In March this year, we published an account of the struggle for the Hougoumont farm complex during the Battle of Waterloo.
It was linked to an appeal for action to save the historic buildings from collapse. The author, Richard Holmes, had placed himself in the forefront of the campaign group Project Hougoumont. Read about it here
So he had been active to the end. For, two months later, on 30 April, he died of cancer at the relatively young age of 65, depriving us of one of our foremost military historians.
Military historians tend to fall into two camps, being either retired professional soldiers or academic researchers and writers. Richard Holmes was unusual in being both. He joined the Territorial Army at the age of 18, and eventually rose to become a brigadier, making him Britain’s highest ranking reserve officer. His part-time TA service ran parallel with an academic career, first at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (1969-1989), later at the Security Studies Institute of Cranfield University (1989-2009).
He was best-known, however, as a highly effective TV presenter of military history. In a period when documentaries were becoming increasingly dependent on re-enactment and CGI, he offered the straightforward approach of simply walking the landscape and telling the story in a matter-of-fact way.
The result – most obvious in his War Walks series – was highly effective.
But his real legacy is the stable of books he leaves behind. Given his schedule, his list of publications is impressive, and there cannot be many military history enthusiasts who do not have at least one of his books on their shelves.The Holmes corpus has a wide span. It includes battlefield guides (e.g. War Walks), collections of photos (e.g. The Second World War in Photographs), and heavyweight reference books (e.g. The Oxford Companion to Military History). But Holmes’s reputation as a serious military historian rests mainly on three other categories of published work.
First, he contributed several outstanding examples of what might be called ‘conventional military history’, including his first book, The English Civil War (1974), written with Peter Young, and three notable biographies, The Little Field Marshal: Sir John French (1984), Wellington: the Iron Duke (2003), and Marlborough: Britain’s greatest general (2008).
Second, he contributed substantially to the ‘new military history’ that concerned itself with the minutiae of battlefield experience and sought to explain outcomes in terms of the capacities and responses of ordinary soldiers in combat. The most famous work in this genre is probably John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, but Richard Holmes’s Firing Line (1985) – later republished as Acts of War: the behaviour of men in battle (2003) – is a work of comparable importance.
Third, Holmes was deeply interested in the life of ordinary men in service, and three of his best-known books form a kind of trilogy on the history of the British soldier. They are Redcoat: the British soldier in the age of horse and musket (2001), Sahib: the British soldier in India, 1750-1914 (2005), and Tommy: the British soldier on the Western Front (2004). Intimate, vivid, and sometimes visceral, these studies bring the reader as close as any books can to the everyday experience of the men who lived, marched, and fought in the armies of Marlborough, Wellington, Roberts, and Haig.
Richard Holmes will be read and admired for decades to come.