GREAT WAR TOMMY – Review by Mark Barnes

The British soldier 1914-18 (all models)
Owners’ Workshop Manual.
By Peter Doyle
Haynes Publishing
ISBN: 978 0 85733 241 7

Haynes have made owners manuals for some pretty rum stuff from the Millennium Falcon to the Mosquito. They have come a long way since the days they produced these books just for cars and only this week I found manuals for a Renault 5, a 2CV and a VW Golf tucked at the back of one of my bookcases. Ok, you now know some of the motors my wife and I have owned – but the wider point is the impressive heritage of the company. I find these books extremely comforting in a strange way and they are part of the tradition of car ownership in the UK and beyond.

Here we are with something altogether different, but the ethos remains the same. This is not a book for discovering anything about the experiences, the morale or the spirit of the British soldier during the Great War. There are plenty of others to do that. No, this is purely a practical guide for how to be a Tommy, what to wear, what to carry and what you will be doing with it all. It is all about the day to day mechanics of the fighting soldier from his socks to the tip of his bayonet.

As much as I have really enjoyed the aircraft books I’ve seen, this one is actually much more in the spirit of a genuine manual. The photographs are either contemporary or show living history chaps going through their paces. The mix of the two works really well, as does the periodic quotations from original manuals. These enforce the detail and give the book a degree of authority which upholds the power of the project.

In some respects the book will encourage the belief that to take up the living history hobby is quite realistic in this case. Pretty much all the basic kit is available as repro and deactivated examples of the supreme SMLE rifle are still in what we might call abundance, although they are getting much more expensive. Despite the fact I have never felt the urge, I’m too old and too knackered for starters; one thing that would definitely put me off is all that wool serge uniform! Yuck! I’m emotionally scarred by wearing army KF shirts issued in the 1970s when I had one of those long numbers in front of my name. This old kit would be even worse in my view. I hope I haven’t put you off. I well remember being at Beltring one year when my son James and I gave a lift to a serving Household Cavalrymen from Paddock Wood to the show site. He had come to the show wearing the full Great War uniform by train on a scorching summer’s day. That is devotion to your hobby!

Now of course, you might have no intention of struggling with a set of puttees and just be interested in the realities of Great War soldiering. As we have seen there are a number of fantastic books on the subject around at the moment and I recommend them all, but this has something extra and I have to say it is just a simple dose of fun.

I am sure author Peter Doyle was intensely serious when he put the book together, but he surely had an eye on having a light touch and I reckon he has achieved this. So, this book goes on the shelf with the others I have from this very long series. How the Tommy will sit with my wife’s old Citroen 2CV is a moot point, but Haynes are maintaining something eminently reliable and trustworthy here and although I doubt we will see similar manuals for the poilu or landser, let alone the doughboy;  they are on to something with this book and I think you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.