Thursday, 7 July 2016

Hearing the Voices of the Past by Dawn Finch

 On the 7th of July 1916, the first official casualty lists of the dreadful slaughter on the Somme arrived back in the UK. In the week preceding this, the government and the newspapers had been able to put a positive spin on “the Big Push”, but a list of almost 20,000 men dead in a day, 60,000 in a week, told quite a different tale. As a writer, it is these cold details that give our research depth and substance. We allow ourselves to think of all of those families convinced that the Big Push was a good thing, and that the “Pals battalions” were safe when they were far from it. The government and the media of the day considered the general population too fragile to cope with the reality of war, and so it was glossed over. They needed more people to sign up and, as they say, the first casualty of war is the truth.

My current work in progress is a novelisation of the lives of my grandfather’s older brothers, William and Joseph – both of whom died in the First World War. I made a promise to my grandfather that I would write this story, but it has taken me a decade of painstaking research to piece together their lives, and much of it has had to be those between the lines details. To write it I needed to break through the slick rhetoric of the time, and the all too painful stories of others, to find the truth of their story. I was trying to hear the voices of two young men who I only knew through the stories of my grandfather, and he was a child when they left.

The boys had both signed up in Australia after travelling there from England in search of their fortunes. They were part of the Australian Expeditionary Force. For me this fact made my research a whole lot easier. The National Archives of Australia have been at the forefront of digitisation projects, and their records are now freely available online. In the notes on the open access military records there are some warnings that what you find may upset you, and they are wise to warn people.  Searching records from the UK is a curiously sanitised affair of neat handwritten records and blank lists of names and dates, but the NAA have made the decision to be truly open in their digitisation and have simply scanned what there was and put it up for view. Some of these primary sources contain terribly personal details, and notes that bring the whole arena of war chillingly into focus.
The Australian Red Cross documents show the search for those missing in action, with often upsetting details from eyewitnesses
 Most of the detailed information from the vital Australian contribution to the First World War is now held by the Australian War Memorial site, and this collection is truly remarkable. As well as personal military records, there are details of specific battalions and in some cases even films about them. From the photos and videos I can see just how mixed these battalions from the commonwealth were. These battalions were often billeted together and so we see film of Aboriginal soldiers socialising and working with Native Canadians and Maoris. This film shows men of my great-uncles’ battalion with others and, at about six minutes in, there is film of a tree-felling contest that was won by the Maoris with such ease that they make the trees look like kindling. These commonwealth battalions were a broad mix of men bound together by a common cause. 

As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and as an information professional, I rely on solid sources and on information that is open and unbiased. I need to see and understand both sides of the story, and primary sources are easily the best. The information that can be discovered from primary sources goes far beyond documentary texts. For example, one small reference in one of the boy’s military records is rather innocuous in itself. It records a minor incident, a day when William did not make it back in time for evening roll-call. 
A single reference to Lark Hill finally proved that the boys made it home, if only for a short time, ten months before their deaths
William was given a very minor punishment of one day confined to camp. These few words however tell me so much more. They tell me that at this point in time Will and Joe were both at Lark Hill Camp near Salisbury Plain in England. I knew that they must have spent some time back in England before they were shipped out to France, but if it wasn’t for this charge I would not have known where or when. This records tells me that they were only thirty miles away from where they grew up. Joe’s record does not show that he had a similar charge, so for some reason Will left the camp alone after morning roll-call and did not make it back in time for nightfall. It seems that this was not considered to be a very serious offence because one day confined to camp is not exactly harsh in terms of penalties, so why did the officer in charge treat him so lightly?

This is where we move into the speculation of the writer….and you’ll have to wait for that...

The boys were both killed within two weeks of each other during a push made by the ANZACs across a hellish battlefield. They were part of a battle of the Somme that is burnt into the collective memory of all Australians, but one that we know surprisingly little about in the UK - the battle of Pozieres. They survived this, and another hellish winter, only to be killed in the spring of 1917.  In writing about the boys and their war I hope to highlight the contribution made to the war by the commonwealth nations, but I also get to do something that history didn't. As a writer of fiction I get to bring at least one of them home.
A letter from my great-grandfather seeking information about his missing son, William. Joseph Jr had already been reported dead but the family held onto thin hope that William was somehow still alive

In this world of misinformation and selective interpretation, a world of movies and tv that blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction without ever attempting to show which is which - it is essential that we support the digitisation of primary sources. It is vital that we use, celebrate and share primary sources whenever we can and we support our museums and specialist libraries in this process. This means that not only will we never forget, but we will also be able to hold up an original document showing the words of the people who were there and say “here, here is the truth.”

Dawn Finch
Children's writer and librarian
President, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)


Sheena Wilkinson said...

Loved this post, as someone who has long been fascinated with this period and also done research and writing about it. Can't wait to read this book when it comes out.

Anne Booth said...

That is such a moving post. I am looking forward to reading this novel. And I totally agree about primary sources.

Catherine Johnson said...

Thanks for this Dawn xx