War Memorial Research (1): Perils and pitfalls

I was asked, last week, to talk about the ‘perils and pitfalls’ of War Memorial research, but instead, I’ll be posting a few tips in the next few days, about tackling the task in ways that will help avoid potential pitfalls.

But just to get the perils out of the way, the biggest one is that you could get hooked.

Your role, in this, hinges on curiosity.  Can you curb yours?  (Trick question: there’s no ‘correct’ answer.)

Are you a  YES? 
If you have an A in curiosity suppression, then this could be an ideal project for you.  It’s not going to impinge too much on your time, especially if you choose a modest memorial—a couple of dozen names, max.  Don’t let yourself be coaxed into taking on a big project.  You should be able to put together a couple of sentences for those names on your list that you are able to locate in the online database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.   That’s probably enough information for most people anyway.

The risk is that you might not find the whole business engaging which could well bury the chance of some stories ever surfacing.   Apart from people who were decorated for gallantry, or whose fame  is already in the public domain, most of them aren’t, without some extra ‘fishing’, going to generate more than a few lines.   The only stories you have a chance of finding without leaving the house, are those whose exploits are already online.  The ‘hard’ cases mean digging in archives and running the risk of acquiring an addiction to the romance of viewing documents in folders that were last handled more than 90 years ago.  You could argue that worthy people shuffle off all the time, barely noticed, and rapidly forgotten, unless there is someone left to remember and to grieve.  (At least, nowadays, most lives are better recorded, and records are accessible digitally.  These days, how often do you enter the name of a living person  in a search engine without generating at least one result?)  For some names on a war memorial, you will find nothing, not even a military record, that links that name to a specific individual.

Can you tell where this is going yet?

Are you a NO?
If your curiosity is curb-resistant, indeed rather inclined to propel itself, then the risk is that your research could take a lot of time, but the people behind the lists of names will come alive for you.  You can expect to feel a few twinges.  You may even shed a tear. Another researcher wrote to me that she seemed to be ‘blubbing all the time’.  Developing a greater sense of the enormity of the loss felt by your community, can be somewhat disturbing.

Sometimes the circumstances in which a life was lost, will feed a curiosity that you can’t shake off, so you’ll try to learn more about the military manoeuvres at the time.

If it takes you there, watch your back.  I’ve just weighed Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War and it came in at 1.25 kg.  Peter Hart’s Gallipoli must come pretty close.  Seriously, think heavyweight, as you eagerly reach for a book.  Take your battles home from the library, one kilogram at a time .

You may well never trace a photograph or find a living relative for any of those commemorated on your memorial.  Instead, at least for you, walking to the shops won’t be the same, as even if you never trace a photo or find a living relative, you’ll know where they lived, played and laboured.  It may seem pretty pointless, that a school or a street or a house can be the sole surviving relic, but at least there’s someone around to recognise its significance, once, to someone. You might be the only person on the planet able to make that connection.

If those names come alive for you, a little of that will rub off on others—maybe more than a little, if you create a tangible record.

Can you tell where this is going yet?

Whether you’re a YES or a NO, you have an opportunity to rescue quite a few people from oblivion.  As for me, I’m a ‘NO’, my curiosity is insatiable—teamed with the elephant’s child on that.



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