Robert Derby Holmes was a Bostonian who in 1916 decided to enlist in the British army. Traveling across the Atlantic, he signed up with the Royal Fusiliers and, after a couple of months of training, was sent with his unit to France. His book is an unvarnished recounting of his experiences, one of particular interest as it was written for an American audience that was only just beginning to experience the conflict when Holmes’s book was published. Interspersed with the account of his service are a number of tips as to how Americans at home might best support “Sammy” at the front, all of which he follows up with a concluding chapter that reiterates some of his advice and follows up with additional suggestions.
Though many books have been published that recount the experience of trench warfare, Holmes’s memoir is of interest for two reasons. The first is its date of publication; written while the war was still ongoing, it is undimmed by the intervening years that separate most accounts from the conflict. The other is its unusual perspective, which not only relates what life in the trenches was like, but attempts to interpret the customs, patterns, and language of a foreign army for American readers. In doing so, Holmes does not make assumptions of his reader’s prior knowledge, which makes his memoir one of the most accessible accounts of the miseries of the Western Front.