This is one of those questions which it is much easier to ask than to answer. Historians have struggled about how to write history since the dawn of time.
Fact in history
“Study the historian before you begin to study the facts… When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.”
My use of facts in this blog
Thomas Gradgrind said ‘Fact, fact, fact – you are never to fancy’. But Alice said ‘What’s the use of a book without pictures or conversations?’ A wise ‘Anon’ said: ‘A historian is someone who has more imagination than a statistician, but less than a poet’. That sounds like the golden mean to aim for.
But in order to make bricks, you need straw. If there is little straw (or few facts) available, then you either abandon the attempt or construct what you can with the material available.
Our main aim on this website is to identify and document the lives of those on the roll of honour. We are attempting to write the closest approximation to ‘the truth’ that we can, given the facts available to us. Having said that, we admit that the objective truth is an elusive target.
A subsidiary, but important, aim is to make the result interesting and appealing to read.
Some, or if we are very lucky, all of the following may be available:
Birth, marriage and death records. Census records. Property ownership and map records. Trade directories. Telephone directories. Professional directories. Genealogical records. War Office and Admiralty records, ranging from very brief medal cards to full service papers and pension records. Extracts from newspapers. Other material in National Archives and Hampshire Record Office.
Ask yourself whether an account of your own lives based solely on these records would provide a true picture of you. I suggest that it might provide information that was true, and nothing but the truth, but that it would be a very one-dimensional portrait.
In most posts it is apparent where I am writing from my imagination – for example I have no documentary evidence of what anyone was thinking on any particular day. Where it is not obvious what the source of my information is, I will normally include this in a note at the end of the post.
If you have a question about the source of anything in the posts, please ask in the comments.
My primary aim is an act of homage to those who took part in the First World War.
My secondary aim is to interest as many people as possible in the history of this village and the people who lived here, and to stimulate further involvement and research.
My third aim is to produce a view of a large-scale international event seen through the eyes of a small community.
Using my knowledge of the Bourne Valley in particular, and life in general, I am attempting to depict the essence of the people I write about.
I draw inferences which seem reasonable from the facts of their lives. If someone has borne 14 children, of whom 6 died before adulthood, I infer that this is a source of unhappiness in her life.
More controversially, I suggest inferences about relationships based on the available facts. For example, the sisters-in-law Frances Selfe and Eleanor Black-Hawkins seem unlikely from their backgrounds to be kindred spirits and I am writing about them having made that judgement.
In the first case, I am confident that the inference is correct. In the second, I am aware that the judgement is more subjective but would plead se non è vero, è ben trovato.
But, whatever their angle, all historians are trying to describe the iceberg from what they can see above the water line, only able to guess at what lies below.