A Tribute To Richard Holmes
By Jonathon Riley
'The Franco-Prussian War was caused by the Queen of Spain's drawers;
or more precisely, the rapidity and frequency of their descent.'
Richard Holmes had a magical gift for bringing that other country, the past, right into the present Through his many books, his public lectures and above all his television programmes, he made history accessible to everyone - and he made it fun. In mis quotation, he is describing the casus belli between Prussia and Germany in 1870, something that might usually cause one to plump up one's pillow, how the debauched Queen Isabella II of Spain went too far, was deposed by a military coup and left the throne vacant. The nearest family in line that was non-Bourbon and Catholic was German and the Spanish Cortes accordingly offered the throne to Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. The prince's relationship with the royal house of Prussia was too much for the French; a confrontation ensued, during which the Ems telegram provided Bismarck with the opportunity he sought for war.
I remember Richard coming out with this classic line during a Higher Command and Staff Course study period at Sedan when he was the course lead historian and I was the director, the evening before a terrain tour. The students, intent on drinks and a good dinner, forgot these things and were at once hooked. He then went on to describe the opening phases of the war up to the Battle of Sedan lucidly, simply and engagingly, as only he could, for he had a way with words and could turn a phrase like no one else. This was more than entertainment, however. Richard used his gift for imparting his encyclopaedic knowledge, cut with penetrating analysis, to help educate generations of military officers. Beginning at Sandhurst, later at the Army Staff College and later still at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, he was one of those who brought the study of military history back from the periphery of military study, to its core. In doing so he helped to guide the intellectual development of many senior commanders who have had to deal with the complexities and dangers of the post-Cold War and post-9/11 world.
But he never fell into the trap of thinking that because he knew more about history than his students did, he therefore knew more than they did about that other great teacher, war. Richard was a distinguished reserve army officer. He was a captain and major in the 5th Queen's and commanded the company based in the old Victorian Drill Hall at Sandford Terrace, Guildford. By sheer force of personality, professionalism and example, he raised this company to be the largest in the whole of the Territorial Army. He transferred to the Wessex Regiment - effectively the TA battalion of the Royal Hampshires - to command them. This made him a natural choice as Colonel of the Regiment later on, after the amalgamation of The Queen's and the Royal Hampshires. He rose to be the senior reserve officer in the Army and it was his legacy that raised the rank of this post from brigadier to major general. But as he himself often remarked, he had never heard a shot fired in anger, while being very aware that many of his students had done so many times. He was always careful, therefore, that the role of lead historian should be to provide historical example, context, the long view - not to tell anyone how to do their job, nor to sit in judgment over those who in the past had been faced with hard decisions in difficult circumstances.
None of us who knew him will ever forget him, nor forget our debt to him. He leaves a gap in our lives and in our country that cannot be filled.
The Hand of History Article Copyright © 2011