Veterans are great, but authors (somtimes) aren't

Discussion in 'General' started by Phaethon, Apr 10, 2010.

  1. Phaethon

    Phaethon Historian

    Now before I start I should mention that I've worked as both a veterans psychologist and a memory psychologist... I know how difficult it can be to recall events after so long; in my case I can barely remember what happened last week (i'm not even joking).

    Questioning every aspect of a veterans account is not what I am doing here; and I also have no wish to dishonour the deceased gentleman involved. In fact I'm positive many of this individuals accounts are accurate; he even makes a point of saying that this is how he remembers them and they may not be "as they happened".

    Basically I have come across a highly cited online account of the 2nd Bn coldstream (no link) in ww2; and a lot of the details simply don't fit. Names of deceased, locations, dates.... especially events. Its not even like a veteran account I've encountered before, its more like someone completely uninvolved filled in the blanks with something interesting.

    I'm slightly concerned because the number of times this site has been used in ww2 books on the 1st guards, 2nd B coldstream, 6th armoured division, tunisia, italy ect, is... to put it frankly, a lot. From Ken fords mailed fist, to American Illiad (18th RCT) its been cited as one of the only veterans accounts (up until now) of places like longstop/sbiba/ornito.

    It does make you very greatful for the accounts we have from living veterans on this site. In case you're wondering no I'm not planning to do anything about this source, philosophically I believe part of recalling an event is part of living history, hower I was wondering if anyone else had any experience with skewed sources... if you haven't be warned from just taking accounts of the internet as written gospel!
     
  2. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    From my own personal experiences as a Police Officer of witness's memories of events is that the sooner the events are taken down in writing or recorded, the more accurate the evidence.

    When people have time to mull over events, they sometimes change the events slightly and over a longer period the more this can apply.

    The bottom line is that the witness has then conditioned his memory to a point where the events may be totally inaccurate, but that person totally believes the events to be true.

    A lie detector test would not prove anything other than that person was not deliberately telling untruths.

    I believe this to be the problem when events are only recorded late after the event.

    Even taking several fresh witness accounts, most will vary in some detail or other and this must also be taken into account.

    This must be a nightmare for professional historians.

    Regards
    Tom
     
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  3. Phaethon

    Phaethon Historian

    From my own personal experiences as a Police Officer of witness's memories of events is that the sooner the events are taken down in writing or recorded, the more accurate the evidence.

    When people have time to mull over events, they sometimes change the events slightly and over a longer period the more this can apply.

    The bottom line is that the witness has then conditioned his memory to a point where the events may be totally inaccurate, but that person totally believes the events to be true.

    A lie detector test would not prove anything other than that person was not deliberately telling untruths.

    I believe this to be the problem when events are only recorded late after the event.

    Even taking several fresh witness accounts, most will vary in some detail or other and this must also be taken into account.

    This must be a nightmare for professional historians.

    Regards
    Tom

    This is a good point; the best accounts definitely seem to be ones based from diaries or written accounts at the time or single major events.

    However, whilst I always expect some details to differ, the problem I have here is that this particular account is completely different to anything else. In fact it differs to such an extent its like its written by someone who wasn't there and I suspect a family member might have polished it up a bit. I'm quite concerned because as I said, this has been a foundation for a number of historical accounts
     
  4. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    As you have already pointed out, taking one story and taking this as gospel can sometimes backfire.

    Better not to publish anything that is un-corroborated, but there again it is difficult for Historians and Publishers and it is a dilema for those invoved.

    Regards
    Tom
     
  5. sapper

    sapper WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Let me add a bit here. I have written extensively about my personal war experiences.

    Some of them can only be described as "way out" During that time I have been labeled a liar. That I was writing another's story. That I was not who I said I was.

    In fact, everything I penned, was the truth, nothing added or embellished. Just what happened. As to memory? I can say hand on heart that I recall all the events....All of them.

    But not in any sequence the time scales are all over the place...But I do recall everything. Clear and sharp..... But do not ask me what I had for lunch last week, or even yesterday !Folk with fine long term memories are not that unusual. But at the same time there are those that cannot recall a thing about what the went through.

    The other vets here will I am sure, bear me out...Sometimes what happens is so ridiculous that you hesitate to write about it.
    Sapper
     
  6. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran Patron

    I read Bian's cri-de-coeur and it certainly rings bell with me !

