What did you do in the war?

18th November 2005 at 00:00
People's memories can add vitality and authenticity to pupils' research.

Historian Martin Bowman shows how to get the most rewarding interviews

When interviewing veterans, relatives and local historians for projects, pupils can increase their chances of producing some real history of their own by following the suggestions I give here.

Research in the classroom and library, and on location, are all-important, but the best source is straight from the horse's mouth. Schools know about the need for supervision and preparation when children are to meet the public, but there is no substitute for an interview with someone who was there.

Here are some of my suggestions, as a historian who has researched many personal accounts for my books.

* Set out your objectives. The first hurdle is deciding who you want to interview. There are many sprightly ex-servicemen and women, and their spouses, with vivid memories to be recorded for posterity. Some have written them down for their grandchildren to read, which makes your task easier once you have identified them, but most will not bother unless you take a personal interest.

Finding them and getting them to open up requires determination, enthusiasm and perseverance. Develop your empathy skills, show humility and respect, and be accurate. Though wars are chapters in history, for the majority they remain part of daily life, with the horrors a constant reminder. County associations, local museums and libraries are among the best sources for tracking down potential interviewees.

If your school's in Norfolk, you can visit the Norfolk Regiment museum or website. The same is true for all regimental associations. Ask if you can spend an evening at a meeting of the Royal British Legion or the Royal Air Force Association.

* If the person you want to interview declines because they have been interviewed before, point out that you want to research other areas and develop your own findings rather than duplicate the work of others. Some people flatly refuse to tell their story because "others did much more than I did", or because they feel guilty that they survived while others did not. Most, though, are anxious that their generation should not be forgotten.

A potential interviewee who has been misrepresented and misquoted on a previous occasion will probably view you as equally untrustworthy. Convince them that you are not tarred by the same brush and that, given the chance, you can put right the errors perpetrated by others. Veterans like nothing better than to have their story accurately told.

There are occasions when you have to back off but, mostly, you should persevere. Get that story. Above all, ask, then listen. The most successful interviewer is one who is listening and not talking. If you are doing all the talking, you will miss the details.

* Do not be shy or afraid of getting it wrong. Involve your interviewee(s) at every stage, and assure them that they will see the first as well as the final draft and that they can make corrections. This has dual benefits - it puts their minds at rest immediately, while you have a chance to correct any mistakes you have made. Many interviewers gloss over this procedure, which not only is a common courtesy but also ensures a greater degree of accuracy.

* Query anything and everything when necessary. It shows keenness and professionalism. Memories are not infallible and even those who were on the spot may not have the complete picture. Do your homework before and after the interview. If your interviewee says they went to Dusseldorf on May 26, 1943, check sources to make sure that they did. Anyone who flew a bomber tour would have gone to the same city more than once. Was it the night of May 2526, 2425 or 2627? Their logbook is not always to hand.

* Do not be afraid to ask pertinent or sensitive questions. Be persistent.

Once, when I was interviewing D-Day veterans, I had to visit a paratrooper on five occasions to get the story behind the story. Other interviewers who had met with resistance had either given up, or made do with just a few lines.

Requests for "what really happened?" met with "We advanced and we captured the objective", but the raid on the Merville Battery, which has largely been overlooked, was arguably the greatest feat of arms on D-Day. Of the 750 men involved, only six or seven are alive today, so getting the story was imperative. Under "polite interrogation", a former para let slip that he had been a sniper, and that, in the distance, there was a pillbox with a machine-gunner inside who was holding up the whole operation. Did he kill the enemy gunner? How? Did he shoot him between the eyes? He had in fact fired a round into the narrow letterbox opening, and the "firing stopped - the bullet whistling around inside did the trick".

What a scoop!

* Knowledge is not an expense but an investment. It can be useful to learn other languages, and it is advisable to opt for history GCSE and higher.

Having a good general history knowledge is not essential when planning an interview, but students should know something of the topic beforehand. They should take notes and immerse themselves in the subject at least for the duration of the interview and follow-up, though no one is expecting them to be an Alan Whicker or a Kate Adie.

While some veterans may think students' lack of knowledge is a minus point, if someone says they are "here to learn" it is amazing how much extra material can be forthcoming as the interviewee fills what they perceive to be large gaps in pupils' education.

* Get the interviewee to question their theories, opinions and experiences.

Would they do it all again? Was it all worth it? Pupils can reflect later on whether the interviewee was completely truthful, or whether their memories were accurate.

* Check all your facts, check again and double check. Discuss any inconsistencies with your interviewee. The worst mistake you can make is to get it wrong. Remember the essentials.

As Kipling said: "I have five good friends and true. They are, 'How, why, what, when and who'."

Martin Bowman is the author of 76 books on military subjects, including Remembering D-Day: Personal Histories of Everyday Heroes (Harper Collins)

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