It’s a terrible thing to talk about what I’m talking about, you know. But I saw it. I was there.
So said one of the 84 veterans of the First World War interviewed for the World War One Oral History Archive, which Jane Tolerton helped to set up in 1987.
In An Awfully Big Adventure Tolerton revisits these recordings and puts the reminiscences into a chronology for the present-day reader. When the words “we will remember them” were intoned on Anzac Days after the First World War, it was the fallen rather than the survivors who were being remembered.
The convention was that the New Zealand division was ‘the silent division’. However, when researching her book on Ettie Rout, Tolerton discovered that those who had returned were willing to talk, but they had to be asked.
Just as well somebody did ask, as the World War One recordings are the most used part of the Oral History Archive. There were 84 interviews over three years and most of the men had never talked about the war. Tolerton played some of the recordings and the voices came down all the years; vivid, candid and humble (the worst sin was to be a ‘skite’).
For an idea of what those at home were being fed about the war, Tolerton recommends looking at Papers Past. Small wonder civilians asked returned soldiers “did you have a good time?” and no-one ever said “you must have had a crook time”.
Word of the session: tough.
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