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yperman

Can we trust memoirs?

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yperman

Sometime ago my nephew asked me to make some notes on my un-distinguished service in  CID in the Royal Hong Kong Police.in the 1970s/80s Writing anecdotes and stories I found I was very aware this was for family and that I was censoring all of my private life and most of the nastier detail and giving simplified, often opinionated versions of complex events. Writing in the first person I also found I had to frequently make it clear that I was usually not a key player but often a junior member of a bigger team. Above all it was hard to explain procedures, laws and the unique Hong Kong culture.

 

This modest exercise has profoundly changed the way I read soldiers' accounts of the Great War. In particular I have had to re-assess their value as primary sources. I am moving towards the opinion that official unit diaries should be given more weight and accounts by soldiers in their old age should be treated with caution.  Professional Historians reading this will doubtless point out all sources must be evaluated but I must admit I hadn't really taken this on board until I tried to write some notes myself. Food for thought!

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KONDOA

I know of one particular publication where the writer, in old age, couldn't remember what or where he joined up or where he went! 

 

Roop

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sassenach

It must be sensible to treat memoirs with a degree of caution. Any copper will tell you that numerous eye witnesses will each give you a different account of the same event.

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keithfazzani

The best thing is to read as many as you can. Sometimes this will help with detail but it will certainly help to inderstand how the soldier on the ground felt. I suspect that unit diaries also suffer from the same problems. Again it pays to read several from the same incident, place or time. War inevitably distorts what we may regard as fact. 

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charlie962

Related to this was this recent discussion on oral histories and veterans' memories. Peter Hart's comments are particularly revealing.

 

Charlie

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stiletto_33853

I think Charlie has it spot on. Peters comments are revealing. Battalion war diaries Peter comments on also and through my experience I wholeheartedly agree with him having come across some utter tosh in them when you research further and go higher up the food chain, so to speak. Quick to apportion blame to other units in their defence etc.

I have recently jumped to Corps Diaries where their reports on day to day operations give you a slightly better overview, sometimes with greater detail on actual events'

i.e some of the witch hunts that always seem to follow the usage of fresh troops. The CAB correspondence files contain some contradictory statements as well. Edmonds must have been pulling his hair out at times trying to fathom out these contradictions and is probably why a lot of Historians count the OH as secondary sources.

All in all I would say you have to look at every angle to come to a firm conclusion.

Totally understand what Yperman says as he was aware that his writings were for family, not sure how many of the Great War veterans were putting their feelings down for family though.

Find attached a part of Peters comments which are very valid.

 

Credit to Peter Hart for this section and other revealing comments on Charlie's highlighted thread.

 

Andy

 

Screen Shot 2019-06-02 at 13.43.55.png

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yperman
1 hour ago, charlie962 said:

Related to this was this recent discussion on oral histories and veterans' memories. Peter Hart's comments are particularly revealing.

 

Charlie

Peter Hart  sums up the limits and value of oral evidence precisely. it is a source, but one that has to be treated with caution. Thank you for the link

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charlie962

On the subject of records made at the time:

 

Reading a Great Uncle's letters to his mother ( my GGMother) they are mostly in the vein 'I am fit and well and fat...' But a couple of times he boils over and has to tell about blood and guts and horrors then quickly reverts back and apologises. Thank goodness for War Diaries and a good Batallion History.

 

My father's diary of WW2 is a bit similar although he didn't experience the horrors of trench warfare. He did tell me he left out all the 'particularly nasty bits'  in case he was killed and his family got to read the diary. Again every once in a while he has a brief rant but quickly reverts to mildness. The loss of good friends does come through though.  I wonder who the diary was for ? He re-read it in his old age and my sister started typing it up but my father died before I could (or dared to ?) ask him questions- and there are more questions raised than answers given.

 

So both are true in as far as they go but both false because of self-censorship. But fantastic to have them.

