At the beginning of the centenary commemorations for the War, at the Theatre of Memory Symposium at the Abbey Theatre in 2014, President Higgins spoke of the commemorative activities in terms of myth-making and ethical remembering. He remarked that ‘for years the First World War has stood as a blank space in memory for many Irish people – an unspoken gap in the official narratives of this state’. He suggested that ‘literary memoirs written during or after the War can be enabling sources for ethical remembering’ and advocated using the commemorative period to create ‘opportunities to recollect the excluded, to include in our narratives the forgotten voices and the lost stories of the past’. In the aftermath of the death in the last few years of all the veterans of the War, to find these stories and these voices we must go back to the archives and seek out the diaries, memoirs letters and photographs of those who served. The Library in Trinity has a fascinating collection of this kind of material, gifted and bequeathed over the decades and, to mark the centenary of the War, the Library decided to publish this material online.
Fit as fiddles and as hard as nails is the name given to the online project which allows free access not only to digitised images of over 1500 pages of WW1 letters and diaries from the Library’s special collections, but transcriptions of the texts are also provided. There are nine war-time authors involved – almost all officers – and altogether they produced three sets of letters, four diaries (including a very brief home-front diary by the single female author among them) and three memoirs (two of which are prisoner-of-war accounts). The authors served on both Western and Eastern fronts, and ranged in age from twenty years of age to thirty-three. Two of them won Military Crosses, and one of them received the DSO having been mentioned in despatches seven times. This was Charles Howard-Bury – the oldest of our authors; he was born in Charleville Castle, Co. Offaly in 1881 and was a career military man who went with the British army to India in 1904. He was present at the Battle of the Somme and was eventually taken prisoner in 1918.
Personal records like diaries, while they are eloquent, they are not unproblematic. They are no longer understood to be straightforward, unmediated factual accounts of an individual’s experiences. An element of interpretation enters into even the most seemingly objective account, and memory, under conditions of trauma and psychological shock, can falter. Rather than compromise the value of these records, this kind of sensitivity to what is to be read between the lines enhances such documents, by giving them a depth which resonates far more than do well-rehearsed accounts of battles and the awful statistics of loss.
What kind of researcher is most likely to find these diaries informative? When libraries first began to collect these materials the assumption was that each one was unique and would add factual detail to the official history of the War. However, there has been so much research into the War over the last century that it is unlikely that the basic military information contained in an individual diary will be novel. For example, Howard Bury’s description of Delville Wood, a place left in an obscene state of carnage in July 1916, does not in any way alter what is already known about that charnel house. However, concerns other than with the straightforward factual narrative of the War come into play and ensure that Howard-Bury’s diary, and all War diaries, retains its great significance. Firstly, it is a humane urge to treat with great respect artefacts which recall people or events which demand widespread admiration or awe. Thus, these diaries are like sacred relics, or engraved medals of honour and must be protected regardless of their content. Secondly, a biographer, more interested in the author of the diary than in the War, will find much think about in the knowledge that Howard-Bury experienced this level of horror. Author Wade Davies, who describes Howard-Bury as his hero suggests that such experiences as he underwent in ‘Devil’s Wood’ almost drove Howard-Bury to insanity, which means no part of the author’s life story can be fully understood without reference to this experience.
There are other developments in the use of first-hand accounts of cataclysms world events. Over the last century, first-hand accounts have been used in different ways to excavate less obvious experiences of individuals caught up in such events. The importance of food both to the soldiers’ experiences and as a way in which they articulated their feeling of alienation is another interesting development in research, supported by first-hand accounts. The study of the uses of humour is another example of a research approach informed by an understanding of human psychology. The language used by soldiers can give insight into the mental tools they used to normalise their experiences or control their stress. Almost all soldiers use pejorative and infantilising nicknames for their enemies, or referred to them in the third person singular – the entire German army was ‘Fritz’ or ‘the Boche’ or ‘him’, clearly a form of ‘trash talk’ meant to insult the enemy and, since the enemy was not there to hear it, to bolster the camaraderie among colleagues. In the same vein is the use of jocular or offhand language to describe military hardware or activities; 60lb bombs were called tadpoles, and a barrage was referred to as a ‘show’. It is difficult to predict how this line of examination of psychology, or the granular experiences of individuals, will continue to develop because the recent appearance of a flood of easy-to-access online diaries and letters as part of the centenary of WWI is likely to give rise to hitherto impossible approaches to research.
One aspect of written artefacts that particularly interests archivists is their own history – how they came into being and what their physical make-up can tell the researcher. Howard-Bury is represented among the collections in the Library of Trinity College by three manuscripts; a brief 60 – page diary kept from 29 May – 8 September 1916; a diary kept from 1 November 1916 – 25 September 1917; and a memoir of his experience as a prisoner of war. It is clear that the first of these is the only true diary in that it was regularly written up, in pencil, on loose sheets of army-issue notebook paper (120x160mm). The second ‘diary’ in the collection is a typed transcription of a no-longer-extant original; it comprises 40 sheets (205x330mm) with a manuscript title page (not written in Howard-Bury’s hand), all stitched into a paper cover. It has suffered possible insect or rodent damage, with slight loss of text on two of the sheets. The third item is a hybrid consisting of 50 sheets of paper of varying, combining manuscript and typescript elements and at least two different carbon typescripts, arranged to make up one continuous text. It has been given the title ‘Some experiences of a prisoner of war in Germany’. It is a draft in that the author has gone over the typed text making changes and it has been proofed by another person who has left comments in the margins.
The fact that one of the records is a true diary and one is a transcribed version suggests that there is at least one and probably several diaries missing, which would be in keeping with Howard-Bury’s habit of record-keeping. It is intriguing to note the presence, on the envelope in which the first diary is contained, the number 2 written in pencil. Does that mean there was a number 1?
The physical make-up of the memoir also hints at loss. The earliest element of it is handwritten but it has already taken on the form of a structured narrative; the notes or diary upon which it was based no longer survive. The handwritten version is not complete, the end of it is missing and the narrative is continued in typescript. Perhaps Howard-Bury gave the manuscript to a typist who then neglected to return the original. Knowing the history of how an archival item came into being reflects something of the author’s intentions. The treatment of the second, typed-out diary – being made into a booklet – could suggest that this was its final form, that Bury did not intend to publish it, but stitched the pages together simply to keep them secure as he circulated them among family and friends. The presence of a second hand annotating his memoir further proves that it was not intended for the author’s own perusal only, but was meant for a wider audience. When a repository or library acquires a written artefact directly from its creator or the family of the creator, information regarding its history can often be imparted, which can give useful insight into the mind of the author. In the case of the Howard-Bury records, which were purchased from a rare books seller, no such inside information could be ascertained.
Dr Jane Maxwell
Manuscripts & Archives
Trinity College Library Dublin