For nearly four years now, with others, I have been working upon a small WW1 research project based around an event that took place behind British lines on the Western Front in the spring of 1915.
At the outset, the original fantasy was that the fruits of these labours – assuming, of course, that there were any – might be revealed to the public around this time next year, i.e. upon its centenary, on the theory that this coincidence would hopefully be a springboard for publicity, and hence the marketing, of any publication.
Almost by definition the process of mining for nuggets – whether the targets be minerals buried way beneath the ground, or tit-bits of information hidden away somewhere in national archives, military records or indeed peoples’ attics – comes with no guarantee of success.
In the case of minerals, this can happen even if the results of your geological surveys are promising.
In the case of research such as we have been undertaking, it can happen despite your rational presumption that – since a remarkable event happened, was witnessed by thousands of people and mentioned in numerous newspaper and anecdotal accounts, the ‘missing’ details you are seeking, and which you have identified as the minimum required before your project becomes worthwhile, must exist somewhere … if only you can locate them.
Inevitably, you begin your quest in a haze of heady optimism combined with an inner conviction that, if you look hard enough, you will find what you seek. Any fruitless avenues down which you and your colleagues travel are simply put down to experience and/or a process of elimination whereby – one day, somewhere (because it must be there) – eventually you will find your targeted ‘needle in a haystack’. Or alternatively, even if that doesn’t happen, perhaps you will uncover a different but equally fascinating needle that sets you off on a new and exciting path.
Last night our group met to assess where we have reached in our project.
We were determined to be ruthless in our self-examination. Better to quit while we were ahead and move on, perhaps, than to continue, publish, and end being regarded as having produced something inadequate, disappointing or (worst case?) dismissed as a thoroughly worthwhile idea poorly executed.
As it happens, we came to no decision on the fundamental issue [of whether, if we continued, we might have a viable project] because a difference of opinion emerged.
It was agreed that we had still not yet found all that, in an ideal world, by now would have fallen into our collective lap.
My recommendation was nevertheless that we should at least press on to attempt a book on our chosen subject – a short volume, nobody’s talking War And Peace here – in time for its centenary. I added that this did not preclude a last-minute assessment – and, if necessary, abandonment of publication – under the general heading ‘quality control’. There would be no point at all in putting out something with which we were unhappy in any material respect.
Simon, our resident expert upon all things genealogical including national records, had a different view.
For him, the ‘academic research’ angle was everything. On principle, he was not in favour of deadlines and, even in this instance, a prospective book to be published (if at all) to coincide with the centenary of the event.
From his viewpoint, the crucial ‘timing’ was not a deadline to coincide with a set anniversary. Instead, it was the point at which all the relevant research had been done and dusted, even if that took another decade.
Simon’s enthusiasm for the project was undiminished. His recommendation was that we should establish a website on the event, on which we ‘published’ what we already knew and invited others to assist or contribute. He said the power of the internet and its multi-faceted attendants (particularly social media and amateur researchers or groups) was such that he was confident that we would be both surprised and delighted by what the ‘cat might drag in’, given sufficient time.
In the end, we reached no conclusion last night on our ‘book versus website’ dilemma.
However, as a postscript, we alighted upon an exciting gem of a revelation – or rather, Simon did.
One of the WW1 soldiers who took part in our ‘target event’ is given in a contemporary (1915) list as a ‘Lieutenant Kegley’. Separately, we have a compelling source that mentions an officer named Cagney – not contained in the aforementioned official list – as having been involved, even though this would have made him a supernumerary.
Thus far in our researches, to our frustration, we have been unable to unearth any details on Lieutenant Kegley, but separately a fair amount on Mr Cagney.
Last night Simon aired his considered view that, both gentlemen being Irish, they were almost certainly one and the same person.
He proved his point to our satisfaction by declaiming the names ‘Lieutenant Kegley’ and ‘Lieutenant Cagney’ in quick succession, in his impression of a thick Irish accent. His theory was that some military clerk, taking down the names being dictated to him by the organiser of the event, had misheard ‘Cagney’ as ‘Kegley’ … and Bob’s your uncle!
Simon’s suggestion was very convincing. As mentioned, it hasn’t helped resolve our new ‘book versus website’ issue but it has taken our project one small step forward.
I guess that at least that counts for something.