Is there any point in an amateur writing yet more words about the First World War? What photographs can one take of cemeteries or former battlefields which have not been taken 1,000 times before by everyone from top-flight professionals to bus-loads of amateurs? And why does the whole subject still interest so many of us 100 years on?
To save you reading the rest of this post, the only person I have to please is myself. In a sense, therefore, this whole post is redundant – why not just get on, you might say, and write about the subject and take your photographs if you are interested in it?
One reason for the apparently self-indulgent idea of writing for myself (this goes wider than the war with which I began) is to capture facts or thoughts or ideas which derive from something I read, a place I visited, or (very often in my case) from a serendipitous wander round websites. The word “serendipity” was apparently coined by Horace Walpole to mean the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’. He told of the Three Princes of Serendip who were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”’ (my source for these quotations is here).
I can spend whole evenings doing that, usually beginning with a Google search for something I am in quest of, then wandering from website to website, garnering bits of information as I go about other things. One motive for writing is to assemble some of that information and to try and make a coherent narrative out of it for my own benefit. If it happens to inform, entertain or amuse anybody else, then that is a bonus.
The theory behind my history degree (at a place which regarded the Great War as closer to current affairs than history) was that you would spend your time poring over original sources – why else were we required to show knowledge of Latin and a European language in order to get in, and to read Bede in Anglo-Saxon as soon as we arrived? The reality was rather different, involving the production of one or often two essays a week and reading them aloud to a tetchy don who had heard it all before. Apart from the ability to read at speed and distil the essentials, the trick was to illustrate your points with some apt quotations and give credit for them. Blog posts can be a bit like that.
The First World War stirs emotions like nothing else, particularly in the hearts of those whose nations were most closely engaged in it. I came late to it as a subject of study, knowing enough to be chary of the glib assertions made about its origins and its conduct from books read at random over the years, but not keeping up with the changes in historical thought. By “random” I mean just that. I inherited a pile of Great War books when my father died, and more on the death of a friend of my own age and interests, and I am catching up. The latest published works will have to wait – but then I don’t aspire to currency, only to interest.
The Great War’s fascination lies at many levels, from broad geopolitical, economic and diplomatic matters down to an array of localised sources, from detailed maps to soldiers’ letters. I have a particular fascination with maps, and nowhere was ever mapped in more detail than the Western Front. What I have not done, until recently, was to visit some of these places myself.
I knew the names of its major battles, enough to be overwhelmed by the detail without the opportunity to break it down into its components. The maps and the descriptions are fine, but you can only get a sense of the thing – the grand sweeps and hedge-by-hedge detail – by going there.
Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, near Longueval in the Somme
Well now I have been. Not big trips but very short tours, a day with my youngest son Will last year when we navigated almost entirely by a 1916 map, and recently with him and my wife – Will drove and I sat in the front with a pile of books and maps.
The aggregate of all this – the reading, the maps, Google serendipity and short tours – does not qualify me to do anything but be interested. In addition to the heavyweight historians, there are hundreds of amateurs who have soaked themselves (literally in the case of the ones we passed stomping along lanes and across fields in the rain) in the subject for years. Their web sites provide immense and helpful detail, and if little of it carries verifiable footnotes and sources, most of it bears the mark of proper study. I would love have the time to immerse myself in original sources; the maps apart, I must content myself with piggy-backing on (and acknowledging) the work of others, aggregating them with my own observations and photographs.
What about those photographs? I am a competent amateur rather than anything more grand, and I take photographs either as a factual record of a thing or a place, or for the artistic potential. Modest skill with Photoshop can give new life to a picture which, as taken, was frankly dull. I feel no particular duty to produce exact renditions of what I saw, and many a dull photograph has been given new life with the help of frankly amazing software from Adobe and others.
I keep writing blog posts about my intention to write blog posts. Perhaps this time I might actually write a few. They will not all be about the war – there are useless councillors to castigate, shyster companies to complain about, and snippets of information to thread together on all sorts of matters current or historical. As I say, I have only myself to please.