Opportunities in Oral History Research: Guest Blog with Dr. Jane Judge

Have you ever asked a friend about “what happened!” on his/her latest date? Or listened to an interview with your favourite actor about their upcoming movie? Or asked your mother how on earth she baked her Yorkshire puddings so golden, puffy and gorgeous, while yours simply collapse in on themselves?

Believe it or not – so long as these events occurred in the past – then you’ve just conducted the impressive method of “oral history,” albeit very informally.

Oral history includes both the process of collecting testimony from living, breathing human beings, as well as the product itself, the narrative of past events.  

And although oral history, as both method and output, is the latest trend among historians, it can’t actually be confined to the study of history alone. Key witness testimonies in high-profile murder cases rely enormously on oral history.  Medical practitioners exploring the effects of new drugs, treatments and therapies rely enormously on oral history. Social workers and psychologists helping survivors of traumatic events often rely on the memories produced through oral history. As oral historian Lynn Abrams argues, “oral history has become a crossover methodology, an octopus with tentacles reaching into a wide range of disciplinary, practise-led and community enterprises” (Oral History Theory, 2010, p.2).

Although oral history is a vastly rewarding and highly deployable tool for nearly any discipline or purpose, it also comes at a cost. Professional scholars must often submit enormous ethics approval applications to their institutions or governments before even approaching a potential human subject for interview. Many aspects of interviewing can be volatile, emotional, and even dangerous (for example,  Dr. Erin Jessee’s fieldwork included gathering testimonies from Rwandans convicted of genocide while they were detained in Rwandan prisons!) And what happens to the interviewee if researchers ask unsettling questions – is there post-interview psychological support for the subjects (or even the interviewer) for example? These calculations of risk are absolutely essential to the ethical responsibility of any oral history project. And, of course, the goal is to cause minimal harm, which is often the general outcome (And for Dr. Jessee’s helpful tips about about managing risk, her advice here).

Despite some risks, oral history remains an invaluable tool.  Findings can influence new policies and initiatives, while researchers can harness its power as a versatile method to record history in action, bolster an organisation or government’s ethos and contribute to an initiative’s influence. In this sense, oral history can be one of the most dynamic instruments in a researcher’s arsenal, and profoundly utilised by multiple interdisciplinary stakeholders.

Dr. Jane Judge, a postdoctoral researcher in early modern history at the KU Leuven in Belgium, recently experienced the exhilarating power of oral history. Although the majority of Jane’s historical research has permitted her into fabulous dusty old libraries and national archives housing original sources with elaborate 18th Century handwriting, Jane has not been required to conduct interviews with real, living humans – until now!

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Dr. Jane Judge in her natural habitat of Leuven, Belgium.

Jane currently volunteers at the Fulbright Commission in Brussels, which is an independent body that, along with the US Embassies to Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as the Belgian and Luxembourg governments, administers the US State Department’s  Fulbright Scholarship Programs for Belgians and Luxembourgers going to the US, as well as Americans coming to these two countries. Since 1948, the Fulbright Commission in Brussels has connected and supported over 4,000 students, researchers, and teachers, while promoting international educational exchange and mutual understanding. 

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The Fulbright Program awards approximately 8,000 grants annually.  Approximately 370,000 “Fulbrighters” have participated in the Program (over 4,000 through the Belgium Commission) since its inception in 1946. For more information, visit www.fulbright.be 

Recently, Jane has been tasked with gathering stories from alumni of the Fulbright Commission in order to record and promote the program’s overall mission for the 70th anniversary celebrations that will take place next year. The idea is to highlight that it is the people that make Fulbright what it is as they engage in immersive experiences abroad and make human connections. This means that she has met over 15 very interesting people–and plans to meet at least 15 or 20 more–who, at some point in their lives, benefited from a Fulbright grant and the program’s international networks, financial support and scholarly community. 

In Jane’s quest to gather data from real human beings, various unanticipated surprises allowed her to discover a few crucial things about oral history, interviewing techniques and the value of human input. After musings over some of her most interesting findings, we both thought it would be highly appropriate to share some of these gems in a guest blog! Here are Jane’s discerning observations about this often-tricky but fruitful research method:

Before you began interviewing, what perceptions did you have about oral history in general? 

