Dig deep and kiss: Researching and Writing History, Brigadier Chris Roberts AM
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Dig deep and kiss: Researching and Writing History, Brigadier Chris Roberts AM

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Henry Ford is reputed to have claimed that ‘History is bunk’, and in the view of Brigadier Chris Roberts he is partly correct. According to Roberts, much popular history is based on myths and ...

Henry Ford is reputed to have claimed that ‘History is bunk’, and in the view of Brigadier Chris Roberts he is partly correct. According to Roberts, much popular history is based on myths and misperceptions, including as a result of the misuse of source material, shallow research
and poor knowledge of subject matter. Myths and misperceptions are especially evident in histories of World War I, a prime example being those of the landings at Gallipoli in 1915. In researching The landing at ANZAC, 1915, Brigadier Chris Roberts followed Sir Michael
Howard’s sage advice to ‘read in width, in depth, and in context’, which revealed three fundamental lessons: analyse and evaluate your sources; know your subject; and let the evidence shape your story. He wrote for his readers, to make a complex subject understandable and interesting to the layperson. Presentation of the information, the
simplicity of the story and the written style were paramount in shaping the book.

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Dig deep and kiss: Researching and Writing History, Brigadier Chris Roberts AM Presentation Transcript

  • 1. DIG DEEP AND KISS Researching and Writing History Brigadier Chris Roberts, AM
  • 2. Introduction History: a window into the past. This is what the American industrialist Henry Ford wrote about the subject. (“ History is more or less bunk.”} When I was your age, which was a very long time ago, I thought he was wrong. After fifty years of reading and research I now think there is a lot of truth in his statement. Much popular history is based on legend, myths, and misperception. This is due to several factors, not the least being blatant misrepresentation, the misuse of source material, and above all shallow research. Nowhere is this more evident than in histories about the First World War, which I regard as the most misunderstood and misrepresented war in history. The same could be said for much of Australian military history, which Dr Peter Dean describes as largely “written by journalists and amateur historians. Many of *these histories+ are unbalanced, overly nationalistic and lack considered opinion.” Dr Robin Prior suggests they are ‘mostly underresearched, badly constructed ... and short on analysis ...‘ Indeed, the popular view of our much cherished landing at Gallipoli is based largely on myth. This view has the Anzacs storming ashore under murderous machine gun fire, suffering heavy casualties on the beach, and fighting their way inland against strong Turkish opposition. It attributes the failure to landing in the wrong place, and being thrown ashore in terrible terrain that disorganised the troops. The reality is somewhat different. As a simple example this film clip has the initial landing in daylight - in reality it occurred in darkness. Many of the histories that include the landing rely heavily on Charles Bean’s magisterial Official History of Australian in the War of 1914 -18. This account has been unquestioned by later historians and writers, who mostly accepted Bean’s views. Today it has become fashionable to spice up these histories with innumerable quotes from soldier’s first hand accounts as if they are fact. Over thirty years ago I interviewed several veterans who landed at Gallipoli on 25th April. What they told me didn’t accord with the popular view. Furthermore, Bean’s history of the fighting after 8 am is confusing and unclear. This set me on a quest to try to determine what really occurred at the landing. I never set out to demolish the myths and misinterpretations addressed in my book - they fell out of the research and analysis I undertook. That quest taught me several lessons about historiography and I would like to share some of these with you today. Essentially, I will look at two basic areas: researching your subject; and presenting the results.
  • 3. Research In an article titled “The Use and Abuse of Military History” the British historian Professor Sir Michael Howard gave sage advice on seeking to understand an event. In it he addressed myth making, incorrect traditions and the misinterpretation of events from which false assumptions are drawn. To avoid these pitfalls, and gain a more correct interpretation of history, he urged people to read in width, in depth, and in context. By width he meant reading over a long historical period to gain a thorough understanding of the subject you are studying. By depth he advocated exploring a particular event by reading a wide range of sources to gain an understanding of what really happened. By context he believed that events in history can only be fully understood if one understands the nature of the environment and society in which they occurred - the political, social and economic conditions of the time. For military history I would add the doctrine, tactics and weaponry of the day. What Howard was telling us was, that to avoid perpetuating myths and drawing erroneous conclusions, we need to dig deep in our research, we need to evaluate and analyse our sources, and we need to corroborate their validity. Only by doing this, will we be able to arrive at considered and reasonably accurate conclusions. Indeed, the modern historian needs to take a forensic approach to sift reality from myth.
