As the veterans of the Second World War get older, time is running out if they are to be interviewed for books about the conflict. These histories are very popular but perhaps a little controversial. The Duke of Wellington once remarked that it is no more possible to tell the whole story of a battle than it is to recount all the details of a court ball. Wise words indeed.
Of course, the move away from history as seen only from the point of view of the great and the good, with little or no input about the experiences of the lumped proletariat, must be a good thing. But just how accurate are the veterans' memories? Sometimes seeing them interviewed on the TV I get the feeling that their repeating things they read in books. It's easier to give a young researcher or interviewer what they expect to hear than to tell the truth. Sometimes that truth is too hard to explain to someone who wasn't there. If you have to ask; you’ll never understand. A check of service records can show that the veteran being interviewed wasn't there during the events he is recounting. But that doesn't mean there is a deliberate deception. Memory is a strange thing; particularly memory of traumatic events in which some kind of coping mechanism has kicked in. The sequence of events can be re-arranged to create a coherent narrative. But that can distort the story of what was at the time a very confused and fast moving action. Sometimes the mind just blanks-out unpleasant and traumatic events. Then a young interviewer shows up and asks for your memories. You try to fill in the void with stuff you don't really remember. I've been in some unpleasant situations and to be honest all I remember is the amusing and funny stuff that happened. Let's not forget that for many years no-one was interested in what the veterans had to say, and a lot of them didn't want to talk about it. Everyone just wanted to put the war behind them and get on with life. Rusted memories being taken out of the brainbox after so many years of being locked up and then polished up for an interviewer may not be entirely reliable. Real history is messy, confused, and often unpleasant. Personal memory is, and has to be, far more forgiving.