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Gareth Davies

OHs - Primary or Secondary Sources

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Gareth Davies

Are the OHs considered primary or secondary sources?  And in a similar vein, what about Div histories, Bde histories, and Regtl histories.

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Derek Black

If the complier didn't witness events first hand, it's a secondary source i'd think.... but I'm ready to be shot down in flames!

 

Derek.

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Gareth Davies

If that were the rule then WDs would be secondary sources. And I am pretty sure that they count as primary sources (but I may be joining you in the flak barrage).

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Primary Sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it. Primary sources can include:

Texts of laws and other original documents.

Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did.

Speeches, diaries, letters and interviews - what the people involved said or wrote.

Original research.

Datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics.

Photographs, video, or audio that capture an event.

https://umb.libguides.com/PrimarySources/secondary

 

Craig

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Moonraker

We touched on this in another thread two years ago, in which one of my contributions was: 'I've just Googled "primary sources" - and there are several definitions, including this by Yale University: " They are usually created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later." (Another definition reckons that after-the-event records are in fact secondary sources ... ).'

 

Chris Baker noted that 'having ploughed through the correspondence between the Official Historian [Edmonds] and officers who participated in the Battle of the Lys, I was surprised at how much of the latter's information (provided many years after the events) found its way almost verbatim into the relevant volume of the OH. On the one hand: good, it is of value to hear from men who were present and for them to correct or modify the OH draft they were sent. On the other: how much could their memory be trusted?

 

In general, I have to say that I find the OH a brilliant piece of work. Try writing up a large, complex battle from the war diaries - it's far from straightforward. That Edmonds and his staff managed to distill a readable narrative at all was quite a feat. I have rarely found an error of fact (when comparing OH to operational records): it is where the Official Historian presents a view or opinion that it becomes much more shaky.'

 

There was another thread running at much the same (which I can't trace), in which someone stated that 'I have the impression that, with Edmonds, one has to read as much between the lines as on the lines due to the amount of redaction and modification forced upon him by more influential personages. His original drafts must have been very interesting!'

 

I would say that the Official History was a secondary source. As for 'Div histories, Bde histories, and Regtl histories', these are nearly always secondary sources, as most (all?) were written by people who weren't directly involved with the units during the war and certainly not for all of the time.

 

Moonraker

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DavidOwen

At the risk of joining the scorched group aren't Official Histories always written by the victors?

 

(Thanks to Moonraker - post #5 - up until then I thought OH was something else!)

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Steven Broomfield

The other comments I would make about regimental, etc, histories: firstly they may well have been written/compiled at some remove in time (for example, Atkinson's rather poor volume on the Hampshire Regiment was written, IIRC, in the 1950's; secondly, they were written with a specific audience in mind - the regiment (etc) - so tend to be a little subjective, dare one say?

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Gareth Davies

Yes. But there are accounts written by people who were there, and written at the time or very soon after, which serve up large dollops of subjectivity.  

 

Beware the Blackadder recce report. 

Edited by Gareth Davies

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Skipman

Captain G C Wynne's version of Passchendaele was different to that of Edmonds; could either be trusted as 'Primary'?

 

Mike

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Moonraker

We've been here before, and in the past I've cited Robert Graves' autobiographical Goodbye to All That, now recognised as containing various embellishments.

35 minutes ago, Steven Broomfield said:

The other comments I would make about regimental, etc, histories: firstly they may well have been written/compiled at some remove in time (for example, Atkinson's rather poor volume on the Hampshire Regiment was written, IIRC, in the 1950's; secondly, they were written with a specific audience in mind - the regiment (etc) - so tend to be a little subjective, dare one say?

Such histories are likely (almost certain?) to play down undistinguished episodes: men panicking, troops refusing to advance, a commanding officer losing his nerve, fierce arguments  between senior officers ...

 

Moonraker

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MartH

So what are the primary sources for the Great War?

 

The War Diaries were written specifically for the OH, without the requirement for the OH we would not have WD's as we know them and as early as 1915 they where chasing them. Edmonds took copies, index them and gave copies back to units who had not kept a copy.  And after the war he found many errors in the WD's, and even had to put out adverts in the press to get information where WD's did not exist.

 

He also provided massive amounts of information for the writers of regimental  and other histories.

 

The idea that OH's are only written by the victors is of course tosh. The Germans produces many OH's and papers for the German army in the interwar years as well giving support to the numerous publication of German regimentals etc. It could be argued that all German regimental's are OH's in the inter war years.

 

No OH's are primary sources, but if you look at sheer number of documents to produce them, for example for France and Belgium its is recorded Edmonds had circa 500,000 maps which I find unbelievable and miles of shelves. These are the primary documents,, but the OH's are the only thing that survive.

