Home » 1914 » Tommy shared. Notes shared on Twitter from ‘Tommy’ by Richard Holmes

Tommy shared. Notes shared on Twitter from ‘Tommy’ by Richard Holmes


As I read Tommy as an eBook both on a Kindle and iPad I shared notes to Twitter.

Note: The idea of poor leadership amongst senior officers in WW1 is based on evidence.

The want of preparation, the vague orders, the ignorance of the objective & geography, the absurd haste, and in general the horrid bungling were scandalous.

Note: The stalemate that cost millions of lives. Imagine reporting that today – like a weather forecast.

The logic that encouraged the Allies to attack on the Western Front, to recover friendly territory, worked in reverse for the Germans, and persuaded them to remain on the defensive, holding gains which would prove useful bargaining counters if there was a compromise peace.

Note: Reduced to the ‘daily grind’ of surviving.

We just live for the day and think of little else but our job, the next show, and our billets and rations.

Note: True or apocryphal?

‘A bridge, composed of a compact mass of human bodies over which I stepped gingerly. I was not at all squeamish; the sight of dead men having long lost its terror for me, but making use of corpses, even enemy corpses, for bridge-building purposes seemed about the limit of callousness’.

Note: The first use of computing techniques in 1917.

Gun positions were precisely surveyed, and the development of flash-spotting and sound-ranging meant that German batteries could also be plotted with accuracy.

Note: Kill and be killed.

In York Cemetery near Haspres, between Cambrai and Valenciennes, lie a company’s worth of the York and Lancaster regiment, with, up by the back wall, most of the machine-gunners that killed them.

Note: Just like a British public school boy to believe that his code of conduct should be everyone’s.

Captain Robert Graves recalled his CSM, a Birmingham man, giving a stern talking-to to a German prisoner caught with pornographic postcards in his pack.

Note: Death was all around them even before they were sent to the trenches.

Thomas Atkins was no stranger to death. His siblings died in infancy from illnesses which would now be prevented by vaccination or cured by antibiotics. His workmates perished from a variety of accidents and diseases, and the prevalence of infection meant that even a simple cut could prove fatal.

Note: ‘Tommy’ knew how to misbehave and hate. Send a soccer hooligan to the Western Front?

Drunkenness and its frequent concomitant wife-beating were common, and there was frequent violence, often on a small scale but sometimes, especially in Glasgow, where Catholic versus Protestant riots occurred, on a much larger scale.

Note: It was this technical transition from horse to motor, from rifle to machine-gun and to the air.

The overwhelming majority pulled guns or wagons, just as they did in the French, German and United States armies at that time. In December 1918 the BEF fed a total of 394,443 animals. Of these just 25,414, riding and draught horses were in the Cavalry Corps, and 48,822 served on the lines of communication. The number of motor vehicles on the Western Front grew enormously: in August 1914 the Army Service Corps had just 507 motor vehicles at its disposal, and in January 1918 it had almost 22,000 trucks in France alone.

Note: Haig and everyone who promoted him reflect an era where connections overcome stupidity

Haig (how we hated him and all his lot) had certain disastrous failings. An optimist of optimists he refused to acknowledge failure. In a daft way he was an inspired man, with the dire conviction he was never wrong. ‘The well-loved horse,’ he said, years after the cataclysm of the Kaiser’s war, ‘will always be important in war.’ … Stupid sod, he should have been up to his navel in mud and water, with nothing but chlorinated tea to drink and dog biscuits and bully beef to eat, and have to piss in the place where he slept. He might then have noticed that the men under his sad command…

Note: Personality clashes then, as now, depending on where the power lies can have a marked impact.

In fact French’s dislike of Smith-Dorrien went back before the war. French was a flamboyant cavalryman and Lothario, and Smith-Dorrien a strait-laced, happily married infantryman.

Note: Haig was devious, a trait gained at Clifton, developed at Brasenose and exploited at Sandhurst.

French himself was replaced in December 1915, and Haig’s leaking of papers on the handling of the reserves at Loos played its part in bringing him down.

Note: There’s one aspect of WW1 life they never try to recreate: the smell or rotting bodies.

‘My worst memory was the stench of putrefying bodies, for I could smell them still, and though death may be sublime on a battlefield, it is certainly not beautiful.’81

Note: Such was life and death during WW1

Life in the world of earth and wire was generally uncomfortable and dangerous, but it was made more tolerable by the pattern of rotation that kept soldiers on the move between front and rear. And although men were killed in their trenches, by shells, mortar bombs or sniper-fire, as well as by the myriad accidents that assail folk working outdoors with heavy equipment in all weathers, severe casualties came, not in the drudgery of line-holding, but in the inferno of battle. Walter Nicholson believed that: ‘Trench fighting goes on throughout the war; but a battle comes like a hailstorm, mows down…

Note: Four distinct elements that made the WW1 Army

There were three distinct elements to the challenge, and theorists would now term them the components of fighting power. The first was physical, involving the weapons and equipment used; the second, so closely related, was conceptual, and concerned the evolution of military doctrine; and the third was human, and centred on the myriad of complex factors that made men fight. Finally, the army’s medical services had to contend with problems of their own, as new weapons and tactics proved their terrible capacity to damage body and mind.

Note: The awfulness of high explosives on WW1 troops.

When Ernest Shephard’s company was hit by heavy howitzers in July 1915 the effects were appalling. We found two machine gunners belonging to our company who had been blown from the trench over the railway bank into a deep pool of water, a distance of 70 yards. One man, Pte Woods, was found in 8 pieces, while others were ghastly sights, stomachs blown open, some headless, limbs off, etc. Up to the present we have found 17 and buried them.76

Note: Do the horrors of war make a horror story impossible? This was the context not the storyline?

An Irish medical officer fainted when the wounded man on his stretcher had his face sliced neatly off and hurled, like a rubber mask, against the side of the trench.

Note: The noise of WW1 we can recreate but what about the smell?

Think of the loudest clap of thunder you have ever heard, then imagine what it would be like if it continued without stopping. That was the noise which woke us at 4.40 am on Thursday, 21 March. I have never before or since heard anything like it.83

Note: Surely as soon as rules are introduced to War it becomes a game? Ban it!

Gas was first used on the Western Front by the Germans at Second Ypres in April 1915.

Note: Death was rarely the fear, but the manner of dying.

If a tank began to burn, as it so often did, men faced an urgent scramble to escape. The sight of terribly burned tank crew persuaded even infantrymen out in the mud that theirs was likely to be an easier death.

Note: The Lord of the Rings should be used when teaching about WW1

J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, served on the Western Front with 11/Lancashire Fusiliers, and wrote that Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s sturdy and long-suffering companion on his journey to Mount Doom, was a portrait ‘of the English soldier, of the private and batman I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself’.

Note: Was The First War ‘great’ as in heroic or big?

It was regarded as degrading, primitive and wholly out of place in a citizen army fighting a great war. Lieutenant F. P. Roe was amongst the many young officers shocked by their first encounter with it.

Note: We used this to refer to editing poor video footage into a programme.

‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; you can make a good leather one.’

Note: Here’s a story, WW1 from the perspective of Lice.

Front-line soldiers were almost invariably infested with the body louse, pediculus vestimentii. The fully grown female of the species was about 4mm long, and the male slightly smaller: they were generally grey, sometimes with a bluish streak in the middle, though sharp colour variations caused great interest to their victims.

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