“Every exploration [of a diary] is partial,” says Margaret Mackay, the Regina-born former archives director with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies. An expert in oral history, she agrees that, whether talking or writing about their experiences, veterans tailored what they communicated. An account “would differ according to what they wanted to be known,” she says, “or what they couldn’t say.”
Letters my great-grandfather sent home – in which he may have said something different – have been lost. And as an officer, he would have known that, even though personal, his diaries likely would have been read by others.
There is also the question of the circumstances under which he was writing. In Word of Mouth: Elite Oral History, British writer and historian Anthony Seldon explains that those tempted to give war diaries great credence should realize the need to keep them was “often a great nuisance and secondary if you are in the middle of battle.” They would have been written in a moment of calm, drawn from the memory of a soldier likely exhausted, perhaps even traumatized.
Robert Rhodes James, who wrote Gallipoli, a highly acclaimed study of the Allied campaign in the Dardanelles at the start of the war, made extensive use of diaries and letters in his research. But even he acknowledged that “the very nature of war means that very often the truth of what happened is known only to the dead.”
So, through various sources, I had uncovered pieces of my great-grandfather’s story, but that’s all I had – fragments.
In late September, 1916, he was given command of the 52nd Battalion and praised in a Nov. 13 dispatch for his “gallant and distinguished services in the field.” I imagined him picking up that Pickelhaube in No Man’s Land around that time. It must have been then, I figured, because the Germans used those helmets only at the beginning of the war, before realizing the spike drew attention to them in the trenches.
Five months later, on April 9, 1917, he writes “Zero hour, 5:30,” as his battalion begins the attack on Vimy Ridge. That day, too, his bravery earned a mention in an official dispatch.
But then in July, after 17 months on the front lines, he requested a leave. My cousin suspects he had a breakdown of some sort, but whatever happened is not mentioned in the diary. My great-grandfather simply noted that his superior officer had recommended a staff job.
Despite the lack of facts, scenes blossomed in my mind. I imagined how my great-grandmother must have tried to soothe him. They had suffered a personal tragedy, as well. The same year, having moved to England with the children to be near him, she gave birth to a boy but he died in infancy. I found myself admiring how they must have willed themselves to persevere.
He never returned to the front – and never spoke of his experiences after moving back to Canada when the war had ended. But there were some clues to how it affected him.
As a boy, my uncle once roused his grandfather’s anger simply by putting on the Pickelhaube. “Take it off!” he was told. “It’s dirty.” And my mother recalls frequent, and terrible, coughing fits due to lung damage from the gas attack.
He died of a heart attack at 77, sitting in front of the fire in his beloved house in the country.
Out of these fragments, I made a story, one that may very well be inaccurate, naïve and romantic. The question was whether that made it any less valuable.
To answer that, I remembered something British author Jim Crace told me in an interview last year. Many of his novels are set in the distant past but with themes that resonate for a modern audience. So I asked him about the power of narrative and he spoke of it like an external, free-floating wisdom, something essential to human existence.
“Narrative allows you to draw from the past,” he said, “and it allows you to think into the future, to imagine what might come next.”
It turns out that, according to the latest thinking, memory works the way it does – imperfectly – for much the same reason.
“We use old memories to reconstruct plausible events to help us deal with the future,” explains neuropsychologist Morris Moscovitch, a specialist in memory and aging at the University of Toronto. “The hippocampus stores the beads, and the prefrontal cortex strings them together into different necklaces to be worn that befit the occasion…What you want at the centre is a structure that doesn’t record things perfectly because, if it did, it would not be so flexible.”
Story-telling instructs us, then, by making sense of the bits and pieces of facts. That’s what history is, of course, and there are many examples of memory-based fiction that provide a kind of truth, one tailored to the writer’s point of view.