 

 

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IPT
1 hour ago, Gareth Davies said:

Yes. But there are accounts written by people who were there, and written at the time or very soon after, which serve up large dollops of subjectivity.  

 

Beware the Blackadder recce report. 

 

Interesting point.  Does a lack of veracity prevent it being a primary source?

 

If I was actually in no-man's land, and wrote in my diary that there were elephants there, that that must surely still be considered a primary source, even if its utter b*******. 

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voltaire60
53 minutes ago, MartH said:

So what are the primary sources for the Great War?

 

The War Diaries were written specifically for the OH, without the requirement for the OH we would not have WD's as we know them and as early as 1915 they where chasing them. Edmonds took copies, index them and gave copies back to units who had not kept a copy.  And after the war he found many errors in the WD's, and even had to put out adverts in the press to get information where WD's did not exist.

 

He also provided massive amounts of information for the writers of regimental  and other histories.

 

The idea that OH's are only written by the victors is of course tosh. The Germans produces many OH's and papers for the German army in the interwar years as well giving support to the numerous publication of German regimentals etc. It could be argued that all German regimental's are OH's in the inter war years.

 

No OH's are primary sources, but if you look at sheer number of documents to produce them, for example for France and Belgium its is recorded Edmonds had circa 500,000 maps which I find unbelievable and miles of shelves. These are the primary documents,, but the OH's are the only thing that survive.

 

 

 

     I believe the correct term for much of this stuff is "printed primary sources". Official Histories  are a sort of transgender  amalgam that sounds posh but  covers a multitude of sins.  Take for example 2 of the OHs series of the Great War- "Gooch and Temperley" and "Military Operations"

   Yes, each contains direct primary material-  first-hand accounts (of whatever date), war diaries (even written-up at the end of that week or later). What muddies the waters is that  while documentary sources may not be deliberately suppressed, then much rests on the choice of "official historian".  It.s rather like picking the Chairmen of public enquiries and royal commissions (remember them?)- the choice of the "right chap" as "official" historian can heavily influence the outcome.  For instance- let's take an absurd example- to pick an involved British Army Major-General  means that complete objectivity was never going to happen -and there is plenty of recent scholarship about Edmond's and how he worked. But-hang on- if being a "professional" army major-General-why not a Major-General of the German Army to write the "official" British war history. Well, I think not.  

    The term "official history" should sound a warning.  The OHs show that the easiest way to shut up an official historian is to give him plenty of other stuff to chew on- to get bogged down in- It took Edmonds until after WW2 to finish his work (and still unfinished as a project)

    Gooch and Temperley overkilled by overwhelming the reader.  That the increase in quantity meant an increase in probity. Both were excellent historians-Gooch, an old-fashioned Liberal (MP for Bath in the 06 landslide), while Temperley-by far the more precise- was a former serving officer. Quite how far the assurances that they had access to everything were wholly truthful is open to some doubt-particularly the July Crisis (OK-that was Headlam-Morley, the FO man-not a neutral)

   Official means 2 things- 1) You get a lot of materials and the "party line". BUT 2) it should ALWAYS flag up reasonable doubts when used. Quantity is not a guarantee of veracity.

Edited by voltaire60

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stiletto_33853
1 hour ago, Skipman said:

Captain G C Wynne's version of Passchendaele was different to that of Edmonds; could either be trusted as 'Primary'?

 

Mike

Mike,

 

Did not Wynne refuse to have his name put to the final version of the OH for that volume??

 

Gareth,

if you have "Writing the Great War"  by Andrew Green there are quite a few instances were Edmonds was criticised especially for the 1918 volumes covering the German breakthrough using the correspondence made available to him. 

A good read and in some places does lend some weight to "It's Official but Not History"

 

Andy

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Gareth Davies

I do have Green's book Andy, thank you.

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Skipman
1 hour ago, stiletto_33853 said:

Mike,

 

Did not Wynne refuse to have his name put to the final version of the OH for that volume??

 

 

 

Andy

 

Apparently so Andy, my point being could the Edmonds version be relied upon given that Wynne disagreed with it so vehemently.

 

Mike

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Gareth Davies

I have had this discussion away from the GWF and one response (which I have edited) is worth sharing with you:

 

Academics can't agree on whether the OH is a primary or secondary source. For example, Bidwell and Graham in their 'Firepower' have the OH as a secondary source, likewise Nikolas Gardner in his 'Trial by Fire'. Simkins on the other hand in his Kitchener's Army has the OH in neither category (in fact he doesn't use primary or secondary as labels) giving them their own subsection.
 
