Unhistory Monday: The Impossibility of Writing Truthfully About a Battle

The Chief, the Quartermaster, the Adjutant-General, know well enough what the strength of the army is, and can map out to a quarter of a mile where it lies; but to the casual and ignorant spectator all this is mystery. The vastness of the area over which the armed host is spread, confounds him. He is unable to realise the fact of thousands being present when scattered around him; he only sees a few groups of white tents widely separated. And as it is in a camp, so, I apprehend, it is in a battle. When the great Duke of Wellington was asked by a lady at a ball to describe Waterloo, he pointed to the brilliant pageant which was running its course before them, and asked her if she thought she could describe all that was going on in that ball-room. If it be ever my lot to be present at a battle—although of wars and its alarms I have had enough by this time—I shall have but little to say, I fancy, about the manoeuvres of great bodies of men, desperate charges, skilful flank movements, and so forth. Such graphic narratives are best written at home, years after the event, with the general’s despatches and a good map before one. If ever I were called upon to send home an account of a sanguinary engagement between two great armies, it would most probably—if the account were candid and conscientious—be confined to mentioning that, standing somewhere under a tree, I could make out, through a race-glass, that something like an Irish row appeared to be going on in a field a long way off; and that riding away, rather in a hurry, I met many carts full of men that were wounded, and were crying out, for God’s sake, for water; and that I saw many ditches full of men that could cry no more, for the reason that they were dead.

George Augustus Sala, My Diary in America in the Midst of War, Vol. 1 (1865)

5 thoughts on “Unhistory Monday: The Impossibility of Writing Truthfully About a Battle”

  1. John Keegan’s first book was his attempt to understand historical battles. He studied records (diaries and the like) from Agincourt, Waterloo and The Somme. He found a number of facts that discredited some accounts.

  2. And if it’s hard to write about a battle, imagine how hard it is to write about politics, where the armies are hidden. History is impossible. And bunk.

  3. The events of the past can of course only be partially known. The partially known can still be accurate. The actions of our forebears, and the results of those actions, to the extent we can link the two, are the only guide we have to present and future action. History is difficult. And worth doing and reading.

  4. The difficulty of understanding the past on a personal level is the theme of novels such as The Good Soldier and the Alexandria Quartet series. It’s at least as difficult at the level of large groups and nations. But what’s the alternative. Better to try to make sense of things, however imperfectly, than to remain in the dark or, worse, rely on received narratives without understanding their biases.

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