the subject thematically, examining the British military man as servant of King and then of Parliament, as volunteer gentleman and conscripted cannonfodder, as husband and also as a drunkard. It is the extent of the knowledge he brings that makes this book so masterful. Every page is filled with facts and insights. …