Swash and buckle of an officer and a historian

January 23, 2003

He's spent 25 years on the battlefield, but the closest that historian Brigadier Richard Holmes has ever come to live action is on TV, says Adrian Mourby.

Richard Holmes arrives at his club in St James full of purpose.

It's a bitterly cold day. "I was just walking across the square," he says, "thinking how ghastly it would have been to be on the Somme on a day like this with the wind seeking you out in the crannies of Delville Wood and Thiepval Ridge."

Unlike most people who appear regularly on TV, Holmes is bigger in real life. He has a quiet, decisive manner and is clearly a busy man. Most people manage one career. Brigadier Holmes has several. He not only holds the chair of military and security studies at Cranfield University and presents numerous television programmes, but he also writes books - he can't quite remember how many - and is colonel-in-chief of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment. "I feel there is a lot to do," he explains. "I really don't want to breathe my last wishing I'd made more of my life."

He has certainly done a lot in the past 56 years. In fact, when I try to get an overview of his career, we end up drawing two columns to demonstrate how his academic career has run in parallel with his life as a soldier.

Holmes began soldiering while at school in Snaresbrook, London, and hasn't stopped since. "I got into the Territorial Army illicitly as a private. I'm not sure about the date, but I think it was 1964. I'm not very good at dates - terrible admission for a historian."

Part-time soldiering continued at Cambridge University, where he read history, and during his time at Northern Illinois and Reading universities, where he completed a PhD on the French army during the second empire. Then Lieutenant Holmes taught military history at Sandhurst, reaching the rank of major before being invited to command 2nd Battalion The Wessex Regiment.

"I thought I was only going to get one crack at it, so I gave up the day job - and the index-linked pension - and I must say that I enjoyed it more than anything else I've done in my life."

Working with a full-time staff of 30 plus 500 part-timers confirmed Holmes'

admiration of the military. "When you command a battalion you get swept away. It absorbs you, it's uplifting. I was struck time and again by the quality of people."

Inevitably, we turn to talking about the impending war in Iraq, but Holmes is reluctant to speculate. "I often think that men in suits do our services no favours by discussing possible options and likely outcomes. But while I may sometimes worry about strategy or equipment, I don't for a minute doubt the competence and courage of our people. They have a wisdom beyond their years."

This enthusiasm for the soldiering experience has informed Holmes' entire writing and broadcasting career. People have been the motivating force behind books such as Firing Line , a study of human behaviour in battle, Soldiers , taken from a prizewinning BBC series, and Atkins , his new book for HarperCollins (due out in 2004) about the experience of British soldiers on the Western Front.

The British Tommy, 1914-18, is a particular concern for Holmes. "I worry, passionately, that the revisionists who have looked afresh at world war one strategy, and found that Great Britain actually made a good job of it, have dragged the common soldier away from centre stage."

Through his TV series, Holmes has sought to correct this imbalance. War Walks I and War Walks II repeatedly emphasised the experience of the man on the ground. "I'm aware that it may sound pretentious, but the ground does explain a lot. There is a wonderful word someone coined, 'microterrain'.

Well, these small bits of ground do explain so much."

Simplicity is the byword for Holmes' TV technique. "When I was first contacted by a BBC producer in Bristol about presenting a series, I said I wanted to do something low tech, something about just standing in the place where a battle took place." Generally, he is pleased with what he has been able to achieve over the past 25 years of intermittent celebrity. "When I started, I sounded as if I were addressing a platoon of infantrymen on a windy hillside, but I've learnt to take it right down."

Unlike some of his fellow TV historians, Holmes doesn't always work from a script: "When we're in position, the producer will sometimes ask me an unrehearsed question and I'll take it from there. I think if it's all written down, an actor could probably deliver it better."

He is vague about when and how he started doing television. "I certainly didn't bombard the BBC with letters. I suspect it was about 1980 when I was asked to do a programme about the year 1940." The idea of young academics today making demo tapes to get themselves on to television surprises and amuses Holmes. "I don't really see myself as a TV presenter. I'm a historian who likes telling stories."

Nevertheless, he does have a new four-part series, Brothers At War , coming out in the spring, about the American War of Independence.

And after Atkins there's a book on the British soldier in India in the pipeline. Holmes still has many tales to tell. For him, "a good historian doesn't just get the footnotes right but has something of the swash and buckle of history, too".

Among his own favourite historians Holmes rates Sir Michael Howard very highly. "He had an enormous influence on my generation of military historians. He also had a good war record and was a most courteous gentleman. He was an external examiner on my PhD. I've been on a lot of vivas since, and one of the things I've seen is examiners trying to score points. But Michael Howard waited until afterwards when he took me to one side in the corridor and pointed out that I was a bit shaky on railways."

Unlike Howard, though, Holmes, by dint of being born in 1946, has never seen action, although he was at one time Britain's senior reservist.

"Is it perhaps one reason why I write so much about the experience of battle?" he ponders. "That has been suggested before, and I can say that I have two diameterically opposed views about the fact that I've never commanded under fire. On the one hand, I'm profoundly grateful. On the other, it is something that makes me think slightly meanly of myself for not having done it. There remains an unanswered question, 'How would I have reacted to harm, to harm to myself in fact?'"

As a commander, Holmes has always seen his troops as part of a team. "When you are dealing with reservists - as I have been for most of my life - the external discipline is not there in the first place, but actually I believe that working with soldiers - and note I say working 'with' - is far less authoritarian than most plays and books suggest. When armies get it right (and the British Army, most of the time, does), it works because people have an enormous understanding of what is expected of them. I believe passionately that's how good armies operate."

And what about documentary teams? Holmes accepts the comparison with one reservation. "It's not my show. The producer is in charge. But I like the fact that it's a small crew, it's companionable and everyone can contribute. The sound man may have an idea about how something is done, or he may not understand what you're saying, and you listen to him. It's also much easier to make cock-ups when you're with friends, and any presenter makes cock-ups."

Can the same be said of a commander of troops?

"All I can say is that the more confidence you have in yourself, the less your own fallibility bothers you."

Our photographer arrives and, as if to demonstrate his point, Holmes defers immediately to the technician's expertise. He gives a good impression of limitless patience as we stand in the chill outside his club. Several people almost stop when they recognise the man with the smart coat and clipped moustache, but they pass tactfully on their way.

Despite his media recognition and impressive academic credentials, Holmes remains most proud of his military connections. "I hope that I don't pursue 'the bubble reputation'. What means more than anything to me is the respect of the people I've worked with and, above all, the people who were there."

He says his programmes bring him many letters from veterans. "Sometimes they take me to task for not mentioning their unit or the type of tank they drove, but there are times when somebody writes in to say that they were at Monte Cassino, and think I've got it about right. That's better than a good review any day."

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