I would argue strongly that the diaries were primary sources as they were largely written by eyewitnesses on or close to the dates, and the reports are merely consolidated transcriptions of other eyewitness accounts. The OH adds a layer of interpretation to the eyewitness narratives and can demonstrably be shown to differ from first hand accounts in many areas. As you know some parts of the OH used other printed histories and provided its own subjective and occasionally inaccurate interpretation/bias, the most notorious being the myth that the Germans mistook the mad minute for MG fire. They didn't. It was a conveniently distorted view promoted by the OH, specifically by Edmonds' highly selective quotes with additional spin of Wynne's rather poor and equally highly selective (mis)quotes of an equally poor German secondary source. It rather stretches the concept of primary material.
 
When comparing regimental histories (which I would argue are secondary publications) with the primary material of the diaries, there are often large differences.
 
For my money the OH are secondary sources, but the fact remains that some (but not all) academics consistently categorise them as Primary.
 
And he is right, there is an inconsistency among academics about how they categorise the OHs.  

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voltaire60

  

1 hour ago, Gareth Davies said:

For my money the OH are secondary sources, but the fact remains that some (but not all) academics consistently categorise them as Primary.

 

   Agreed.  3 comments  about "Official Histories"

 

1)  As a rant, the term can be viewed 2 ways-  

 

    a) History that has an imprimatur of officialdom- that it is "authorised"- which should sound an alert as to who is authorising what.

     

     b)  History written by an official- which might flag up that it is  partisan-albeit that  that  it's partisan nature is very,very well massaged by officials.

 

2)   Official histories are not quite what they first proclaim- the usual formula of "complete freedom" and "full access" is  not as wide as may be presumed by the reader.  Complete freedom is significantly fettered  by the "editorial" process  and scrutiny by officialdom. All of the published official history volumes went through numerous revisions and went round the houses in Whitehall and beyond.  The example of Edmonds and Gallipoli in the Great War is a good one.  A zap of "official history" on  "Discovery" shows just how extensive this internal review process was- why,for example, would it be thought necessary for the Gallipoli volume to go to the Treasury for scrutiny???   And, of course, CAB45 and other sources indicate that it was not just the civil servants who reviewed - portions of official histories  always go off to some (not all) of those involved at a high level. Which can lead to significant shortcomings. 

     Imagine, gentle reader, if the review process had been a bit wider. Perhaps if Edmonds had put out ,say, the Somme accounts to some of the rank-and-file PBI involved. Would the "official history" have been to their approval? I doubt it. The selection of who gets to comment-and who decides which  officials can be approached is a very powerful weapon of diversion. 

 

 3) The old adage from the man in the Washington garage  in 1972-1974-"Follow the money" applies very strongly.  That  Whitehall can  veto all/part of an official history because it can block publication means that the "official historian" is never free.  The historian is never directly leaned on during the research process and the writing up- but blocking publication is a very powerful weapon indeed.  An example:   There is an official history of the office of Duchy of Lancaster- the one across the road from Somerset House. As a bookseller, the first volume (Medieval,etc) is fairly common. For decades, Vol. 2- (which covered the Twentieth  Century) was impossible to find-I had it once and had an avalanche of orders for it. Why?  because the author told some unpleasant bits of truth about land requisition by the Duchy under EPA and the like- when what it was really doing was effectively speculating by abusing emergency powers.  But the official line when I asked the Duchy why it was  suppressed was righteous indignation- No, it was not suppressed- "It was decided after proper review that the volume should be for internal circulation only".  (Relaxed in recent years- can be bought direct from the Duchy office) 

     There are in the archives a number of "official" histories that were never published, for one reason or another. eg The Fire Service in WW2 (a copy on the open shelves at Kew). On the other hand, some  projected official histories got dropped and were taken up elsewhere.  - The volume by Sherwell "Drink 1914-1922" was an official history that was dropped-similarly the Pratt volumes on railways started out as a failed official history. And  the Carnegie Endowment volumes  for the Great War on social and economic issues (which mirror the UK Official Histories,Civil Series of the Second World War) could not have been done without the "guidance" of Whitheall officials-some of whom authored the works.  Are these official histories or not?

 

    I was taught  that Truth can be bent by Selection  when doing History- what was called by my old tutor "Rankean Bias" . The great German historian  Leopold von Ranke was renowned for the thoroughness of his research into primary materials and that what he wrote was founded upon primary sources. Well, up to a point Lord Copper.  Say, for example that there was a General of the Great war  about whom 10 verifiable "facts" were known from undisputed and verifiable primary sources.  Five of them show the general in a good light, five show him in a poor light. Now, if an author comes along and  prints only the 5 "good" facts, then is that biased history???  After all, everything is true and verifiably so..