Jane: My perception of oral history generally was that it was messy, fraught with ethics issues and required intensive training to do well. As far as the Fulbright project itself, I didn’t have much choice in doing interviews. Because of the many stakeholders in this Fulbright Commission (there are commissions around the world implementing the Fulbright program in their locations), the office here already knew they wanted to focus on alumni and not the nuts and bolts history of the program. So, I didn’t really chose oral history, it chose me. That being said, the archives here are very rich, containing midterm and final reports from every grantee, as well as commentary from the offices here on American grantees that came to Belgium and Luxembourg until the 1980s. The project could have been done by just going through these and piecing together stories, pulling out interesting anecdotes. Given my background, that was much more in my wheelhouse and so I was a little apprehensive about doing interviews, especially with my rather negative preconceived notions about oral history. But I decided to see it as an opportunity rather than a challenge–an opportunity to learn and enact a new methodology, to travel throughout Belgium, and to meet lots of new people in new fields!”

Can you comment about the interview process – who, where, when, how?

Jane: Sure. The who should be fairly obvious at this point—Fulbright alumni! (Haha.) The first thing I did was go through the archive of somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 alumni that past interns have digitized and picked out people who had dynamic profiles, represented diverse backgrounds, fields of study, and programs (undergraduates, graduates, research scholars, teachers, visiting professors, and newer summer programs). To the list that I compiled, we also added some notable alumni and some who had volunteered or been quite active as alums in the past. These included people from walks of life as diverse as being Deputy Prime Minister for Belgium or a Spanish Linguistics teacher. We have been in touch with alumni from every decade of Fulbright’s 70 years so far, so that’s quite exciting.  

As for the interviewing itself, I started with in-person interviews with people here in Belgium. Funnily enough, the first interview was actually an American alumna and her husband who happened to be here on holiday, but the others have all been Belgians that had Fulbrights to the States at one time or another. I go to them, meeting them either at their homes, offices, or a quiet comfortable cafe they know, at a time that’s mutually convenient. I record the audio of our conversations with my phone, so that part’s pretty straightforward, easy, and compact! We set the interviews up by first having either the Executive Director or the Program Director for Students get in touch via email, explaining the anniversary and the project, and then I follow up with an email about logistics. If they are up for being interviewed, I take it from there as far as setting up a time and place. For the Americans and Luxembourgers (and one very busy Belgian), I will and have done the interviews by phone or internet call. The interviews themselves are pretty organic. We want to cover their personal experience, how Fulbright has impacted their lives, and what they think the program can continue to offer. So I start by just asking them to introduce themselves and explain their relationship to the program (how are they “a Fulbrighter”?) and then I really let them go, guiding them if there’s dips or when we need to get back on track.

Were there any challenges in the interview itself that you had not predicted? If yes, how did you overcome them? 

Jane: I wouldn’t say there were challenges in the interview, as such. Everyone’s pretty enthusiastic and already very willing to talk about their experiences. The only things I could think of would be technical. One of the interviews took place over lunch, for example, so I worried that it wouldn’t record clearly in the cafe–this didn’t end up being a problem though, and the recording is crystal clear. I have had some trouble with the recordings of Skype interviews, but that’s, again, technical. With those interviews it’s also harder to have an official start and end of the recorded interview, since people feel like they’re chatting with me and so sometimes they start asking me questions about my experiences!

In your opinion, what was the best thing about interviewing your subjects?

Jane: Oh, by far hearing first-hand stories. I love the narrative that comes out of it. In much of my past work, I’ve had to piece together the story from snippets I’ve found in the archives. Here, I get to ask a question and then sit back and listen to a whole answer.

What would your top tips be to anyone about to conduct an interview?

Jane: Definitely get in touch with a modern historian (if you’re not one yourself), preferably someone who is already a trained oral historian. Check out the wonderful (credible!) resources available online, especially the Oral History Association and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill. You were my first port of call, Chelsea, as a trained historian who was a member of the OHA, and you came through with aplomb. Definitely the best decision I made before embarking on this research adventure.

Would you ever volunteer to do it again?

