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The War and Scottish Memory

I have to sympathise with a Dutch academic who found it difficult to discover first-hand accounts of the First World War from rank-and-file Scots on the internet. The way Britain was, and to a large extent still is, organised very few working class Scots find their words in print. And that sorry situation was, and is, even worse for those from other parts of the United Kingdom. We have a radio program here in Canada which interviews authors from around the world. Almost all the English writers on it seem to have attended private school. The recent Afghan and Iraq wars led a flood of accounts from rank-and-file soldiers but too many bear the heavy imprint of a tabloid journalist ghost-writing in "soldier-speak". But back to Scots rank-and-file memoirs of the First and Second World Wars. Even if a our Dutch friend had been able to find many examples, how useful would they have been? The most interesting surely have been written at the time; and that would mean letters home. The more distant in the past an event was, the more memory plays tricks to concoct a coherent, not to say sympathetic, narrative. But letters home may be just as misleading as memoirs or accounts written in later years. With letters the main concern was not to worry the folks back home. War zones are inherently dangerous places, there's a lot of heavy machinery around and little fingers are easily trapped if someone is careless in cocking their weapon.  That means seldom telling everything that's happening in a war zone. Even during the recent fighting in Afghanistan a lot of people were falsely assuring loved ones back home in emails and phone-calls that they never left the base. Once, when I was there, I claimed to be on a remote base in the Canadian Arctic with limited access to a phone to explain why I would be hard to reach. And once the whole thing is over, it does not take long after you get back home to realise that the only people who really understand what happened are the people who were there. It's often a real "you have to have been there" thing. Eventually you give up: it's easier. So, even if a working class Scot from either war did find a publisher, how much could they tell? Put it all in a book and loved ones will find out how much you misled them. And lot of what braver souls might have wanted to say in 1920 or 1950 just wouldn't have found a market, even in the unlikely event of them finding a publisher. And now, as the last of the Second World War veterans fade away the surge of books they are writing in retirement are based on time-adjusted memories. The truth may be out there, but it's very hard to find.  


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