Sunday 20 July 2014

'From the Horse's Mouth' by A L Berridge

Historians can be a sad bunch when it comes to primary sources. We talk of gold, of ‘treasure trove’, and last month I even called the letters of a colour sergeant ‘the Holy Grail’. There’s something magical about reading the words of people who were actually there, and knowing that at last we’re getting close to the truth.

Or not. 

Before cameras and sound recordings, primary sources are entirely human things. People can mishear, misunderstand, misremember, misscribe or mistranslate, and once Caxton came on the scene they could even misprint as well. 

'The Wicked Bible' of 1631. Spot the misprint...

Our frailty runs even deeper than that. Goebbels’ speeches are primary sources, so is Bismarck’s ‘Ems telegram’, and if Holborn’s portrait of Anne of Cleves is of debatable accuracy then so is Henry VIII’s reported reaction to it. People are subjective at the best of times, dishonest at the worst, and anyone who’s ever attended a trial knows that primary sources can be the most unreliable of all. 

Some are better than others, of course. A will is a will, an Act of Parliament is an Act of Parliament, and carefully typed memoranda about ‘sonderaktions’ or sterilizations were quite enough to hang both authors and recipients at Nuremberg. Yet even official sources of information are still human. There are misprints in Hansard, lies on birth certificates, non-existent voters on electoral rolls, and if the phrase ‘massaging the figures’ is modern, the practice itself is not. The 1664-5 London’s Bills of Mortality show a mysterious rise in the vaguer causes of death – as if trying to avoid a panic by concealing the true numbers of those who actually died of Plague.

From the collection at the Wellcome Library, London

 It doesn’t even have to be deliberate. I don’t think there’s a single lie in the ‘General Orders’ issued during the Crimean War, for instance – but neither is there anything that reflects the real truth. The coffee ration sounds excellent – unless we know it consisted of green beans which the men had no fuel to roast. The issue of fuel seems sensible and timely – unless we know the roads were impassable between Balaklava base and the lines, and that most men received nothing at all.

William Howard Russell
 Newspapers were better informed, and William Howard Russell’s descriptions in The Times still remain the best and most quoted source on the suffering of our soldiers. Yet Russell was still a journalist, and his hastily filed reports of battles are as riddled with sensationalist errors as the worst tabloid of today. His nadir is undoubtedly the night battle of the 1855 Grand Sortie, where he announces the death of an officer who was still alive (Colonel Kelly), reports the wounding of one who was very much dead (Captain Vicars), and ascribes a heroic rock-throwing role to one who had been wounded in the arm an hour earlier and was incapable of lifting so much as a handkerchief (Major Gordon).

It’s understandable. Russell wasn’t in the battle himself, he had to rely on what people told him, and in this instance we can argue he’s not really a primary source at all. His failings should not affect the reputation of the London Times, the unquestioned Paper of Record for such official facts as court appointments, ship arrivals, casualty rolls, and of course the lists of ‘Hatch, Match and Dispatch’.

And then again…

For my latest Crimean novel I wanted someone to survive the sinking of Resolute in the Great Storm of 1854, but while N.A. Woods of the Morning Herald claimed nine men survived the wreck, all other sources reported the ship lost with all hands. I turned to the one unquestionable authority - the London Times.

There it was, the official report I was looking for. While other ships had a list of survivors after their names, poor Resolute was recorded simply as ‘totally lost’. I resigned myself to the rewrite, but as I glanced down the rest of the column this little item caught my eye:

It’s a letter from the one officer to survive the wreck of – the Resolute.

It still needn’t shake our faith in primary sources. The newspaper was a secondary, it only printed what it was given, and it was the survivor’s letter that set the record straight. Official records can always be trumped by actual letters, diaries, and memoirs, the story that comes to us straight from ‘the horse’s mouth’ of people who really know. We must make allowances for bias, of course (especially in a war) but primary sources are still the only direct route to the truth.

So they are, but it can still be the devil’s own job finding it. I’ve been lucky with my earlier novels in that historians have been over the ground before me, but Soldiers of the Queen deals with the later Siege of Sevastopol, which is almost entirely virgin territory. Usually there’s been nothing but primary sources to work from, and I soon learned what any policeman or barrister could have told me at the start: that no two witnesses ever agree on what they see.

It’s been a nightmare. I’ve tracked down over a dozen first-hand accounts of the Grand Sortie, for instance – and no two of them tell the same story. I’ve always tried to avoid contradicting eye-witnesses in my writing, but for Soldiers of the Queen I’ve sometimes had no choice. In one case I’ve even chosen to go against the only eye-witness – a sin so heinous that I wanted to use this post to explain it.

The witness concerned is that same Colonel Kelly whose demise was so prematurely reported by Russell, and who was in fact captured by the Russians on the night of the Grand Sortie. He was alone at the time, and the explanation he wrote to his wife is thus the only one we have: 

‘I was surrounded by eight or ten Russians, who leaped into the trench as I was passing to form up the men, having come from some distance on the right… I owe my life, under God, to a Polish soldier of the name of Stein, who prevented me from being bayoneted after I was on the ground.’