Jane: Absolutely. I’ve had a complete blast doing these interviews. Even the transcriptions, though sometimes tedious and always time consuming, are fun. Since these people have fascinating stories to tell about travel, research, and all kinds of different experiences, it’s a pleasure to interview them and even to then relive that through transcription.

Finally, as a historian, what do you think that oral history achieves that archival research cannot? 

Jane: Follow up questions! This is by far my favorite part of oral history to this point. When you’re working in an archive, you can pose pointed questions, go searching through piles of papers people might never have wanted to see the light of day, and uncover secrets unabashedly. However, you cannot ask a single follow-up question or check with your subjects/sources that you are interpreting them correctly. In my own research into 18th-century revolutionaries, this means that there’s never any certainty that the way I interpret how some reacted to a given decree, for example, is the way they actually felt about it. With oral history, I can follow up when someone says or writes something that’s not entirely clear. I can ask them to connect dots and even answer an explicit question, rather than trying to figure out what they were implying later when I’m trying to write my analysis.

So what?

Jane touches on a great many qualities of oral history research that traditional archival research does not possess: listening to the “whole answer” rather than piecing together small fragments of history from a dusty archive, or understanding some of the emotional reactions behind certain people’s experiences, or verifying your own analyses of history by asking follow up questions, or even anticipating and minimising risks when interviewing in a café – these diverse observations demonstrate what we can gain from oral history and the multiple opportunities oral history presents to those wanting to learn from people who experienced the past.

How about a round of applause for Dr. Jane Judge’s perceptive analysis of her oral history experience? Many thanks, Jane!

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Surely Belgium’s world famous frites (or frieten in Flemish) are one of the best reasons for Fulbrighters to study in Belgium?

 

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the authors, and does not reflect any official opinion of Fulbright, EdUSA, or the US State Department or other groups or individuals).

The Battle of Vimy Ridge: History, Myth, Memorial and Remembrance

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the costliest and most successful military engagements in Canadian history. Due to the extraordinary bravery of thousands of Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was hard-won against great odds. Today Vimy Ridge is commemorated in Canada as the defining moment when we shed the cloak of the British Empire and defined our own identity on the world stage as a victorious nation.

But.

History really is not the same as remembrance, as I discovered last June when I visited the battlefield. The Vimy Ridge memorial, built in 1936 on land donated by France to “all Canadian people,” has become enshrined in a national narrative honouring Canada’s “coming of age” and “birth” as a nation. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, this memorial perpetuates this narrative, while reminding us both the astounding scale of the First World War, and Canada’s role in that international conflict.

Once the feelings of overwhelming awe towards the immense bravery of all soldiers fighting in the First World War passes, and once you dig deeper into Canada’s exact reasons in 1917 for attacking this dreadful graveyard in France, and once you actually question what the hell so many young men were doing in such a devastating conflict, you begin to realise that the way we remember battles has become more important than the reality of what actually happened.

 The “Facts” that Fuel Canada’s National Narrative

Vimy Ridge was a heavily fortified seven-kilometre ridge in northern France that held a commanding view over the Allied lines. Previous attempts by the French to secure the ridge resulted in over 100,000 causalities, who lay in the open graveyard between the lines.

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Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. Canadian troops seen here advancing over no man’s land and through the German barbed wire whilst under fire. (Photo: Huffington Post).

The Canadian Corps spent weeks practising the attack. After the disaster at the Somme, British tactics were forced to change. Instead of relying on officers for leadership and strategy (many of whom had been slaughtered at the Somme), regular soldiers were now equipped with enough tactical details to adequately survive if their leader was killed in action.  For the first time, regular infantrymen were briefed on the terrain and maps, and encouraged to think for themselves. They were also armed with machine guns, rifle-men and grenade throwers, giving them more versatile tools to overcome obstacles.

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Prior to the Canadian attack on April 9th, 1917, the Canadian Corps had around 1,000 men working on 12 underground passageways. Each of the tunnels housed soldiers, ammunition, water, and communication lines, and most were lit by electricity.  See Valour Canada website for more details.

Elaborate tunnels in the rear lines (the longest being 1.2km in length) allowed for quick communication between rear and front line trenches. This also allowed for critical supplies to reach all the troops in the weeks leading to the attack.

