Allan Mallinson

Despatches from the Front

Dusty Warriors: Modern Soldiers at War


HarperCollins 316pp £20 order from our bookshop

Richard Holmes’s popular histories of the British army – Redcoat, Tommy, and Sahib – and his television War Walks, in which he recounts with enthusiasm and wryness the army’s battles, have established him, alongside the cerebral Sir John Keegan and Oxford’s Professor Hew Strachan, as one of the country’s leading military historians. As a military historian, however, he has singular credentials. He has combined his academic career with that of an officer in the Territorial Army, rising to command of a TA infantry battalion, and subsequently becoming director of reserve forces. After retiring from the TA he was appointed honorary colonel of a regular infantry regiment, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (PWRR), one of whose soldiers in Iraq, Private Johnson Beharry, became the first recipient of the Victoria Cross since the Falklands War. Dusty Warriors is an account of a six-month tour of duty in Iraq by one of the battalions of that regiment. Holmes thereby perfectly combines his two hats – commentator and practitioner – though he is far too modest to claim the latter title, notwithstanding that the honorary colonelcy of any regiment, especially these days when the army is so heavily committed to operations, is no sinecure. The book is not so much history in the usual Holmes sense, however, rather the journalistic ‘first rough draft of history’; but it would not be possible to write that first draft without a profound understanding of the historical context, for the army is a product of its own history. Holmes not only describes the PWRR as it was in Iraq in 2004, but also explains why it was.

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