Authors/Historians faith in research

Discussion in 'Historiography' started by 51highland, Sep 16, 2011.

  1. 51highland

    51highland Very Senior Member

    The title says Authors and historians but this applies to anyone carrying out research. How much faith is put on the written word eg war diaries,or even already published histories/books.
    I have been carrying out research for quite some years and when I have quoted the written word, I have often been pulled up in a hurry by those that were there as it were. A recent example was the citation for Dougie Beaton 5th Camerons. Looking at the Camerons regimental history it roughly goes along with the citation.
    Monty's Highlanders by Delaforce, page 206. describes him as C company "led another successful bayonet charge for which he was awarded the MC". Dougie Beaton was a Platoon officer of Anti-Tank platoon, six pounders. He told me himself why he got the MC. The bayonet charge is as Richard Massey said, "absolute crap". I can give the true story of the Bayonet charge if needs be. This is just one example of a whole load of details that I am trying to get the whole truth to. Not just for medals but for complete actions etc. Hopefully those that were there, will put all their experiences down on paper, to help to get to somewhere nearer the truth in a lot of cases. I know that different peoples wars are seen very differently even in the same actions, eg one company finds little resistance while the next one in line can be nearly wiped out. The officer (or person ) writing the war diaries are invariable tired after action, plus there is no way that they can know what was happening with every company/platoon/section etc. I was wondering what, (especially) the authors/Historians out there, do as regards war diaries, do they take them as gospel? with scepticism? especially if there are no eye witnesses as it were. Thoughts please.
  2. Alan Allport

    Alan Allport Senior Member


    I think it's important to remember that very few historical documents were ever written with future historians in mind. We are snoopers, as it were, on conversations held long ago, in which our particular concerns about 'the truth' were not at the forefront of anyone's mind.

    War Diaries were attempts to bring order to an inherently disordered situation. It's not surprising, then, that they often have a procrustean quality (there's your word of the day for you ...)

    Best, Alan
  3. Paul Reed

    Paul Reed Ubique

    It's an interesting point but I don't think any one source is more valid or important than another. Is veteran testimony more reliable than a War Diary, for example? I think you have to be aware of the fallibility of all sources when you write history, but if you get too wound up in it you'll never write anything.
  4. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran Patron

    Thought you might be interested in seeing this comparison of a Regimental Diary compared with a personal one. My Squadron was "A" Squadron.

    Regimental Diary 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. 18th April 1945

    A & B Sqns forming part of 2nd Armd Bde Grp advanced to form bridgehead across FOSSA SABBASOLA at 240665. B Sqn in reserve. A Sqn worked hard all day to be rewarded with excellent results.RHQ Tp on the CL did bulk of the work but suffered 2 Kangaroo casualties. Air bursts over the 2i/c’s Honey badly wounded 2 of the crew. In general the enemy were taken by surprise. Many SPs and Mark IVs were encountered but in conjunction with excellent fighter-bomber support throughout the day the majority were destroyed. Bag estimated to be 5 SPs, 8 Mark IV and five 88’s. towards evening the Grp captured artillery personnel with their 105’s intact. Sqn leaguered in area 252668. Major Ogier, OC B Sqn was wounded and evacuated. One OR killed and three wounded.C Sqn Kangaroos were used to ferry supplies to troops on the bank of the GAIANA and to bring back the wounded.

    My Actual Army Album, Page 46, Diary entry
    Ron Goldstein's Actual Army Album

    Wednesday 18th. April 1945
    Stonked near wood for solid hour. Corporal Todd wounded badly in head when airburst caught their Honey. Farmhouses burning, stuck in ditch.

    This day will forever stay in my memory and I wrote about it here on the BBC People’s War Archives:
    BBC - WW2 People's War - The Day I Should Have Died: 4th Queen's Own Hussars in Italy

    I had spotted “Toddy”, i.e. Cpl Todd earlier in the day with his most incongruous and bloody head bandage, being driven back to the FAP and thought to myself “there but for the grace of G-d go I!”.

    Attached Files:

  5. GPRegt

    GPRegt Senior Member

    I've always tried to double, if not triple, corroborate info - whether it be official or veteran account.

    Steve W.
  6. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    couldn't agree more as I have lost count of the errors and fiction and downright sloppy research of many authors and alleged historians who just have to fill up the pages unforgettable howler is from a world wide acknowledged Pulizer prize winner is on relating the capture of a small town in the Liri Valley claimed that it was by the 17th BATTALION of the 21st LANCERS- that tome went into the shedder

    - another was by a Canadian author describing the death of my own Troop leader
    by claiming that a German with a faustpatrone rose from a slit trench in front of the Tank and destroyed it with all of the crew -absolute moonshine and caused me to write the true story of that battle which I had never told anyone....that also met the shedder !