 

Charlie

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keithmroberts

These days I don't even trust my own memories. My recollections of my juvenile and young adult days  make it clear that while capable of almost infinite alcoholic capacity, and immense sexual prowess and stamina, I was also incapable of intellectual or any other kind of error, and was indeed almost saintly in my dealings with others. Were I to write my memoirs I would of course be absolutely honest, and my memory clear.

 

I enjoy reading memoirs, but trust them even less than my own recollections.

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voltaire60

My recollections of my juvenile and young adult days  make it clear that while capable of almost infinite alcoholic capacity, and immense sexual prowess and stamina, "

 

Good grief!!   Straight in the Fiction section when published then?

 

On a serious note, the tendency of human beings is to suppress the bad things that have happened. does slew the memory-  many, many veterans of the war remembered little mishaps or comical episodes and forgot the horrible day-to-day realities.  So, short of  bodycam and continuous voice recording, ALL veteran memoirs are tinted through some sort of lens. The trick is to spot the difference between the normal frailties of human memory and retrospective porkies. It's called "History"

    And it begs a further question-  do we regard some memoirs as "reliable" simply because they fit in with what we want to believe?   The greatest problem for me is those memoirs which are in the guise of  fiction-  Sassoon, Blunden etc.  It's a harmless drudge activity identifying the characters and the events they were involved in but many a "fictionalised" memoir of the war turns out to be more reliable than a supposed "memoir",

    

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David Filsell

Was there not a book titled Unreliable Memoirs? An honest author whose name, like  much else, I can readily mis-remember!

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Ron Clifton

I am about to watch the first episode of "The Alan Clark Diaries" in a dramatised adaptation (BBC4). I do not anticipate placing a high value on the accuracy of either the dramatisation or the original.

 

ALL diarists and memoir-writers indulge in self-censorship and distortion, to preserve their self-image.

 

Ron

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voltaire60
11 hours ago, David Filsell said:

Was there not a book titled Unreliable Memoirs? An honest author whose name, like  much else, I can readily mis-remember!

 

     Yes-Clive James, the Oz TV critic.  A thumping good read-  his descriptions of Australian National Service-"Nasho"-will be very familiar to those who suffered under British Army training-particularly that his WO1 was one of Britain's least enviable cultural legacies to the world.

11 hours ago, Ron Clifton said:

ALL diarists and memoir-writers indulge in self-censorship and distortion, to preserve their self-image.

 

      And a good watch it was-  though John Hurt miscast.  Your comment is true enough- My late father was an airborne signaller at Arnhem and a had a low regard for one officer who figured  prominently in later accounts of the battle-and only quite recently deceased. Dad used to say that the man had a very selective memory and  he could remember many things that were not so glorious in that officer's career.

 

   The 2 points I would come back to in memoirs of the Great War are these:

 

1)  Just how much memoir writers jump on a bandwagon-  The success or public acceptance of one point of view or type of "memory" often conditions what a later writer puts in their memoirs.  Locally , we have an unpublished and very good memoir of a Sergeant with the 4th Essex captured in one of the Gaza battles of 1917 and a Turkish captive thereafter. The memoirs are good and written up-typed,double-spaced,etc- in the 1920s and 1930s. BUT with a publisher rejection that the public were no longer interested in that sort of thing.  It is held by the man's great nephew but local archives have a copy- deserving of publication but the family member thinks he may have a go at it and has blocked anybody else editing and seeing into print. Pity.

 

2) The reticence of memoir writers to criticise another.    Critical comments suggesting another memoir writer had "misremembered" are uncommon.

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2ndCMR

As with more recent events, and as mentioned above, the only reliable method is the comparison of as many sources as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by 2ndCMR

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Derek Black

The long lived Alfred Anderson said he was batman to the late Queen mothers brother Fergus, however there's no evidence that Alfred was transferred to the 8th battalion, or that Fergus ever served in Alfreds battalion, the 5th.

It's more likely he made a mistake and confused Fergus with one of his 2 brothers (Patrick and John) or cousin (Geoffey), who were all officers in his own battalion.

 

Derek.

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