    Some while ago, on a thread that I titled "Am I bovvered" I wrote of a place called Lugo in Northern Italy and I set out one of the problems facing someone of my age group ( I am now 86) when writing about events of sixty odd years ago.


    Am I bovvered?

    A few years ago I posted a story on the BBC WW2 Peoples War (as it was then known). For those of you who are not familiar with the site, it is now a sealed archive and the stories can no longer be edited or comments added


    The original story; BBC - WW2 People's War - Diary Entries 11th April 1945
    described a period lasting about two weeks prior to what was virtually the last battle in Italy, namely the break-through of the Argenta Gap.


    When I first wrote the article, some sixty odd years after the event, I had yet to discover the 4th Queen's Own Hussars Regimental Diaries. So, while the dates in the story were factually correct, i.e. taken from my own personal diary, I had no confirmation as to the geographical features of the area.


    My diary, still with me today, said this:

    Wednesday 11th. April 1945
    Woken at 4 am to go into Lugo area with Recce party. Stood at X roads for a couple of hours. Area lousy with mines. Late breakfast when tanks arrived.


    The story on the BBC site, based entirely on my memory of the day, said this:


    On April ll th I went with Lt. Walmsley by jeep to Lugo, the fortified town that is surrounded by water and to which access is made by many small bridges. We stopped the jeep on the outside perimeter and looked across one of these bridges at the town that we could see in front of us.
    The trouble was that the bridge had obviously been hit by shell fire and was in a bit of a mess. It did, however, look as if we could get across on foot through the rubble.
    With its back to us a notice board had been fixed in the centre of the bridge and Walmsley said to me: "Nip over there and see what it says." Without any further thought I did this, and after I had reached the spot and read the notice I called across to Walmsley in what I hoped was not too shaky a voice: "It says 'Achtung Minen!'. I had, in fact, just walked through a Jerry minefield and was now faced with the unpleasant task of trying to remember exactly where I had placed my feet on the journey in. The fact that 58 years later I am able to write about the incident means, of course, that at the time I must have been blessed with either a good memory or good luck.

    Now this is my problem and my reason for posting this article.

    My memory, on which I relied upon to describe the scene, led me to believe that the bridge was one of many, that Lugo was surrounded by water and that it was necessary to cross the bridge to gain access to the town.

    However, when I now use modern maps of the area plus GOOGLE EARTH it soon becomes painfully obvious that Lugo is not surrounded by water and that the bridge to which I refer must have been purely one over the Santerno river and this is confirmed by an excerpt from the Regimental Diaries shown below.

    April 11th - 0600 - B Sqn joined North Irish Horse in sweep northwards to area 3345, during which 30 PoW were taken. Own casualties 2 ORs killed and 1 wounded. 1400 - Tac HQ and A Sqn moved to outskirts of LUGO. 1630 - A Sqn 2Tp and 4Tp carried Gurkha Rifles, 1Tp and 3Tp carried RFF Rifles in an advance to the banks of the river SANTERNO. 2Tp and 4Tp went extremely well, unfortunately after 1Tp and 3Tp dropped their Infantry and were turning around they encountered A/Tk mines. Six carriers of 1Tp were damaged and one of 3Tp. No personnel casualties. C Sqn still in reserve.

    The question then is this.


    Having now done some belated research on my story I realise that my description of Lugo is patently incorrect but, because the BBC site is now sealed, there is no way to edit the story.


    Should I be like Kathy Tate on TV and just say "Am I bovvered?" and am I forced to let the story stay for evermore for the future confusion of researchers in years to come ?

    Comments please

    Ron



    When it comes to writing about the past, I suppose I am one of the "lucky ones", I kept diaries, I kept photos, I have as a friend someone who also kept diaries that fill in gaps where I lost two years of diaries, so all in all I stand a fighting chance of writing what is factually correct, backed up by Regimental diaries.

    Despite all the above, I then go and write something like my Lugo article which, when describing the scene, was patently up the creek.

    So rest easy Brian, you were "there" and I and other Vets on this site were also "there" and if we occasionally forgot something that took place more than half a century ago....... tough !

    Best regards

    Ron
     
  7. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    I've found in the past former colleagues of mine have 'glossed up' their account of things. After all, they were the ones that were there and how is anyone else going to find out if what they are saying is the whole truth?

    No one (Joe Civilian) wants to hear about the boring stuff like how hot or cold it was or when you first saw a camel and how you re-acted on seeing it. They want the action bits of a tour like how many times you fired your rifle and the worst question in the world in my opinion, 'Did you kill anyone?'

