53rd Welsh

A World War II Living History Group

The 53rd Blog

The Benefit of Intensive Historical Research

Posted by Swiper on June 1, 2010 at 3:29 AM

Within the 53rd Welsh LHG a large focus is placed upon harvesting the fruits of the historical research undertaken.

 

 

For example, thanks to listening to veteran's testimonies, speaking to local historians in France, snippets in histories (from Brigade to Divisional level), and finding original artifacts we discovered that 53rd Welsh Division was one of a small number of units to still keep the Divisional symbol on the helmet in 1944-45.


 

 

Often this work appears pretty obvious, find a unit that you have an interest in (be it for local, family, or in an general historical interest), and then you will pop out and buy a book on the unit and its history. In these books you usually find a few personal stories, a few photographs and what the unit did during their campaign, key officers and occasionally mention of key characters within the unit. Its a general overview, often using a few sources.


The earliest are the late 1940s/1950s unit histories, although they tend to have information which is fresher in the memories of those who wrote them (and therefore very useful) they tend to have poorer gasp on the wider emphasis, who they were actually fighting and some accounts end in pure confusion, that may make sense to those who were there but for the contemporary historian/re-enactor they can soon become muddled works which are full of individual eccentricity.


 

 

To add to the complication, these earlier books usually fetch quite serious money! Often ranging from £30-120 for a copy!


 

 

 

Consequently the re-enactor or historian cannot rely on the earliest works, so what of the most recent historiography? If one goes off such recent works as Antony Beevors D-Day and Max Hasting's Overlord one finds them so riddled of judgement and opinion that actual historical accuracy is disregarded somewhat for their chilling, depressive narratives.


 

 

Even books such as 'Band of Brothers' focus on such a microlevel that despite they offer a detailed and intimate portrait of the men of Easy Company, it leaves the reader almost wondering how the war took so long! On the otherhand, Sledge's 'With the Old Breed' offers insights and anecdotes (most recently seen in The Pacific) which would otherwise be lost to history.


 

 

Consequently I run off a selection of sources ranked for their usage/praticality:


1. Recent Books and Articles

2. Early books and Articles

3. Photographs

4. War Diaries

5. Personal Accounts

6. Family Documents

 

 


1. Recent Books and Articles - generally have more recently declassified/found/stumbled upon accounts it also gives you an idea of the contemporary discourse regarding the study of the unit in question. For example Terry Copp's criticism of 53rd Welsh Division for not really moving during the collapse of the Falaise gap, when the unit histories, Divisional documents and personal accounts juxtapose this massively! He uses a single Canadian document for this criticism and this shows how important it is to conduct a thorough investigation trying to cover all bases. Take them with a pinch of salt and use them as starting blocks.


2. Early Books and Articles

Even withstanding the earlier criticism these are still very good sources, and an easy way to try and see if a family member did something worthy of note, events that are negligable at Brigade or Divisional level are likely to be fully fleshed out in these works.

 

 

3. Photographs

To be honest, I am at somewhat of a crossroads over photographs, many are available online to peruse, and the Imperial War Museum's (IWM) website is an excellent resource to look at these. However they all face one damning problem, the lack of clear caption/location. Taking a photo of a Photographer standing over a German 10.5cm gun during the battle of Evrecy as an example - on its own it is a good and amusing picture, yet combined with the facts of the battle and the day it was taken, it juxtaposes much of the information in all other accounts of the battle!


Photographs can offer insights into kit, use of captured weapons, dress codes and morale ina  way that the written word can sometimes not achieve, yet without proper captions/locations attached and ideally times(!) this point becomes somewhat moot as they can just become more detrious impeding a investigation instead of helping it.


4. War Diaries

Available to look at in the National Archives at Kew, or to be ordered from them. I rate these at 4 due to the ridiculous carpark fees there (pre-booking) and charging through the nose for their copying of documents. Great sources, dreadfully managed despite the staff there being very helpful. These are my personal views mind!


5. Personal Accounts

Can be found at the IWM website on searches, by contacting the relevant Regimental museum, larger museums such as Bovington Tank Museum, Firepower or The National Army Museum. These sources are often hard to find but are gold dust for illustrating personal accounts of a campaign. The easiest place to start is the BBC People's War archive.


6. Family Documents

In my opinion the greatest untapped source of knowledge, whether through throwing away documents/photographs and them getting lost, letters falling through cracks in the floor etc, this is the people's war. I have been contacted thanks to the internet with stories, letters, photographs, service records, the works! If you have any relating to a unit do a quick search online as you may find a researcher looking for it and he may be able to assist your enquiry if you help him with his!


Ultimately, what are the benefits in re-enacting of Intensive Historical Research? You are able to hone your impression in a way that others never can, whether its that specific shade of blanco, the particular helmet markings not noticable on photographs, or what the units mascot was called and a variety of contemporary in-jokes...


These turn your impression from being that, to the closest thing to reality that one could experience without hoping in the TARDIS and going back 66-70 years ago...

Categories: Military History, Re-enacting, British

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