As the years go by, history grows and grows. More and more events are added to the tapestry of human existence and events that once seemed recent become increasingly shrouded, their memory more distant with every passing generation. In the last few years, we have seen the last living participants in the First World War pass away: with the death of Harry Patch in 2009 and Claude Choules and Frank Buckles in 2011, we mourned the last of those to see combat in World War I, while the next great European conflict, the Spanish Civil War, has just nine remaining soldiers.
Bertholt Brecht once wrote a poem entitled “Questions From A Worker Who Reads” that posited the idea that the stories of conquests and conflict should be told from the perspective of the participants rather than the victors or the great men of history:
“Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.”
Our memory of conflict is linked with those we know and how they were affected. Modern warfare, so democratized in the way that it affects civilians as well as military personnel, in which more people have been affected than ever before, cannot be divorced from the stories of the average people that lived through it.
As a historian, I am lucky enough to be born into a time in which my personal associations with war are distant. My understanding of history and conflict, however, is built on the remembrances of my mother, raised during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, as well as those of my grandmothers, both survivors of the Second World War Blitz and even of my great-uncle, shell-shocked and scarred at the Battle of Somme in 1917. These ancestral links elevate historical events from the pages of textbooks and into real, lived experience.
My father tells a story of a man he met in an Edinburgh pub, aged 96 years old, who told him stories of when he sat on his own great-grandfather’s lap in the late 19th century and heard tales of the Napoleonic Wars. It is these seemingly tangential lineages that make people like Samuel J. Seymour important.