Page 6, 23rd May 1986

23rd May 1986
Page 6
Page 6, 23rd May 1986 — Into the breach with Tommy Atkins

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Organisations: Cromwell's New Model Army
Locations: Wellington


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Into the breach with Tommy Atkins

The British Soldier: A Social History from 1661 to the Present Day by J M Brereton (Bodley Head, £10.95, pp 208).

JOHN Brereton's account of the social life of the British soldier begins in 1661 because it was in this year that the last two surviving units of Cromwell's New Model Army were transformed into loyal soldiers of King Charles II. It is as good a starting point as any for the centuries of heroism and hardship, service and suffering which have been the lot of generations of British fighting men.

As far as possible Brereton confines himself to the ranks; a social history of army officers would need an entirely different book. The author, who began his own army life as a boy trumpeter in 1932, and was a captain on discharge after the second World War, is well aware of this. Even so, I would like to have read more thoughts and opinions from the "common soldier".

Commencing with "Emergence of the Redcoat," Brereton's early chapters fall into the almost inevitable sequence of "Marlborough's Men," "The Age of Wellington" and "Soldiers of the Queen."

By that time he has dealt with recruiting, billeting and punishment. At one time the death penalty could be imposed for 25 separate offences. For blasphemy a soldier could have his tongue bored through with a red hot iron. Flogging was commonplace. Until 1807, when George III approved an army order recommending a limit of 1000 lashes, sentences of 1,500, 1,800 and even 2,000 were frequent.

Brereton's "High Noon" chapter takes the soldier from the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 to the South African (Boer) War of 1899-1902, a period with some significant reforms such as the end of flogging and the start of improved conditions, including better accommodation and food. Volunteers still flocked to the colours and some were sad when they finished their service. After 25 years with the 14th Hussars Troop Sergeant-Major Mole wrote in 1888, "Had I my life in front of me instead of behind I would start again .. .

Marching Tommy Atkins into the 20th century and through the Great War Brereton gives us many a look at his morals, his rations and pay, his blemishes and virtues, the changes in his uniform and weapons, his health and welfare.

As the British soldier went into the second World War he was, for the first time in history, given a specifically designed active service dress — "battledress". He also learnt technical and military skills undreamed of in previous generations.

Army life was better all round and officers were now encouraged to consider the wellbeing of their men. "An officer cannot provide properly for his men's welfare unless he first knows and understands them as human beings," a booklet of 1941 advised.

In the final chapter, "The Professionals", Brereton shows how men become soldiers because they have chosen the profession of arms as a career, not because, as in earlier years, there was nothing else they could do.

At the very end he quotes Field Marshal Montgomery on the eve of his retirement: "I shall take away many impressions into the evening of life. But the one I shall treasure above all is the picture of the British soldier — staunch and tenacious in adversity — kind and gentle in victory — the man to whom the nation has again and again in the hour of periol owed its safety and honour." I have no doubt that Captain John Brereton has made the same assessment.

John Laffin

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