  7. Phil Scearce

    Phil Scearce Finish Forty and Home

    You raise an interesting question, and I agree with the replies. I think it is very important to have corroborating support for veteran accounts, and when you've exhausted sources for corroboration, I also think it is fair to present elements of a story as the veteran told it. It's important to be true to your readers, and if your reader knows that you are sharing one account of an incident, they will understand that the story may be imperfect. The reader will appreciate the veteran's recollection for what it is. There were stories in my own book's early manuscript which didn't make publication because other sources proved them inaccurate, but on other occasions I tell the story as the veteran understood it at the time, even though he was mistaken: but my reader knows the truth, and also knows what the soldier believed at that time- which is important because the soldier's actions and behaviors are shaped by what he thinks, whether it is accurate or not. So research, corroborate, tell the stories, but throughout your text, be true to your reader.
  8. Heimbrent

    Heimbrent Well-Known Member

    It's understandable that an author might lose credibility if he gets facts wrong, like Tom's examples show. In some cases the work probably deserves getting binned.
    However, I trust that more often than not the author didn't get facts wrong on purpose or because he/she just didn't give a damn but rather because the source(s) available led to that result or because he/she misunderstood something.
    Contact the author if you like, tell them they got it wrong - they'll probably be glad to get it straight.
  9. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    I did exactly that with the Canadian author who apologised profusely and promised that his commenst would be rectified on second printing .....hasn't happened yet.....

    Gerry Chester had the same problem with the same author in his account of an incident at the Liri valley when Gerry's unit were cut to pieces on the first day of that battle - so I was not alone - and I note that the author has now published another book on the Juno beach .....which I shall NOT be buying -

    but that doesn't stop the hype that he is a great author and the trouble is that the readers to-day - weren't there.....and he still makes a living....and the revision goes on....
  10. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    Your posts always intrigue me. Interesting point indeed as I have since before I joined tried to place my father's accounts within the context of the Regimental History and the War Diaries etc. Don't often neatly dovetail.

    I agree the diaries were written of a different purpose altogether and not just to put something on the record for reference later.

    The Histories were written with the men who were there in mind, who knew the background anyway, and so are not the full story. They also contain errors, often based on WDs and personal diaries / later recollections. How many of these have revised editions?

    The recommendations are a style of their own, designed entirely to justify an award. Maybe sometimes a man just deserved it. We wont ever know about those which were turned down. One citation I transcribed has the words: "not to be placed in the press", next to a description of a German POW being shot for refusing to run the gauntlet of his own side's fire. So not everything was meant to be read by us. As Alan said we are snoopers.

    There are bound to be the usual mistakes and omissions in official records - or worse (look at the thread dealing with refusals to sail to Dunkirk!), sprinklings of embellishment, and cases of damming by faint praise. So, in some ways I find the omissions I know of in some regimental records much more interesting.

    There are no mentions of the personalities who ran away, who broke down in action endangering their men, or who kept themselves well out of the danger at all times. There is hardly any mention of AWL, desertion, or indeed of favouritism (Officer and WO recommending each other for awards), deals on the qt (recommendations dumped in exchange for charges not pressed, bullying or ill-discipline. But why should there be, I suppose.

    I don't take any as "the truth" (whatever that is supposed to mean), when I've spoken to veterans they too stress that their words are only their version of events. The veteran who helped with this query never actually read his regimental History (written by an officer who was in that theatre) until he was asked to clarify events. He's very clear about mistakes in it regarding a few who died and when, which originate from the diaries themselves. There was always bound to be some confusion and not many were asked for eye witness accounts for the record.

    I suppose we can only read as many sources as possible and form our own conclusions... and consign quite a bit to copious footnotes.
  11. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    Gerry Chester had the same problem with the same author in his account of an incident at the Liri valley when Gerry's unit were cut to pieces on the first day of that battle - so I was not alone - and I note that the author has now published another book on the Juno beach .....which I shall NOT be buying -

    And Gerry kindly put up his detailed responses on his website
  12. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran Patron

    Just spotted something for the first time and have to get it down before I forget it!

    Back in Sept 2008 on a thread about being frightened in wartime: I wrote the following few words:

    I was with the 4th Hussars and we were advancing along the narrow crest of a river bank when a dispatch rider drove towards us waving frantically for us get over to our left.