    Cheers
    Andy
     
  8. sapper

    sapper WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    I can say that I never "glossed" anything. What ever would the purpose be? of doing that? IT certainly would not enhance a true record of events.

    Indeed, if anything...I have certainly not written the true gruesome details. If guilty of anything it is the omission of some of the worst things that take place in action.
    Sapper
     
  9. James Daly

    James Daly Senior Member

    Its a very interesting subject, one of the few aspects of historiography that I don't find mind-numbingly tedious. We've already had some very interesting contributions.

    There is school of thought that suggests that in history there is no such thing as 'the truth', rather that every account is one particular person's version of an event. As there are plenty of factors that can influence a person's experience and subsequent recollections, every individual is going to have a slightly different version of events. It was the Duke of Wellington who said that the history of a battle is like the history of a ball, every person has a different recollection of the same events.

    My eyes do tend to roll whenever I see a new book promising 'the truth' on something. I suppose it grabs attention and sells books. But I don't think any one account can ever tell the truth. But by looking at as many different accouts as possible, and by comparing and contrasting you can come to some kind of consensus between them.

    The other thing I think is important to recognise is that people are always going to make unintentional mistakes in the recollections, its simply human nature. Especially when we bear in mind the distance of time, the traumatic events involved and sometimes the controversies that can affect things. But again by looking at as many different accounts as possible you can moderate and anomalies.

    I'm just glad that the veterans account is such a popular form of history at the moment. In the immediate years after the war historians were pre-occupied with rows between generals or what colour socks churchill wore. I dont know if its changing times, or a sudden realisation that history needs to be recorded for posterity, but it means our understanding of WW2 will be all the stronger for generations to come.
     
  10. Phaethon

    Phaethon Historian

    I knew this was going to be somewhat controversial when I posted this; particularaly on this site with all the veterans who post, and I want to make it clear that historical accounts are always valuable, interesting, and we're very lucky to have such reliable sources on ww2talk.

    Again I'm not after "The truth" and I hope I made this clear in my earlier posts. However my issue here isn't that memory is easily forgotten, just that authorities in literature using a single source found on the internet to make a point in their latest books, need to check what they're writing and not just cut and paste whole passages from the internet. Once a veteran passes away it is impossible to ask questions. This is why I'm greatful of primary sources that aren't anonymous, that we can put a face on, and ask the simple questions of. I firmly believe we're very lucky to have the internet and interactive sites like this should seriously be appreciated a bit more in citations; but some authors seriously need to get their knees dirty a bit more and not take the easy rout out.
     
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  11. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    Phaethon,

    What you cited seems to be beyond the norms of timelines being a little off, or not remembering places and even omitting details to spare others the pain of the facts. That you suspect someone who was not there has embellished the story, perhaps a family member, is telling for I know you are very methodical. Not many veterans would need to embellish when even their mundane facts are interesting to us - as you say, there's nothing better than hearing accounts directly from those involved.

    I think you are right to take note and move on. Thanks for repeating the warning not to take everything on the internet and in books as correct - something which I believe the veterans themselves have voiced here many a time.
     
  12. Za Rodinu

    Za Rodinu Hot air manufacturer

    Brian, I don't think anyone is accusing you of anything, not everyone were created equal and you do have a privileged memory, something I most certainly lack! Some individuals will be more trustworthy than others as far as distant memory is concerned, in this context.
     
  13. sapper

    sapper WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Oh I am not complaining or moaning. Not at all. Let me give an instance. Who would believe that we penetrated deep into enemy territory, and played bloody gramophone records at night..Just feet away from the two Germans that set off a Nebelwerfer.
    You would burst out laughing. But it was the truth. And I was the idiot that was part of the team.


    Let me say this. All that I post is the unfettered and bare truth.There is little sense of passing on rubbish. Besides who wants to be such a bloody idiot?

    As we get older, and the war fades into its 65 years passing. There is a tendency to question ones own recall? In every case. (Where able to check) mine has been spot on. Its sharp.clear and often detailed.
    With one exception. Many years ago, the war caught up with me, and I hovered on the edge of death... During that time I lost some memory blocks.... But that is the inability to recall anything about certain periods.

    A few years ago I recalled that there was small concentration camp in the lowlands. I recalled its name Breendonk... It was spot on.

    Though the sequence of events are all out of quilter and are often quoted entirely out of place.

