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Stand to, chaps!

Henry Elkins battens down the hatches

The opening salvos in the major campaign to mark – we mustn’t say ‘celebrate’ – the centenary of WW1 are about to begin.

Yesterday I had business to attend to in central London. After I had returned home, I relaxed by reading another passage of Max Hastings’ Catastrophe – Europe Goes To War 1914 and, as a result, am now 219 pages into this impressive 563-page heavyweight.

Later, for want of anything better to do, I caught part of the BBC1 7.00pm magazine programme The One Show. Among the varied items it offered was a segment from the imminent five-part Jeremy Paxman series (and accompanying book) Great Britain’s Great War, on the subject of the German bombardment of Hartlepool on Wednesday 16th December 1914.

GB WarIt made for good factual television.

Paxman, who has developed a neat sideline from his Newsnight duties by producing popular histories (previous subjects include both Victorian painters and the British Empire), is a consummate ‘front of camera’ performer.

In relaxed style, on location – aided by contemporary photographs and modern video sequences suitably enhanced by CGI techniques – he told the story of how the realities of modern (in 1914) warfare visited the Hartlepool population. The first they knew of the bombardment was a series of flashes and explosions as the German navy opened up, several miles offshore and totally unseen through the mist.

As part of his piece, Paxman interviewed a sprightly, but elderly, lady who had experienced the incident as a seven-year-old. When the extract concluded, and we returned to the studio, Matt Baker – one of The One Show’s presenters – mentioned that said lady had sadly died in November, at the age of 106.

For all his qualities, Jeremy Paxman is neither an academic historian, nor a WW1 specialist. I’ve heard rumours that, in writing his books, he relies a great deal upon researchers. I don’t criticise him for this – if I was holding down a day job as onerous as his, I’d be constitutionally incapable of writing books in my spare time, with or without support.

Having said that, and though I’ve always found WW1 researchers happy to give of their time and expertise, populist amateur historians like Paxman – and me – face the constant hazard of potentially being ‘tripped up’ by those who are obsessive about obscure historical subjects … and there are few more obsessive than the vast cohort of WW1 fanatics.

I read somewhere that, when giving a talk to promote his book at last year’s Hay-on-Wye Festival of Literature and the Arts, Paxman began taking flak from the floor on minute factual details that his necessarily-broad brush approach had inadvertently ignored or got wrong. In the end, it was said, he simply put his hand up and admitted that the experts in the audience would, of course, have the better of him.

In contrast, Max Hastings is a respected military historian with a strong track record (D-Day, the Korean War, the Falklands, WW2 Bomber Command, the final push to defeat Germany in 1944-1945 et al.).

catastropheLess than halfway into Catastrophe – Europe Goes to War 1914, I am already struck by, and to an extent in awe of, the sheer scale of his research and his eloquent writing style, which flows pleasantly and avoids both clunking clichés and any tendency to divert down tangential avenues of excessive technical detail.

That said, there are several discussion threads running on websites devoted to WW1 research currently dissecting Hastings’ conclusions and opinions.

I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. When I studied history at school nearly fifty years ago, my unenquiring mind attacked our given textbooks at if they were gospel tracts handed out on Mount Sinai by God. It never occurred to me then (at any level beyond the theoretical) that different historians might hold opposing opinions upon historical events and/or conduct public spats and vendettas about them for decades. Surely the facts were the facts, period?

As I read this latest Max Hasting book, I find myself pondering once again upon the process of writing factual books – histories, biographies and the like.

Did Hastings slave over his great mountains of research documentation before carefully weighing the evidence and reaching his conclusions? Or to what extent – if any – did he come to the project with his opinions either half or fully-formed … and spend the bulk of his time seeking out those pieces of evidence that supported them? He certainly holds strong views of the respective merits of the European ‘main player’ politicians and military commanders on both sides of the conflict.

With my own book, in advance I had fondly imagined that, in comparison with the researching, the writing phase would be the easy part. Once I began writing, however, I soon wised up. The key decisions were ‘What story did I wish to tell?’ and ‘How best to tell it?’. Once those were taken, the biggest task was shifting through my research in order to locate items to back them up.

Or justify my tale, if you wish to look at it that way.




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About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts