From the Backwaters of History

One thing I’ve discovered from trying to piece together the huge gaps in my memories from research is that a lot of the places and things I was involved in are simply ignored by history.

For example, 2nd Ypres is generally not given the same amount of attention as the first battle, and absolutely none of the early battles of the war are given the same attention as the battles from later in the war.  It seems that if you go back further than the Battle of the Somme, there just isn’t as much scholarship done and I’ve had to become an amateur historian just to learn anything about the part of the war I was in.  I think part of the reason is the fact that so much of what made the war interesting to people- tanks, acts of gallant desperation, and aerial warfare- didn’t really come about until 1916.  Most of what we did before then was squatting in dirty holes lobbing jam tins full of gunpowder at each other.

As such, a lot of the details I do remember are difficult to confirm, because they’re buried in personal and regimental diaries that deal with a part of the war that people just aren’t interested in.  I can’t, for instance, confirm my memories regarding the coffee at the front (which was delivered in smallish sacks and ground using a grinder in one of the dugouts) because details like that aren’t considered noteworthy.  Nor can I confirm that there was an artillery bombardment on the night of 8 July 1915 because the regimental diaries of that era always seem to be somewhere else, or only available for $20 a peek because nobody thought the information was valuable enough to share online.

Some of the problem is a very natural human tendency to remember trivial things.  For instance, my memory of the wooden colossus may never be confirmed because such a cheap tourist attraction would soon be forgotten; it might have gotten a single paragraph in a newspaper, or a mention in someone’s private letter that is still locked in a trunk in an attic somewhere, or mentioned in a poster or flyer that has since rotted, burned, or faded to nothing.  For memories like those, I may be the only source and that’s a lonely thought, but it’s perfectly natural because as people, we remember things emotionally, not rationally.

Back to the war, though… another thing I’ve noticed is that from what I’ve been able to reconstruct, my role at 2nd Ypres was small, and that 2nd Ypres (particularly Bellewaerde Ridge) was a horrendous disaster for the British.  It’s true what they say that history is written by the victors, and I’m sure Lord Kitchener and his ilk didn’t want to remember a loss of several kilometers of ground and the devastation of the city (which, as I’ve said in other entries, unless you’ve seen it yourself is difficult to imagine).

So now put yourself in my place: someone who had a relatively minor role in a battle where we basically had to cut our losses and retreat to a more tenable line and were nearly defeated.  Do you really think anything at all about that is going to be common knowledge, other than the fact that it happened?

What’s more, when I wasn’t at Ypres in a battle English historians would rather forget, I was in the trenches outside Armentieres in a sector that was only active at the very beginning and very end of the war.  The place had been quiet for nearly a year when we arrived, and it was only a fluke that I got killed there.  Compare Tyne Cot with Ferme Buterne and you’ll see what I mean.

Finally, the problem isn’t just with my individual case; it’s the whole 27th division.  As far as I know (and I have looked), no one has published a history of the 27th Division, in part because we weren’t involved in anything that remarkable.  We lost Bellewaerde Ridge, held down a quiet sector, and then got shipped off to Salonika which hardly anyone talks about.  In short, it would be a boring history and even if it deserves to be told for the sake of completeness, no publisher would greenlight it.

In all, the process has been rewarding the few times I’ve been able to confirm things, but for the most part it’s been frustrating because the part of the war I would have been in is simply not considered remarkable.

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