    As we tried to pull over we saw coming towards us about half a dozen tanks each one bearing severely wounded men piled up on the rear of the turret casing while their comrades were trying to staunch the severe bleeding that was taking place.

    For the first time in my life I realised that ahead of me lay possible untold terrors and that I would be asked to face the same dangers that the poor buggers on the backs of the tanks were now retreating from.

    Surprisingly I felt little or no fear, my feelings were more of wonderment, anticipation of how I would cope and concentration on the messages pouring through my radio headset.

    We lived very much for the day then and were grateful for small mercies.
    I realise now that the Regimental Diary, from which I quote above, the item about C Sqn Kangaroos must relate to the wounded I saw being brought back along the canal bank

    C Sqn Kangaroos were used to ferry supplies to troops on the bank of the GAIANA and to bring back the wounded.


    When you say Your posts always intrigue me
    were you talking to me :)
  13. Wills

    Wills Very Senior Member

    I have been in debriefs - the contact reports from each commander as he saw it - genuinely - yet there would often be conflicting reporting, another would check his notes and the radio log contacts and come to a different conclusion on direction of shot and subsequent action. We sometimes recorded in the battalion log an incident as it would appear to have happened, after debrief. As you made your way back to accommodation the talk was often - well it bloody well did not happen like that - we all see the scrap we are in - the guys 100 yds away might well see it all differently. I wonder if I could look back at the Intreps (intelligence reports) debriefs and see if they conflict with my memory. I am sure there will always be some on reading the battalion contact reports who will disagree with the record. At a reunion the conversation got around to something of yesteryear, it soon became apparent that more than one event was being merged. I believe that if any combination of lads from that era were to write a history, we would using a mix of documentary evidence and memory write entirely different accounts. For a period of 6 months I was the Intelligence office manager, the Int Office consisted of, an IO (Int Offr) myself, a collation Sergeant and four collators. Every night/morning before 0100hrs I had to produce a daily Int report to be sent (tele) to all div. bde and units warned off for future service. This Nirep (NI report) was a list of the days occurrences within my area. Every effort was made to achieve accuracy - but hand on heart nobody could guarantee 100% accuracy, The patrol commander would give his report to the debriefing team, they would sort wheat and chaff, this would go to the collators to extract info, By 2200hrs I would get a reading debrief with which to compile my Nirep. Beginning to see the picture? Staff duties were just as important then (WWII) - look at some of the record cards of soldiers even in the sticky times someone was compiling records and intelligence - as they saw it at the time.
  14. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Wills -
    I feel sure that we all understand that many versions of the same story are predicated on the amount of witnesses to the scene - as any police officer can tell us ...
    My compliant about authors is the sloppy research as in "the 17th battalion of the 21st lancers......"

    Also the fiction of another - " a German armed with a faustpatrone arose from a slit trench in front of the Tank killing all of the crew...."

    Contrast this with MY version and no doubt that my driver would have a different version - but he was long gone while I stuck around Commander would have had another version - but he died also....

    BBC - WW2 People's War - The Gothic Line: The Battle for San Martina

  15. Wills

    Wills Very Senior Member

    Indeed Tom sloppy historians and the revisionist which is the popular style today!

  16. PeterG

    PeterG Senior Member

    All honest historians strive for the truth but achieving this is quite another matter. Aristotle just about got it right in the 4th century BC:The investigation of truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.
    You have only to consider an everyday occurrence like a car accident with several witnesses all convinced that their eyes did not deceive them. Yet, if the matter goes to court, they often contradict each other. How much more difficult, then, to record what exactly happened in a skirmish of a few or in a battle involving thousands. Individual combatants will contradict each other, either in recording events at the time or recalling them later, but in the aggregate I believe reliable history emerges.
  17. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Peter -
    whilst I would agree that Aristotle had it about right - I also believe that he was discussing OBJECTIVE truth and not the SUBJECTIVE truth which appears to have become very popular in the past 50 years - so the aggregate of present history might be the wrong truth perhaps ?
  18. Belville

    Belville Senior Member

    How much more difficult, then, to record what exactly happened in a skirmish of a few or in a battle involving thousands. Individual combatants will contradict each other, either in recording events at the time or recalling them later ...

    Very true. My grandfather was at the Battle of Spion Kop (for those too young, a famous defeat in the [2nd.] Boer War). In his diary he said that he thought it was a victory!

    Also, citations must sometimes put a gloss on the events. One WW II V.C. was described in his posthumous citation as having gone into action in spite of having been wounded the day before, and refusing treatment. It omitted the fact that the wound was received when he was shot in the buttock by a British soldier!


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