  • 4. Sources To demonstrate this, let me take one example I considered in researching The landing at Anzac 1915 - the issue of the Australians landing under machine gun fire, and suffering heavy casualties on the beach. This is a fundamental long held truth that accepts Turkish machine guns greeted the Anzacs as they stormed ashore, which has been based on Bean’s Official History, and first hand Australian accounts. This view has long been portrayed in paintings and films. In reading Bean’s history, he mentions six single guns firing from different locations - note: six single guns firing from different locations. Reading through the first hand accounts and battalion war diaries we find contradictions. Of the three leading battalions, two state they landed under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, while one states they landed under heavy rifle fire. Of the first hand accounts, some mention only rifle fire, others mention machine guns, several mention neither, and at least one says he didn’t believe there were any Turkish machine guns. We could easily dismiss those that didn’t mention machine guns, by accepting this was simply an omission on their part: or was it? I looked at the accounts of five men who landed at the same spot. All came ashore here on North Beach, immediately next to Anzac Cove. Lieutenant Arthur Selby told Charles Bean there was a pretty hot fire coming from the heights but he never saw a Turkish machine gun, and didn’t think there were any. Both Lance Corporal Bert Dixon and Bugler Fred Ashton write of landing under Turkish rifle fire; they don’t mention machine guns. Private Albert Facey, in his famous autobiography A Fortunate Life, gives a very vivid account of landing in the second wave under machine gun fire. “The Turks had machine-guns sweeping the strip of beach where we landed – there were many dead already when we got there. Bodies of men ahead of us were lying all along the beach ... the Turkish fire was terrible and mowing into us. ... Men were falling all around me. “ Sergeant John Swain wrote, “There were about 700 Turks on the beach, with machine guns, and as I was among the first to land, we got it, ‘hot as mustard’ but you should have seen them when we got ashore, I never had such a time in my life. It was Ho! for the bayonet, and jab, jab, jab ... It didn’t take long to clear the trenches on the beach, and it was then a scramble up the cliffs.”
  • 5. How could we have such different versions from men landing at the same place, at roughly the same time. The first step was to check the service records of each of them, which can be found on The National Archives website. This revealed that Albert Facey was never at the landing. He was with the Third Reinforcements and arrived at Gallipoli on 7th May, twelve days after the landing. Furthermore, while he claims to have been wounded twice, being evacuated with a shoulder wound caused by a shell, however, his service record mentions no wounds, and records he was evacuated with a heart problem. Clearly, Facey’s account of the landing is a fabrication. The others were at the landing, so why was Swain’s account so different from Selby, Ashton and Dixon’s? The next step was to evaluate each account. Selby was with A Company of the 11th Battalion and landed in the first wave, while Ashton and Dixon, both of D Company landed in the second, about five minutes later. Thus they must have experienced much the same reception from the Turks, and their accounts reflect this. There is no mention of machine guns, or Turks on the beach. Sergeant Swain was with D Company of the 12th Battalion, which was still on the destroyers Chelmer and Usk when the first two waves landed. They came ashore about 20 to 30 minutes after the initial landing, and by this time the leading Australians were on top of the heights, and the Turks were retreating inland. Thus when Swain arrived, the beach and the heights were firmly in Australian hands. It seems he never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Two “first hand” accounts mention capturing a machine gun, however, one of these can be dismissed as fiction (Trooper Bluegum at the Dardanelles) because the author’s service record shows that he arrived at Gallipoli with the light horse, three weeks after the landing. The other account cannot be readily dismissed. It is an article written by “No 94” of A Company, 9th Battalion for The School Paper of the Queensland Department of Public Instruction in April 1916, and reprinted in the 9th Battalion’s history. But who was No 94 - did he exist? Checking the battalion’s roll, No 94 was Private Percival Young. Checking his service record shows he was with a Company, was at the landing, and was evacuated in August, returning to Queensland. Thus the article must be considered credible evidence. However, it contains some discrepancies. Approaching the beach in the first wave he writes “ suddenly ... machine gun and shrapnel broke upon us”. Shrapnel is fired by artillery guns. Checking other sources, including Bean, we know the initial Turkish fire was a rifle shot followed by several other rifle shots growing in crescendo, and secondly, the Turkish artillery, one old slow firing gun, opened fire at 4:45am, fifteen minutes after Young landed. Young then goes on to say they smashed the machine gun up so it could no longer be used.
  • 6. The gun we are speaking of is the German Maxim gun, which is very solid piece. Disabling it could be achieved by taking out the firing mechanism, if you know how given it was a specialist weapon, but “smashing it up” it is a gross exaggeration. At best it would involve taking the gun off the tripod and disconnecting the water cooling accessories. Nonetheless, it is not a gun that can be quickly picked up and carried away, especially from some of the locations mentioned in Bean’s history. Given the speed with which the Australians scaled the heights, it would require exceptional gun crews to dismantle it and get all six guns mentioned by Bean away without any being captured. Thus one could very well have been captrured What is odd, however, is there is no other record of any machine guns being captured on 25th April. Maxim guns were prized captures, the same as artillery guns, and capturing them was recorded throughout the war. Neither Bean, nor any official document, mentions the capture of Turkish machine guns that day. Indeed, the 9th’ Battalion’s war diary records landing under heavy rifle fire, and makes no mention of machine guns. Thus, considering all the discrepancies in Young’s account, and that there is no record of any machine guns being captured, his article needs to be treated with caution. For me, however, the answer was not yet clear cut. It simply wasn’t good enough to dismiss the cases I could check against other Australian sources, and from my own analysis. Other credible Australian accounts mention machine gun fire. I needed to look elsewhere, if I was to resolve the matter. Taking Howard’s advice to read in context, I then turned to the German machine gun doctrine at the beginning of the First World War. I looked here because the Turkish Army employed German doctrine in their tactics. Two aspects stuck out: Firstly, the weapons were not deployed as single guns, as many of us have assumed. They were deployed rather like artillery, as a battery of guns in line abreast, or they could be broken down into a platoon of two guns side by side. It was strongly recommended, and in some instructions forbidden, that they were not to be deployed a single guns. Thus the premise on which historians have accepted Bean’s six machine guns in widely different locations was incorrect. Secondly, in defence, it was advocated that the guns not be deployed in the front line of defence, but be held further back in reserve. Commanders were urged to use their machine guns as a fire reserve that could be deployed to the threatened point, once it were known.
  • 7. I then turned to Turkish accounts, including the Turkish Official History and the memoirs of Turkish officers, together with the excellent series of books on the Turkish Army written by Professor Ed Erickson, in which he consulted primary sources in the Turkish archives. Consulting these, the table of organisation of a Turkish infantry regiment showed it comprised three battalions, each of 1100 men, and a machine gun company of four guns. There were no machine guns in the battalions. Furthermore, the Turkish Army was very short of them in 1915, and not every regiment had machine guns. However, the 27th Regiment, which defended the area where the Anzac’s landed, did have a machine gun company. So the question remained were they deployed on the beaches? Searching further, both the Turkish Official History, and the extensive account written by the 27th Regiment’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mehmet Sefik, detailed the Turkish defensive plan. This was based on defending the coastline with a light screen, with strong reserves held inland ready to deploy against the landing sites once they became known. In the Anzac area the 27th Regiment deployed one battalion along 12 kilometres of coast in widely dispersed platoon locations, and held two battalions and the machine gun company in reserve near Maidos, on the other side of the peninsula. At Anzac Cove, was one rifle platoon, consisting of 85 men. Colonel Sefik wrote that his two battalions and the machine gun company, which was at the rear of the column, departed Maidos at about 6am, an hour and a half after the initial landing, and the leading elements reached the battlefield two hours later. Thus Sefik followed the doctrine for employing machine guns, and kept his as a fire reserve, only deploying them forward when threatened point was known. Consultation with Turkish scholars and Ed Erickson with access to other Turkish primary sources confirmed there were no machine guns deployed on the beaches. This information tallied with the Australian sources stating they landed under rifle fire - and it seem we had a match being Australian and Turkish accounts.
  • 8. So how do we explain that several Australians believe they landed under machine fire. The answer lies in the British naval instructions for the lnaidng, and other first hand accounts. The first wave went ashore in what were called tows. Each tow consisted of a steam pinnace towing three boats loaded with soldiers. In the bow of each pinnace was a Maxim machine gun, which you can see here. When the Turks opened fire, number three pinnace returned fire on the heights above, and several other steam pinnaces joined in. Several sources report this, including Bean. Lance Corporal George Mitchell wrote “ The pinnace on our right opened with the maxim mounted in her bow. Woof-woof-woof came her throaty bellow making a great contrast to the tapping sound of the foe’s small arms.” Second Lieutenant Muharrem, commanding the Turkish platoon on the heights, also stated the steam pinnaces opened fire, wounding him in both shoulders. With the reverberation of noise rebounding from the high ground in front of them it is highly likely several Australians mistook the fire from the pinnaces for Turkish machine guns. My own experience, and that of fellow veterans, under heavy fire in combat is that one has great difficulty distinguishing what weapons are firing, and where they are firing from - it is just an overwhelming cacophony of noise. While documentary sources and books will be your principal avenue of research, one group of sources that is rarely used in research is photographs. These may or may not contain information to assist you. For example, if there were heavy casualties caused by machine gun fire, as described by Facey and depicted in film and paintings, surely they would be seen in photographs taken early in the morning of 25th April. The following four photographs were taken between 6am and 7am, within two and half hours of the initial landing. Looking at the beach, what is the one thing you notice about them? Dead bodies are not strewn along it. Indeed, the only photograph clearly showing a dead man is this one - taken at about 8am - three and half hours after the initial landing. Thus there is no evidence in the photographic record of the Australians suffering heavy casualties on the beach. I undertook other research and analysis, which I won’t go into here, other than to say they confirmed in my opinion that, contrary to the accepted view, there were no Turkish machine guns covering the beach when the Australians landed at Gallipoli. I reached this conclusion only by digging deep, looking at a wide ranges of sources from both sides, evaluating and analysing each of them, and letting the evidence speak for itself.
  • 9. Know your Subject Turning now to the subject you are researching. Too often I read criticisms, assumptions or conclusions written by a military historian or journalist which simply betrays his or her lack of knowledge about warfare, and the way armies operate. Here is an example of a piece of analysis by an academic historian which shows he didn’t understand the issue he was writing about. He criticised the British command for being too rigid when issuing the instruction “the infantry will advance 100 yards in three minutes” , claiming this was so slow that infantry advancing across no man’s land would be slaughtered. What he failed to realise was, that this term was a coordination measure for artillery firing the barrage of shells on the enemy position, not the rate at which infantry would advance across no man’s land. Of the period he was writing of, the infantry would move out into no man’s land in darkness and lie up along tapes behind the barrage then falling on the enemy’s front line. The term actually derives from the planning phase, where it was estimated how long it would take the infantry to fight through the enemy position, and was expressed as the time in minutes the infantry would advance 100 yards. From this estimate the artillery then calculated the fire plan on various targets in such a way the barrage will only move forward 100 yards every three minutes, and hence provide covering fire for the infantry. Thus if you are not to draw incorrect assumptions and conclusions, you need to have a fundamental knowledge of the subject you are researching - and here I am not talking about your sources, but the subject itself. Summary of Research In researching a subject, my advice is to: corroborate your evidence. You can only do this by reading a wide variety of sources, and include sources from all viewpoints. Having done so, you need to analyse and evaluate each piece of evidence, and to see whether it stacks up against other evidence. Never accept a source at face value, and be careful of first hand accounts - as Facey and Swain have shown, not all of them are accurate, or indeed truthful . You also need to understand the context in which the evidence sits, and this requires you to have a sound knowledge of your subject. This means understanding what a term actually means, how people and organisations operated at the time and what were the conditions they operated under. Only then are you likely to arrive at a reasonably accurate conclusion, and avoid false assumptions, perpetrating myths and misrepresenting what occurred.
  • 10. Presentation Having done you research, you will of course need to present the information and analysis of your findings. My advice is to keep it simple, and engaging. Use of Information You will have amassed a huge amount of information. Most of it will be dear to your heart, and you will want to include many fascinating snippets you have uncovered. Avoid the temptation to do so. Only include information that is relevant to your story or the case you are trying to make. Too much information, or including irrelevant issues, will only clutter your story to the point of distraction, and the reader will probably give up reading it in frustration. One of the criticisms of Bean’s Official History is that he includes so much information on individuals, that the flow of battle becomes confusing and unintelligible. He tries to tell everyone’s personal experience, and in doing so loses the big picture, and the flow of the story. So be ruthless. Sadly, there will be much you will have to discard, but if you don’t, you are likely to lose the interest of your readership. Structure The first, and most important, issue is determining the structure of your paper or book. This will require some thought before hitting the keyboard. What are the key issues of your story, and in what sequence will you present them? You need to get this very clear in your mind before writing, and they must follow a logical order if the flow of the story is to be maintained. In The landing at Anzac, 1915 I have told the story from both the Anzac and Turkish side. I had to do this in a way that did not confuse the reader, and which followed a logical sequence of events. Thus I chose to integrate both stories to ensure the chronological sequence was maintained, and readers understood the overall situation as the battle progressed. The next issue is what to include in each chapter. My view is to make them simple and digestible for the readers. I chose to keep them relatively short, and each would address either a specific issue, or phase of the battle. My aim was to ensure the reader was able to understand and follow the battle in easily digestible bites. To do so I had to determine what information could be woven into the story without disrupting the flow, or confusing the reader, and what needed to be discarded This meant only including what was relevant to the theme of each chapter.