    Though I will admit I am very fortunate in having a memory But that is all in the genes passed on from our forebears
    Sapper
     
  14. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Some years ago I bought a book by a reputable author and it quickly became apparent to me that he was fictionalising some parts of his tale and to this I objected - so I checked around and discovered that he lived in Victoria B.C. whereupon I challenged his version of a number of details.
    He finally admitted that he was incorrect as one particular day when my Troop Leader was killed and five Churchill Tanks were destroyed with the loss also of my Tank Commander and my sojourn in hospital was five months long of which I have an amazing recall - he then agreed that he would correct his version of that day on the second printing.
    Needless to say - there has been NO second printing yet people still buy his rubbish - so I would agree - it's not always the veterans "glossing".
    In discussing this with Gerry Chester he also claimed that he had the same problem with that author on a different aspect of the campaign - and as Sapper claims - many things are still in sharp relief in memory - and I also am 85.

    Cheers
     
  15. sapper

    sapper WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    What does stand out Tom. Is that the Vets will talk amongst their selves about what took place but hesitate in front of those that have not seen action. There have been to many times when they weer disbelieved.So they often clam up
    Shame really. Most of what I write was prompted by an old friend that said "You have a duty to pass it on .For when you go, you take it all with you"

    It also serves to keep the memory alive of those that never came home. Some times there is a tendency to think..."Did I do all those things"? Then you think.... Oh Yes I did, and that is why they pay me... Big Grin!
    Sapper
     
  16. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    What does stand out Tom. Is that the Vets will talk amongst their selves about what took place but hesitate in front of those that have not seen action. There have been to many times when they weer disbelieved.So they often clam up
    Shame really. Most of what I write was prompted by an old friend that said "You have a duty to pass it on .For when you go, you take it all with you"

    It also serves to keep the memory alive of those that never came home. Some times there is a tendency to think..."Did I do all those things"? Then you think.... Oh Yes I did, and that is why they pay me... Big Grin!
    Sapper

    Brian,

    I, and I think many more on this forum hope that you do not CLAM UP, as your recollection of events is excellent.
    I have always said that if anything, you are guilty of understating the events that you took part in.

    Best regards
    Tom
     
  17. marcus69x

    marcus69x I love WW2 meah!!!

    I don't believe that Sapper really played that Gramophone...;) ;) :)

    Of course you did, that's why you're telling us!

    Lads, there will always be historians and others who think it's too ridiculous. Bollox to 'em!!

    Personally, I'd love to hear all of the 'ridiculous' stories. That's how people like me get to paint a mental picture of what it was really like.

    The stranger the better.... :)
     
  18. sparky34

    sparky34 Senior Member

    as DBF says '' theres nothing better than hearing accounts directly from those involved '' I have been very lucky ..in the early 60s i was friendly with an old chap [ as i am now ]
    in my local . and he had been a strecher-bearer at PASSCHENDAELE and the stories of the mud and the men he could not save still use to upset him ..
    again i worked with my best army mates brother who was taken prisoner in 1940 at
    ST.VALARY .and he spent most of his time on farms .he once told me he would have refused to be repatriated in 1944 if the allies had come .as he was in a romance with a german teacher ...
    then there was ARNOLD in my local W,M.C. ..he had been in the R.A.F. and was
    a prisoner of war under the japanese .captured in sumatra ..
    the hours and hours i spent talking with these three gentlemen were priceless ..

    and reading BRIANS stories knowing one is getting stories that are true and genuine and cost him a lifetime of pain ..are very much appreciated
     
  19. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Well.....here is another tall tale from a veteran...once upon a time in the North of Italy - on the River Senio in fact a very bored Seaforth Highlander of Canada spotted what he thought was a tall upstanding tree which was unusual in itself - but resembling a catapult.
    He then "found" an inner tube from a large tyre so he cut this into a sling and attached it to this catapult looking tree - placed some stones into the sling - pulled it back - released it and watched the stones curve their way over the River into the German lines.

    The Germans thought this was rather strange and whilest a few of them looked upon these stones as being rather odd - a few mills grenades also arrived much to their shock and awe wounding a few of them.

    This idea was eventualy discarded as the less than fun loving enemy replied with an half hour stonk into the Canadian and our lines much to our discomverture - we did get a few laughs now and again !

    Cheers
     
  20. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    Basically I have come across a highly cited online account of the 2nd Bn coldstream

    I'd like to have a read of that sometime.
     

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