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The thickness of the past

Professor Mike Roper on memory, his own family connection to the Great War and whether we have exaggerated the horror of war.
LAURA JAMES: Your most recent book is called The Secret Battle And of course, many of our 100 stories deal with secrets. Do you think, as a historian, there are some stories that we should be more cautious in telling 100 year later? Are there some that should remain hidden in the archives? I’m thinking here, with “The 100 Stories,” of the case of Samuel Mellor, whose mother never really quite found out what had happened to her son.
MIKE ROPER: Now, that’s a really fascinating case. I think he doesn’t even sign up under his own name to begin with, but under his brother’s name, if I’m right, and then subsequently desert and then signs up– we now think– under a different name and ends up murdering–
A military policeman– One of the military policeman that’s trying to take to catch him– and there’s correspondence that goes on between various officials about whether this man’s mother should know that he is probably the guy who’s about to be shot a dawn. He’s to be executed for his crime. And the authorities decide that they will just leave her with the knowledge that he was a deserter. But they won’t tell her that he was a murderer. It’s an extraordinary story. And it really made me stop and pause. And I wondered to myself. And I talked to one mother and other people about this case, because it really captured my imagination. What would you say?
If I had been one of the AIF or War Office Officials, what would I have advised? He apparently, as part of his dying wish, ask that his mother did know that he was about to be executed. That was his wish, so the officials were not acting with his wish, in refusing to tell the mother what had happened. On the other hand, you can think, well, they obviously had the view that the shame of desertion would be better for her to bear than the same of knowing that he was a murderer and had been executed.
And part of me thinks, if I’d been an official, I’d still think– is it more humane that someone doesn’t know in that situation, than it does? And when you think back to a society where honour and military honour was so important, the indignity, the shame of what he’d done was so much greater than the shame of the desertion. On the other hand, it left her with no resolution. And it left her constantly pestering the authorities, to know if they knew any more about him. And I think that case throws up all sorts of complexities about both what the authorities at the time considered were secrets that should be kept.
As for what we think now, well, I think we don’t have secrets. We just try to reveal what there is. And I think, in this case, it’s not entirely clear. It’s not beyond the burden of proof that these two characters are the same man. And I think it’s really important for us to keep open the confusion which people felt at the time and the lack of resolution that they felt at the time. And we don’t try and prematurely have a neat story about it all. It’s messy. It’s a very complex and unhappy story. And it’s not, as I said, beyond all evidence that this is one person, not two people. So I think that we need no secrets.
But we need to make sure that we keep the complexity of the cases that we are researching and that we allow people now to understand how complicated life’s circumstances were. The other thing about this man is, the mother writes, well, he supported me before the war. Now, looking at that, you think, it’s heartbreaking that this man should have been pushed to the point of desertion and then have fallen into such a terrible end. But of course, she’s also writing with interest in mind. She would have been given an allotment, money, for her son, which if he’d been a deserter would stop. So it’s very much in her interest to say, he was upstanding. He supported me.
Because she losing income after that situation, so there’s lots of complexity to these stories, which is really important that we keep, in the way we frame them and the way that people understand them now. It’s the thickness of the past that’s easily lost, 100 years on. How do we keep that in the way that we represent the war?
REBECCA WHEATLEY: There’s been a rehabilitation in the last few years, on the way that we’ve looked at the Great War and that perhaps we’ve focused unduly on the horrors of war. Do you think that this charge could be put against “The 100 Stories?”
MIKE ROPER: Well, “The 100 Stories” pack a punch. They are quite difficult to sit through. I got quite upset on looking at them. There’s something about the very spare form of black and white. And they move at an elegiac pace. They force you to slow down. And you can’t fast forward, so you sit with them. And material discloses itself about soldiers. And a lot of it is very difficult to take it, because it’s upsetting. It’s sad. So I think that is a kind of memorial. And I think that it serves a very valuable function as that.
In relation to the revisionism around the First World War, I have a problem with that impulse. I think that what’s happening is, as we’ve reached the 100 years, the last veteran die perhaps four, five, six years ago now, in the UK. And I know in Australia, it was about the same period ago. And so what’s happening is that you’re getting the death of the last eye witnesses. And there is an issue there about the transition from survivor memory to historical memory. And that’s the point where historians get in. And they try and set the cast.
They try and push interpretations one way or another, because they realise that’s the point where history starts to be made, when the participants can no longer answer back. It’s a transition from personal memory to kind of cultural memory. And I think that helps to explain some of the animated debates that have gone on about how we see the war, and in particular, whether we should see it in terms of the sort of narrative of futility. I get rather exercised by the historians who say, that kind of idea that the war was futile and mass slaughter and meaningless and lions led by donkeys. That idea dates from the 1960s.
I feel strongly about it, because I had a grandfather who fought a Gallipoli, and who never, as far as I know, had to approach the repatriation authorities for anything. But he was a pretty disturbed man in his own way. He was a very affectionate, loving grandfather, but prone to bouts of unreasonable temper, sort of felt dangerous to be around as a kid. But I also loved him greatly. But he was clearly somebody very deeply marked the First World War. So when historians come out saying to me, oh, well, the narrative of horror is a product of the 1960s. I go, well, no it isn’t, because I know what my grandfather went through. And I what he communicated to me.
And that didn’t start in the 1960s. That was there from the war. And I think that I have a very strong reaction against that kind of attempt to reformulate the war as– we even have people who have some idea of it in Britain of it being a just cause that we should recover. And for me, it’s very important to keep alive that narrative of what the war did to people. And so the project that I’m currently engaged in, which is with very elderly people in their 80s and 90s, they’re the children of First World War men and women. And they’re telling me lots of stories about how the war was present in their childhood, although the war was long finished.
But it was still there. It was still there in fathers that couldn’t work, because they were physically disabled. Because they were shell-shocked. It was there in mothers that had worked as nurses and were dealing with the consequences of having had a lot of pretty awful experiences to have to deal with. At the same time, it’s feeling a sense of significance and indeed liberation from working in the way that they did during the war. But the war is present in the 1920s and ’30s, although it’s over. And so this idea that it’s the 1960s that creates a story of horror– there’s a family kind of undertow there of aftermath, which we are still i think dealing with even now.

Watch Professor Mike Roper discuss memory, his own family connection to the Great War and whether we have exaggerated the horror of war.

A list of supplementary readings from the interview with Professor Mike Roper is available from the Downloads section of this step. We hope you find it useful.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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