   Yes, of course, selection is everything.  Every word in any of the official histories is true-  but the wording might be oblique in some things. To me, the words "official history" mean that every word published is true but on the other hand, not every truth is there.

 

    Primary or secondary?   My money is that the official histories of the Great War  are,correctly, "founded on official documents" - they are NOT primary history but secondary history and should all be used with caution. Anyone who has ever been to a meeting where Civil Servants  keep the minutes will know the feeling of wonder that, perhaps, they were at a different meeting when the minutes are published-"Civil Service-ese" is a wonder to behold. To me, the official histories are one huge exercise in Civil Service minute  taking- nothing is untrue but the patrticipants might not recognize they took part in the same events.

 

   

 

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Skipman

The term "Primary Source" (in all  variations of case), does not appear, even once, in the whole of the volumes.

 

Mike

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Heid the Ba
6 hours ago, Gareth Davies said:

 I would argue strongly that the diaries were primary sources as they were largely written by eyewitnesses on or close to the dates, and the reports are merely consolidated transcriptions of other eyewitness accounts. The OH adds a layer of interpretation to the eyewitness narratives and can demonstrably be shown to differ from first hand accounts in many areas. As you know some parts of the OH used other printed histories and provided its own subjective and occasionally inaccurate interpretation/bias, the most notorious being the myth that the Germans mistook the mad minute for MG fire. They didn't. It was a conveniently distorted view promoted by the OH, specifically by Edmonds' highly selective quotes with additional spin of Wynne's rather poor and equally highly selective (mis)quotes of an equally poor German secondary source. It rather stretches the concept of primary material.

I agree entirely with this.  Battalion war diaries etc. are primary sources, they were compiled during or shortly after the events by people who were witnesses or who interviewed witnesses. The OH is an amalgam of primary sources and so is a secondary source, and I would put regimental and divisional histories in the same category.  That was the definition used at the University of Edinburgh during my time there.

 

A primary source having a known bias does not negate its value.  Of course the Loamshire war diary will paint them in a good light while blaming the City Fusiliers next door and vice versa, it doesn't mean it has no value.  Anna Komnena has some very unreconstructed views of the West but her writings have great worth, and so on.

 

And a wholehearted agreement with Voltaire's third point.

Edited by Heid the Ba

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Steven Broomfield

I would entirely agree with the points in Post 17.

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MartH
18 hours ago, Heid the Ba said:

I agree entirely with this.  Battalion war diaries etc. are primary sources, they were compiled during or shortly after the events by people who were witnesses or who interviewed witnesses. The OH is an amalgam of primary sources and so is a secondary source, and I would put regimental and divisional histories in the same category.

 

If only this was true, Edmonds often found discrepancies in WD's and wrote to the authors to clear it up. He found some WD;s written when advancing or retreating were either not done by people there or done weeks after. We know in 1915 that missives were sent out because they were not being filled in. This is why Edmonds corresponded with participants.

 

It was the production of the Official History of the South African War that had to sift through loads of disparate source material  that triggered the formalisation of WD's to allow the production of OH's. IRC the first one being OH of the War in Somaliland.

 

Moonrakers post no. 5 is correct.

 

Finally Edmonds was tasked to produce an Official History for the lessons learned and a popular history for the masses, something that has not been attempted since.

Edited by MartH
Typo

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MartH
On 02/07/2018 at 18:58, voltaire60 said:

The term "official history" should sound a warning.  The OHs show that the easiest way to shut up an official historian is to give him plenty of other stuff to chew on- to get bogged down in- It took Edmonds until after WW2 to finish his work (and still unfinished as a project)

 

I think this is rather unfair Edmonds was always understaffed when compared with say the Reicharchiv.  What's unfinished from Edmonds or the OH's apart from East African Volume II?  No one complains about Bean being late.

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Heid the Ba
1 hour ago, MartH said:

 

If only this was true, Edmonds often found discrepancies in WD's and wrote to the authors to clear it up. He found some WD;s written when advancing or retreating were either not done by people there or done weeks after. We know in 1915 that missives were sent out because they were not being filled in. This is why Edmonds corresponded with participants.

 

 

If there are discrepancies then it is still a primary source, it is just not accurate.

 

If it is written some time later (and I wasn't aware some were, thank you for that information) then there is a good argument that the War Diary is a secondary source.

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MartH
2 minutes ago, Heid the Ba said:

If there are discrepancies then it is still a primary source, it is just not accurate.

 

If it is written some time later (and I wasn't aware some were, thank you for that information) then there is a good argument that the War Diary is a secondary source.

 

For example some 1914 where written after the war and Edmonds even puts adverts out in the press for people to do it, IRC particularly the medical ones.

 

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