Writing on World War One Ancestors

Dear Bloggers

Many non-fiction writers of social history will be busy this year 2015 in compiling stories of ancestors and their doings in the period 1914 to 1918. Everyone has an ancestor who lived in that period, not all were soldiers or nurses actively involved in a war – some were from countries not at war or neutral – but they all have their stories to tell. Some were farming or involved in factories or teaching children or helping a family to grow up – but they all have their stories to tell.

I have been involved in recent weeks with a group of writers set up by David Down and Margaret Vines at the Genealogical Society of Victoria to assist people who have a story about their 1914-18 ancestor and wish to write a well put together story about that ancestor. Some are doing it to pass on to family, others are planning to publish it more widely.

As part of the process, I wrote what I had on my uncle who was killed in the second world war. I aimed for a  concise article on his life of about 1500 words. His story was not straight forward. He was in a tank regiment in north Africa, was captured and imprisoned in Italy. He and another prisoner escaped, but were recaptured a day later. The commandant in charge of the prison wanted to be shown how they escaped over the wire. When they were demonstrating this, they were shot and my uncle George died. After the war was over, the commandant was arrested, tried by a British tribunal and convicted of murder. It was a controversial decision made harder by the fact that he had joined later the resistance against the Nazis. In spite of this ageing commandant was killed. This 1945 decision has subsequently met with considerable academic dispute among Italian scholars particularly. A sad case of war where nobody wins – all too common.

What it did mean was that I then looked to see what other ancestors I had who took part in WW1. These are Dr Basil Playne, Colonel Bill Playne, Jack Playne (an engineer from Western Australia), Alfred C Playne, and Nesbit Hanlon (who lived in Canada). Last but not least was my great grandmother, Liz Bond Hanlon, Nesbit’s mother. She played a great role in supporting Nesbit’s young family. I am planning to write short articles of up to 2000 words on each of these people, and try to publish their stories in history journals.

I think this is the way to write up one’s family history. Start with 1000 to 2000 word articles on each member. When you have done about 10 such articles, one can compile these into a small publication , primarily aimed at distribution within the family. I think this might be a better way of recording family history – less boring and cheaper. Another advantage in one’s later years is that at least you get some ancestors recorded, even if ill health does not enable one to complete everyone in the family.

I would love to get feedback on how others are thinking of handling this period 1914 to 1918, and of the bigger problem of writing good family history.

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One thought on “Writing on World War One Ancestors

  1. I think that your observation about producing family history in small manageable portions is a good one, which probably extends to other aspects of social history. I now have a 28000 word doc on memorials in St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne which includes the essential information on all aspects of the people commemorated, the memorials themselves and the people who designed and made them. The online text is used in all sorts of ways for research and reference but it is quite unreadable as a “book”. I am now looking at ways in which this information could be “chunked” to make it publishable, possibly in small booklets, that will disseminate the information and ensure that no-one starts from scratch again.
    Dorothea Rowse

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