A Global History of the Fighting Man, 1800–1945
John A. Haymond
Stackpole Books, Guilford, Connecticut, 2018, 512 pages
Book Review published on: December 28, 2018
Historian and retired Army officer John Haymond examines how ordinary soldiers lived, worked, and fought, and how many of them died, in Soldiers: A Global History of the Fighting Man, 1800-1945. He opens by tackling the age-old question of why men serve despite the sacrifices, separation, privations, and a natural inclination for self-preservation. As the title indicates, he follows the military service experienced by the common fighting man during the period of 1800 to 1945. In Soldiers, he goes beyond a cursory examination to include the impact recruiting, training, messing, technology, weaponry, equipment, military doctrine, leadership, and the nature of war had on the experience of the individual soldier. He utilizes historical accounts and vignettes to provide the reader a bird’s eye view of the common experiences shared by individual soldiers regardless of uniform and time served.
Haymond informs readers that men have always been willing to join the military despite inherent dangers and low pay for two major reasons: economic necessity and adventure. At the same time, he describes the antimilitary prejudice of society toward soldiering. America’s disdain of a large standing army was reflected in the low opinion of regular Army service members held by many Americans. Similar views were held by British, German, and Chinese citizens toward their own soldiers.
Soldiers pulls no punches in describing the horrors experienced by soldiers on the battlefield. Haymond relates soldiers’ experiences in World War I trenches and that of their counterparts a generation later on Pacific atolls, fortifying their positions while finding the blasted, bloated, and rotting remains of dead men. The specter of death was ever present to generations of fighting men, from the unimaginable horror of witnessing the deaths of friends and foes alike at the Battle of Waterloo to the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, the Battle of Fredericksburg 1862, on Hill 60 in France in 1915, and on Okinawa in 1945. Haymond informs readers that soldiers are able to endure such hardships and horrors largely because of the bonds forged in war.
Death and dying is only one aspect of common misery related in Soldiers. Haymond reminds the reader that soldiering often requires men to be outdoors in all weather, often in the worst weather. Whether hot or cold, mud or dust, rain or snow, drought or deluge, a soldier’s life in the field often became a downward spiral into a deep morass of misery. Haymond includes numerous accounts depicting cold and soaked soldiers on both sides living in mud and filth along the western front in World War I. One particular account recalls both German and British soldiers during the Battle of Somme in November 1916 enacting an unspoken agreement not to fire on each other as they sat in the open in full view of the other in an attempt to dry themselves out. This agreement lasted long enough until General Headquarters, in its warm and dry accommodations, learned of it.
What makes Soldiers an interesting read is Haymond’s writing style and technique of comparing the common experiences of fighting men regardless of the uniform and time served during the period. The experiences of strenuous manual labor, boredom, long marches, poor or no chow, and environmental conditions remain constant throughout time.
Haymond goes beyond the traditional works on the military experience to include a chapter titled “After the Army.” He informs us of the challenges faced by nations in demobilizing fighting men at the end of a conflict and by former service members reintegrating back into society. Yet, it was not only former military members that were effected. Too often, widows and children were often overlooked when the conflict ended. It was not uncommon in the nineteenth century for family members to join fighting men on campaigns or for marriages to occur between service members and local women during conflict. Given the extended length of conflict during this period, these families would often grow and be an integral part of the unit. These families would
Haymond’s book is highly recommend for both scholars and students alike. It is a must for readers interested in the experience and psychology of being a warrior during this period.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas