Back in November 2015 I went to a conference hosted by the Manchester Centre for Regional History. Its purpose was to present and discuss research undertaken on young people’s lives in World War One and it raised some really interesting points and questions.
In the next few posts, I’ll be exploring some of the ones that have kept on popping up in my head over the last couple of months.
What stories have we missed?
Now. This is an age-old query and it’s not just one about general knowledge (although the amount of that which has been lost over time due to lack of sufficient records is excruciating to think about).
I mean stories. Particular narratives.
This query was evoked by the absolutely fascinating talk by Monty Soutar about the Maori regiment. It has pinned itself to the forefront of my archival consciousness ever since.
This regiment was made of tall, strong 14-20 year olds (there were no birth certificates in Maori culture so if you looked of age, you were of age). Different tribes volunteered their strongest, tallest young men in an effort to show off their people to other tribes so this group of soldiers were a formidable bunch.
I never knew that the Maori fought in WW1 so that was pretty interesting to discover. The story that caught my attention, and the rest of the room’s, was about how this group of young men won a battle.
They were alone fighting trench battles against Turkish troupes on Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli. In the dead of night, the Maori performed a terrifying haka on top of a hill (not, we were assured, the demure haka seen by rugby fans but a real war cry). The Turks believed the “gates of hell” had opened and they fled.
I don’t wish to glorify war because I see it as counterproductive at best, but that is a pretty cool story. It made me wonder: what other stories have we missed?
We clearly know about this one but there must be others that have been forgotten. The imagination is spoiled for choice and undoubtedly some memories will now be local legend. However, it seems a shame that so much of our history should be made into folklore.
Don’t mistake my meaning; I adore folklore. It is so important for our culture, for any culture. But some memories and events deserve to be saved in archives and there are so many that just… aren’t.
It’s not like I have the answer to this problem. It’s mainly up to the people creating the memories and events to be conscious creators and collectors of evidence of their actions and legacies. That includes sole individuals as well as businesses and institutions, social movements and charities.
Something I’d like to do with my consultancy HerArchivist is to help small institutions, organisations, charities etc get to grips with what records they’re creating and keeping and help them be conscious of story they are therefore telling. Hopefully I can thereby provide some resistance to stories becoming merely wistful anecdotes.
Or, I could travel through time and have an infinite life, and be a travelling documentor.
We’ll never be able to keep everything. There aren’t enough archivists in the world for one thing. All the same, we could be doing better at creating and keeping evidence of things that matter.
If you want some help doing that, drop me a note!