It seems straightforward enough – until we read the account published thirty years later by Alexander Kinglake, official chronicler to the Expedition to the Crimea:

Alexander Kinglake by Harriet M. Haviland
‘[Kelly] had gone but a little way further, when – standing together in the trench – he saw a group of seven or eight soldiers whom he took in the darkness to be men of his own regiment – the 34th. So going close up to them, he directed these men to ‘fall in’ with the other men under Jordan. He was met by an uproar of outlandish cries, and found that he had been accosting the enemy. He brought out his revolver, and pointing it at the head of the nearest foe, pulled hard, though in vain, at a trigger held fast by the safety catch. Whilst lowering his weapon in order to push back the bolt, he was felled by numbers of blows… and when on the ground was bayoneted in the right shoulder, in the left hand, and in the right leg…’

Kinglake’s story stands up to examination. The night of March 22nd was very dark indeed, and that Kelly’s mistake was a plausible one I was able to confirm from a letter of Private William Stray, who described a ‘narrow escape’ of his own in the same battle:

 ‘a number of Russians were together in one part of the trench, and the night being very dark I mistook them for our own men, and I thought they took us for Russians, they were firing on us, and under that mistake I ran up to them shouting damn your eyes, you are firing on your own men, but I soon found out my mistake.’

Extract from William Stray's letter

It’s credible then – but it contradicts the version of Kelly himself, and surely the primary source should be taken above the secondary? Yet Kinglake was scrupulous, he corresponded profusely with every witness he could find, and the only possible source for this anecdote has to be Kelly himself. Why on earth would Kelly change his story all these years after the event?

The answer, I think, is a very human one. The mistake of approaching the enemy, the failure to release the safety catch – the whole thing is deeply embarrassing, and Kelly may well have balked at revealing the truth to his wife. But what is humiliating to a man in his thirties can become a wonderful after-dinner story in his sixties, and I see nothing strange in Kelly finally giving Kinglake the true version of what happened.

Yet there remained one niggle: Kelly was at some pains to assure his wife that he had not been bayoneted while on the ground, yet Kinglake insists that he was. Kelly didn’t mind admitting he’d been wounded, so what on earth was so embarrassing about having received those wounds on the ground?

I’m afraid I think I know that too. Colonel Reynell Pack of the 7th Royal Fusiliers cheerfully recorded in his memoirs that Kelly was ‘most careful of himself’ and used to go to the trenches ‘swathed and wrapped up like a mummy’. The story circulating at the time was therefore that the Russians had only failed to kill Kelly because the bayonets ‘did not penetrate through his numerous garments’…

I might have put that down to ordinary inter-regimental bitchiness, except for the confirmation of an even more impeccable source. One of Kelly’s own letters actually describes his attire for the trenches like this: 

‘a flannel vest, then a chamois one, and over that my shirt…. Then I had my flannel drawers, and over them my chamois ones; then came my regimental trousers with my long blue knit stockings drawn over them. Over my shirt… a blue sailor woollen jersey…a pair of sailor’s flushing trousers… Mr Philipson’s coat, with a comforter round my neck… over that my greatcoat… and over all my mackintosh…’

Reynell Pack was telling no more than the embarrassing truth. I suspect Kelly did indeed survive by virtue of his clothing, and the only amazing thing about it was that the Russians managed to wound him at all. His own account of his capture turns out to be unreliable in every detail, and I went with Kinglake’s version after all.

Colonel Richard Denis Kelly after the war

Yet there’s more than one kind of reliability, more than one kind of truth, and if Kelly’s letters didn’t explain much about the Grand Sortie they revealed an awful lot about the man himself. The same was true of Colour Sergeant Clarke’s letters, and is one reason why I still love primary sources above any others. They always tell us something, even if it isn’t what we’re looking for - or what the writer intended.

Those General Orders, for instance, proved conclusively just how out of touch Headquarters really were. The misleading Bills of Mortality show clearly the extent to which plague was feared. Even lies can tell us a truth, and libellous pamphlets circulated about Marie Antoinette certainly confirm the extent to which she was hated. Secondary sources can tell us these things, but primary sources show them red and raw.

Which is why I love them even more as a novelist than I do as a historian. Primary sources can take us there, bring us close enough to touch. I even loved typing out that little bit of Stray’s letter, because its dreadful punctuation helps me hear his voice. Research isn’t just about ‘knowing’, it’s about seeing, hearing, and ultimately feeling – and if I work hard enough I hope that one day my novels will do the same.

A.L. Berridge's deeply neglected website is here.


Becca McCallum said...

Great post, thanks!

Sandy said...

Fine research and conclusion.

Leslie Wilson said...

I did enjoy this - just as an addenda - I talked to af Belsen survivor who said he never read any accounts of the camp because he thought his memories would be contaminated. He had talked to other survivors who this had happened to. You have pointed up how important it is for novelists to sift the evidence and assess testimony - and run the risk of getting it wrong!