Professor Richard Holmes Obituary

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Professor Richard Holmes Obituary

Postby Simon H » Tue May 24, 2011 3:39 am

On April 30th 2011, Professor Richard Holmes, author, historian and unlikely Television presenter died age 65.

Although a little belated I would like to post the obituary from the Daily Telegraph. He was a disarmingly engaging man. It was a privilege to know him. May he rest in peace and may his works continue to enthuse readers for many years to come.


Battlefields were Holmes's natural habitat, and defined him as a television presenter, often up to his knees in mud for the BBC series War Walks in the 1990s, in which he toured the trenches of the First World War. He went on to make documentaries about the American Revolution in Rebels and Redcoats (2003), an acclaimed profile of Oliver Cromwell as part of the 100 Greatest Britons series in 2002, and the wide-ranging In The Footsteps Of Churchill (2005), which he accompanied with a book.

Although a born communicator with a quiet but decisive air and always at ease in front of the camera, Holmes was an unlikely media star. His old-school persona and academic background in a field of study that had lain largely neglected by modern television might have consigned him to obscurity, but he lit the vital spark to fire the viewer's interest and, simply by being himself, struck the perfect balance between erudition and populism. "I don't really see myself as a TV presenter," Holmes explained. "I'm a historian who likes telling stories."

His subject was war, described where possible from the point of view of the soldier of the line. He always sought to balance his innate gung-ho enthusiasm with a desire to keep the ordinary soldier centre stage. Although one critic mocked him as "the Sister Wendy Beckett of blood and guts", Holmes was always at pains never to glorify war.

Holmes's passion for the history of conflict was fired during his last year at school when he was transfixed by the BBC series The Great War, shown in 26 parts in 1964. "I was hooked from the start," he recalled. "It was the first time I had seen early film slowed down so that men and horses did not walk with a jerky quickstep. And although I was about to go to Cambridge to read History and thought myself no end of a scholar, it was the first time I had seen it suggested that the war's generals might be anything other than mindless and inarticulate butchers."

Forty years on, in his book Tommy (2004), Holmes continued to repudiate the view, promoted by the war poets, that the troops of the First World War were poorly led. He also re-examined the enduring legends about the prevalence of shellshock, drunkenness in the trenches, and soldiers shot at dawn for cowardice or desertion, pointing out that 90 per cent of death sentences were commuted.

Another major influence on Holmes was the landmark ITV series The World At War, produced by Jeremy Isaacs in 1973. Isaacs had shot discursive interviews with many important figures from the Second World War, but had been able to use only a fraction of the material in his final cut. Nearly 30 years later Holmes mined the full transcripts of the interviews for his book about the war based on previously unpublished archives.

Holmes was also an accomplished military biographer. He published a life of Sir John French in The Little Field Marshal in 1984, another of Wellington: The Iron Duke in 2002, and, in 2008, Marlborough, acclaimed by The Daily Telegraph as "the best, because fairest" biography of the victor of Blenheim.

As the author of more than 20 books on military history, Holmes tended to avoid drawing on the reminiscences of veterans, mindful of the frailties of human recall. "If you look at what veterans were writing just 10 years after the end of the war, it's quite different from what they were writing at the time," he noted. "The closer we get to events, the better our chance of finding out how people really felt."

Edward Richard Holmes was born on March 29 1946 at Aldridge, Staffordshire, the son of an engineer. He shared his father's love of the outdoors, but combined country pursuits with an appetite for books, and at Forest School, Snaresbrook, read an account of the Franco-Prussian war by the eminent military historian Professor Sir Michael Howard. It proved such a powerful influence on the young Holmes that in August 1970 he marked the centenary of the war by visiting the sites of the battlefields. Thereafter Holmes strove to emulate Howard's "penetrating but not pettifogging" approach to historical research.

Having won a scholarship to read History at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Holmes graduated and spent a year at the Northern Illinois University, completing a PhD on the French army during the second empire before joining the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst as a lecturer in 1969, eventually becoming deputy head of the department of war studies.

It was at Sandhurst that Holmes was first approached by ITV to make a television series about the relationship between Montgomery and Eisenhower during the Second World War.

In 1964 he had joined the Territorials as a squaddie in the Essex Yeomanry – illicitly, he liked to recall – and was commissioned as an officer while still at Cambridge. Promoted first to lieutenant and then to major while teaching at Sandhurst, in 1986 he was invited to take command of the 2nd Bn Wessex Regiment, a post in which he held the rank of brigadier.

Working with a permanent staff of 30 supplemented by 500 part-timers, Holmes was struck by the calibre of the people under his command. This enthusiasm for the military life consistently informed his books and his television programmes.

As Britain's senior reservist, he worked at the Ministry of Defence in charge of all reserve forces, and from 1999 until 2007 was colonel-in-chief of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment.

In 1989 he became director of Cranfield University's security studies institute at Shrivenham, Wiltshire, and was appointed professor of military and security studies in 1995, a post he held until his retirement in 2009.

Recently he had campaigned to preserve a key site from the Battle of Waterloo, a farmyard at Hougomont in Belgium where the forces of the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon faced each other in June 1815.

Holmes often reflected on the fact that, by dint of his age, he had never seen action 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?'"

He always extemporised in front of the camera rather then read from a script, likened filming to a military operation, and suspected that he enjoyed making programmes because of the similarities: "You've never got enough men, you're always under-resourced, and the only thing that keeps you going is the thought of a good dinner at the end of the day. Not for nothing is it called a shoot."

Holmes held several charitable posts, including the chairmanship of the Battlefields Trust, as well as two honorary doctorates. He once rode his grey horse Thatch along the route taken by Henry Tudor in 1485 when he marched from Milford Haven to the scene of the Battle of Bosworth, and raised £50,000 for the Army Benevolent Fund. He was appointed CBE in 1998.

Richard Holmes married, in 1975, Katharine Saxton, who survives him with their two daughters.
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