War is a terrible business. The violent nature of the tools used in combat – guns, bombs, explosions, fire – can do dreadful things to human bodies. In the course of this sort of research, you sometimes come across some shocking stories. A P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, for example, was killed in a crash in eastern Holland in November 1943. A young girl found a loose boot belonging to the pilot near the wreck of the aeroplane… with a foot still inside. Or the unfortunate Charlie Nash, a 467 Sqn mid-upper gunner who was killed on the 10 May 1944 Lille raid. Such was the force of the explosion that brought his Lancaster down that Nash was dismembered. He was initially buried in two distinct graves, one in Hellemmes and one in Forest sur Marque.
Many of these sorts of stories are revealed in the files of the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, a team of RAF investigators who combed what had been occupied Europe to establish the fate of as many missing airmen as possible after the liberation of each area. The reports can sometimes make for disturbing reading. So much so, in fact, that full MRES reports are not released to the public in the UK if authorities believe they will be too distressing for next-of-kin or other researchers to read.
There is no doubt that these reports can contain some very grisly details. But factual reports of this nature are just that – factual. The details contained within them are very real. The events they deal with really happened – to real people. How much should modern-day sensibilities take precedence over knowing the truth?
This is an extremely difficult question to answer, and it’s one that every researcher must give serious thought to. There are two conflicting priorities here: the natural desire of the historian to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, versus the need to protect families from some pretty disturbing feelings about what might have happened to their relative. It is sometimes easier for the researcher to deal with these sorts of unpleasant revelations if they have no direct family connection to their subject. What they need to be careful of, however, is the sensitivities of those who do have that direct connection. I’ve been guilty of this myself, once or twice blithely telling a story to a relative of one of my great uncle’s crew without first considering how they might take the news. It’s only after I’d finished, when I saw their reaction that I realised, whoops, perhaps I could have dealt with that one with a little more sensitivity.
Ultimately, it is the researchers themselves who are responsible for making this very difficult decision. I disagree with the authorities determining what will and will not be released because I think it should be the duty of the researcher to decide what they do and don’t tell their audience. Researchers must be sensitive about how they communicate these sorts of stories.
Personally, I tend to prefer the truth, warts and all. After all, this is what actually happened. But I need to be very careful about how I get the message across.
© 2012 Adam Purcell