‘Love Tommy’ book review for Mars Clio

E22 of Collected Articles

Andrew Roberts (2012) ‘Love, Tommy; Letters Home from the Great War to the Present Day’, Osprey Publishing, 255 pages, ISBN: 978-1-78096-893-3, price not given.

Readers who wish to get a feel for the range of soldiers’ letters stored in the Imperial War Museums can start by reading this book; ‘Love, Tommy’ offers a sample of their vast collection. Andrew Roberts has been able to trawl through them, using his known skills as a military historian to make his selection.

This is shown in the Introduction where he sets out his views which show his understanding of the pressures faced by soldiers on active service. Once into the book each section is given a succinct description of the course of the war during which the letters were written, setting out the reasons for it and the historiography of it – a very helpful guide for the reader.

However the reader wishing to follow a theme, such as last letters home before being killed in action, may feel disappointed in the lack of focus. With this limitation, this review seeks to highlight what the letters say about their authors, concentrating on those written during the two World Wars where the letters are written by volunteers and conscripts rather than career soldiers (although their letters are not markedly different in subject matter).

Overall, the letters show little psychological introspection. Perhaps this was because the soldiers did not wish to upset their families by revealing the boredom of waiting around, the stresses and dangers of front-line action, the physical traumas and the effects of being killed and wounded in action. Such descriptions are best left to writers of popular fiction with books to sell.

Inevitably this leads to a certain blandness as intelligent analysis of why and what is being experienced is hidden behind comforting descriptions. But occasionally the grim reality of combat breaks through in descriptions of what today would be called war crimes such as the massacre of newly captured German prisoners whilst officers turn their backs on their responsibilities embedded in today’s ‘Geneva Convention’.

What came over is the pin-hole view of warfare where the writers had little idea of the strategies being planned by commanders, unless those such as Monty who saw their wider role to communicate why battles were being fought. However this blandness may have been partly to avoid the adverse interest of the military censors of personal letters. It is known that many returning soldiers from the two World Wars never told even close members of their families of what had happened to them.

This reviewer selects some examples which to him give psychological insights beyond war being unpleasant and sometimes very dangerous: for the Great War – Neville Woodroffe (p. 21) about the retreat from Mons; Alfred Chater (p. 25) about the Christmas truce; William Leefe Robinson VC (p. 31) on shooting down a Zeppelin; Henry Granville Scott (p. 41) about the Ypres sector in 1915; J.H. Leather (p. 50) on loathing army life; Charley Britland (p. 65) and the shooting of prisoners; Charles McKerrow (p. 68) on vile, loathsome Germans; Francis Gautier (p. 78) to his daughter; Laurie Rowlands (p. 85) about the loss of patriotism; Jim Milne’s (p. 92) farewell letter; for the Second World War – Peter Hill (p.112) on the death of non-combatants; Tim Taylor (p. 133) on leaving his batman in Singapore; Don Siddons (p. 136) on his family finances; E. Chadwick (p. 152) about seeing Axis dead; Chris Cross (p. 170) on glider landings; Norman Durant (p. 177) on the Japanese soldier; Michael Carey (p. 194) about the horror of Belgen-Belsen.

‘Love, Tommy’ gives a solid entrance into world of letters written by combatants, especially for readers seeking an introduction into how they viewed their participation in warfare. The next four years will find many taking an interest in what it was like for their grand-fathers and their fathers.

20 May 2013