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Professor Richard Holmes – Doctor of Letters - Professor of Military and Security Studies, Cranfield University

Oration by Dr SJ Gurman

Richard Holmes is a military historian. He has spent most of his working life as a lecturer and scholar, firstly at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and latterly at Cranfield University, where he has been Director of the Security Studies Institute since 1990. He has written more than twenty books, mainly on the British soldier and his experiences, which have been well received by historians as well as proving extremely popular with the general reader. He has also presented seven series of programmes on BBC2. But Richard Holmes is more than an academic historian. He spent 36 years in the Territorial Army, joining as a private in 1964 and rising to the rank of Brigadier. He relinquished his academic post to command the 2nd Battalion of the Wessex Regiment, Territorial Army, full time for almost three years. To an extent which is exceedingly rare amongst historians he knows whereof he speaks, his wide experience being marked by his formal title of Brigadier Professor Holmes. Richard Holmes was born in Walsall and graduated in History from Emmanuel College, Cambridge. After a year at Northern Illinois University he joined the staff at Sandhurst in 1969, teaching military history. He also did a part-time Ph. D. at the University of Reading: his thesis was eventually published as the “Road to Sedan” in 1984.

Richard Holmes left Sandhurst in 1985 in order to command full-time the 2nd Battalion, Wessex Regiment of the Territorial Army. This gives him a distant connection to us since that regiment included 6 Platoon (Princess Beatrice’s). In its early days this was the 5th Volunteer Battalion (Princess Beatrice’s Own) of the Hampshire Regiment. As such it was commanded for many years by Lt. Col. Edmund Cradock, the owner of much of the parish of Knighton, including Knighton Hall which is now the official residence of our Vice-Chancellor. Whilst serving with the Wessex Regiment Richard Holmes helped set up the prestigious Higher Command and Staff Course at the Army Staff College. He retains the responsibility for part of the operational military history taught on that course. In 1990 he became Director of the Security Studies Institute at Cranfield University, who appointed him professor in 1995. He now spends much of his time teaching post-graduate students, military and civilian, at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom at Shrivenham, some of whose staff belong to Cranfield University.

Many of Richard Holmes books deal with the experiences of the ordinary British soldier, with extensive use of their own letters and diaries. Their subjects range over the soldier armed with a musket in the Napoleonic era (Redcoat), tramping the Grand Trunk Road in India (Sahib) and the trenches of the Western Front (Tommy). All are characterized by a keen sense of the life of a soldier. His most recent book, “Dusty Warriors”, describes the experiences of the 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, in Iraq, where they were involved in the longest period of sustained fighting experienced by any unit of the British Army since the Korean War. Once again, he describes the soldier’s life largely in their own words, detailing their responses to a conflict noted, as he says, for the "episodic character of combat and the constant interlacing of violence and negotiation". Even the Guardian reviewer was complimentary about the book! Richard Holmes has been Colonel of this regiment since 1999: one of its members is the Grenada-born Pte Johnson Beharry who was recently awarded the Victoria Cross.

Richard Holmes is also a keen horseman, maintaining a large grey called Thatch, on whose back he hazards his person more often than is sensible for a man of his years. He recently rode from Liverpool to York, following the route of Prince Rupert’s Civil War army of 1644, to raise money for his favourite charity, the Army Benevolent Fund. He has also ridden more strenuous routes. The first, in 1993, was that of the Retreat from Mons, following the course of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. The ensuing book, “Riding the Retreat”, was published in 1995. He has also ridden from the Northern Cape to Zululand, and, most recently, along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, following the path of the 1895 Chitral Relief Expedition. One route which he has not yet ridden is that of Fred Roberts’ epic forced march from Kabul to Kandahar during the Second Afghan War in 1880. Even Richard Holmes is not that bold, but perhaps when the times are quieter….. Such a ride would give him another connection with us, for Edmund Cradock of Knighton, with his regiment, was besieged in Kandahar until relieved by Roberts’ column. Richard Holmes was appointed OBE in 1998 and holds the Territorial Decoration, with two bars. In January of this year he was elected President of the British Commission for Military History.

We peaceful civilians fortunately now experience war only through the eyes of the military historian. Today we honour a man who has brought to us, using their own words, the experiences in war of our contemporaries, our grandfathers and our ancestors; men, in Richard Holmes own words, “whose endurance and achievements lift my spirits and break my heart”.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and of the Council, I present Richard Holmes that you may confer upon him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.

  • Dr SJ Gurman
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