Tommy Goes to War

Tommy Goes to War

Author
Malcolm Brown
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
Introduction by Professor Gary Sheffield

This is a thirtieth anniversary reprint of a seminal text on the Great War. Not only is it one of the first books to start building a new narrative of the British soldier's war from the ground up, in so doing it also provides a good, accessible short introduction to the Tommies' experience on the Western Front.

It is formed of sixteen short but well-constructed chapters dealing with different phases of soldiering from enlistment ('A Call to Arms'), through training ('The Tents are Astir in the Valley'), base depot in France ('Tickled to Death to Go'), and 'Up the Line', all the way through to 'Guerre Finie!' and an 'Envoi', fittingly by one of the great war veterans themselves.

Other chapters deal with trench conditions ('Rats as Big as Rabbits'), raiding ('Keep the Hun on His Toes'), life out of the line ('Out on Rest'), courage, morale and humour, and endurance ('It's Unlucky to be Killed on a Friday' and 'Cheer O! It's a Jolly Old War') and leave or being wounded ('Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty').

If I was to pick a highlight of the book, it would probably be the letters excerpted in Chapter 10 'Just a line to say I go "over the top" tomorrow'. Focused around 1 July 1916, these are particularly moving, as are those from survivors in 'The Terrible Price', the two being separated by two fine chapters on the topic "Into Battle". One letter in particular, from a young Royal Inniskilling Fusilier, stands out for the litany-like quality of its repetitions of "Mother," at the beginning of almost every line.

Chapter 14 (the aforementioned 'Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty') is also interesting, drawing together Tommies' thoughts on the touchy subjects of leave, discipline, sex and belief.

As Gary Sheffield says, Malcolm Brown, possibly due to a lifetime of working in the media, has a good eye for an apposite quotation. He also, laudably, doesn't just let the quotations stand, but deploys his good grasp of the context of the war and a clear way of explaining - for example the relatively static nature of the front - to wrap around the quotations and bring them to life.

In terms of its limitations, I would say that the first section perhaps inevitably focuses on volunteers of 1914/15: there is no real feel for what it was like to be mobilised/called up as a Derby man or conscript. Similiarly, it is principally about the infantryman's war. For example there are trenchant accounts of the awfulness of the rail journey up to the front, but no reflection on the amount of effort, labour and coordination which made those journeys possible at all. (The exception to this relative neglect of the supporting arms is the RAMC, whose efforts after the Somme honourable get honourable mention in chapter 11.)

My only observation is that it would be even better if more care was taken to attribute the extracts to their sources so there was clarity about whether a source was a contemporary letter, newspaper article or - alternatively - a post-hoc reminiscence sauced with a greater or lesser degree of hindsight. For the researcher a regiments/corps index would have also been useful.

Well and elegantly written, this book, for all that some of the judgements are slightly dated, presents a subtle but comprehensive challenge to all the lazy narratives which have grown up around the First World War and I highly recommend it.

4.5 Stars
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