  • 11. Within each chapter, the story you are writing may be complicated, with several events occurring in different locations at roughly the same time. It is important not to confuse the reader when switching from one event to the another, and back again within the same chapter simply by commencing a new paragraph. One technique you may wish to consider is sub-headings. I chose to do this and thus each chapter is sub divided into sections o cover specific events. In Chapter 9 - SQUARING OFF - for example there are five sub headings each addressing separate events within roughly the same period. Thus having finished one section, the sub heading indicates to the reader the thrust of the next one. Allowing him or her to easily follow each of the differing issues under discussion. Finally, there will be information, or analysis, that you feel needs to told, but by including it in a chapter it will disrupt the flow of the story. For these issues, consider using appendices at the back of the paper or book. Thus, in the chapter on the initial landing, I don’t discuss why I believe there were no Turkish machine guns on the beach. I present my case in Appendix 3. Written Style The most important medium in getting your story across will your written style. Some academic historians complain that their histories, based on sound research, do not sell as well as the shallow and popular histories, for example, the best selling works by Peter FitzSimons, which they say perpetuate myths of past. To be fair, Peter himself does not claim to be a historian, but a storyteller, and what a marvellous storyteller he is. The difference is his entertaining written style, which flows easy on the eye, and engages the reader’s interest. Compare this with some of the dry academic tomes that dull the reader’s senses with turgid discussion of obscure points. Writing to me, is like sculpting a piece of clay. I write several paragraphs, and then go back over them readjusting a sentence, changing a word or phrase, changing the order of words in a sentence, and mixing short sentences with longer ones. Once I finish a chapter I repeat the whole process. My aim is ensure there is variety in my expression, and hopefully make my history interesting to readers. This is not so easy, but with effort and revision you can present your argument in a clear, uncluttered and easy to read style. There is little point in undertaking all your research, it in presenting your story lacks appeal because it is badly structured and poorly written. If your intention is to become a historian I would strongly recommend you undertake a creative writing course.
  • 12. Photographs Another aid is to use photographs to help tell the story Too often I see photographs, generally grouped in the centre of the book, with a simple statement such as “Soldiers landing in Anzac Cove.” or “Major General Bridges.” I prefer to use photographs to help tell the story. Thus instead of a simple statement, I write a paragraph explaining what the scene depicts, provide additional information relating to it, and to place it in context, time and space, as shown here. In this one I not only describe the features of the ground depicted, but also what occurred on those features during the battle. This provides a visual context that supplements the narrative for the reader. For individuals, a short paragraph giving some details about the person can bring them to life, and tell the reader something about them, other than just their name. Sidebars We now have a range of wonderful technologies that allow us to add variety and interest to our story, and to give the reader a visual depiction of what is written in the narrative. We should use them more widely. The Australian Army Campaigns Series includes a variety of these means to provide additional information, without interrupting the flow the narrative. These include sidebars that provide short biographies of prominent personalties, giving the reader more detailed knowledge of the person without cluttering the narrative. Others give details of the weapons employed during the battle, including technical information ,and the role they played in the battle. Organisation charts give a visual depiction to the words describing them in the narrative, allowing the reader to better understand complex structures, while coloured maps give a visual depiction and explanation of what occurred on the ground. In my book 3D pictorials, with overlays supplement the maps. All of these complement the text, add interest for the reader, or make complicated descriptions more easily understood. So embrace these technologies to make your story more appealing to the reader, enable them to visually grasp complicated issues and assist in getting your message across.
  • 13. Summary of Presentation In summary, when presenting your story keep it simple and engaging. Include only the relevant information that supports the thrust of your argument, and discard that which distracts the reader or clutters the narrative for no purpose. Spend time getting the structure of your paper or book right, by determining the sequence in which you will tell your story, and consider sub headings within chapters, and appendices to provide additional information or argument. Employ an easily read and engaging written style; and re-work your narrative until it flows easily on the reader’s eye. Also consider using a variety of mediums to supplement the narrative and help tell your story.