But the chief reason for success was the devastating artillery barrage that isolated German trenches and forced German machine gunners to stay in their deep dug outs. A week before the attack, more than a million shells were fired at the German lines, and even targeted at the villages in the rear. The Germans called this “the week of suffering.”

The new artillery fuse (called 106) meant that shells detonated upon impact, rather than burying themselves in the ground, which meant that hard defences could be more easily destroyed. One Canadian observer recorded that the shells poured “over our heads like water from a hose, thousands and thousands a day.”

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British General Sir Julian Byng and the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, warned before the attack on Vimy Ridge, “Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated.”

On the morning of Monday, 9 April 1917 at 5.30am, four Canadian divisions, attacking together for the first time, overran the German line. Over 15,000 Canadians accompanied by one British division captured the highest part of the ridge (Hill 145) and within three days, the Canadians and British had won the ridge.

But Vimy Ridge was only victorious at a great cost. Nearly 4,000 Canadians were killed and 7,000 were injured.

The Facts Excluded from the Canadian Narrative

The Canadian War Museum website, the Vimy Foundation website, and the Veterans Affairs website of the Canadian government fail to mention German casualties or prisoners, or even recognise Britain’s involvement as anything but ancillary.

Exact figures for German casualties are unknown due to the destruction of records in the Second World War. But we know that 4,000 Germans were taken prisoner, while the Canadian Encyclopaedia estimates that 20,000 Germans were killed or wounded at Vimy Ridge.

One of the reasons for German defeat was the German Commanders’ failure to adequately use a newly introduced defensive tactic called “defence in depth.” Rather than stubbornly defending every foot of captured ground, German armies would allow attacking troops to probe into their territory just far enough to be beyond their supply lines — and then destroy them in a counterattack. The strategy was very effective, but the German defenders of Vimy were given the traditional order to “hold the line” at all costs. The German commander, Ludwig von Falkenhausen, was promptly reassigned after the defeat.

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Captured German prisoners after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917. Photo credit: the National Post and Library and Archives Canada.

In the aftermath of Vimy Ridge, German soldiers were photographed smiling after being taken prisoner. This, despite the fact that Canadians had earned a grim reputation for killing those who surrendered. (For an excellent article on this, see Tim Cook’s The Politics of Surrender).  But smiling for the camera was no coincidence. A year previously, Germany had suffered through the “turnip winter”, when adults were living on just 1,200 calories a day. So, becoming a POW often meant receiving better rations. Also, the Germans had just undergone weeks of night attacks and raids on their trenches. They were obviously exhausted and relieved to be no longer fighting.

Despite Canadian proclamations of victory, Germans viewed Vimy Ridge as a draw rather than an outright defeat. Historians, such as Andrew Godefroy, admit that due to a lack of sources, it is difficult to fully reconstruct events on the German side. But he revealed that although General von Falkenhausen was assigned most of the blame for losing the ridge, other commanders including General Georg Karl Wichura and Oberstluetnant Wilhelme von Goerne, received medals for their leadership. Also, because the Canadians took the ridge but failed to break the German line, the Germany army recognized, to some degree, that Vimy Ridge had not entirely been a defeat.

Most importantly, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was strategically insignificant to the outcome of the war. Other battles, such as Amiens and Cambrai had far greater impact. As historian Andrew Godefroy writes in Vimy Ridge, a Canadian Reassessment: “To the German army the loss of a few kilometres of vital ground meant little in the grand scheme of things.” After Vimy Ridge, the repute of Canadian troops was certainly increased, especially as elite shock troops in 1918, but Vimy Ridge itself was not strategically important.

Commemorating Vimy Ridge: Let’s Build a Memorial!

After the First World War, nations devastated by conflict erected thousands of monuments (both large and small) to acknowledge those who died. France and Belgium donated sections of land to its allies for the purposes of commemoration. And Vimy Ridge was one of eight battle sites (five in France and three in Belgium) awarded to Canada.

In 1920, the newly established Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission organized a competition for a Canadian memorial to be erected on each site. Walter Allward, an experienced sculptor and a well-known designer of memorials, won the competition in 1921. Due to Vimy Ridge’s vantage point, accessibility and significance, the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission decided that Allward’s memorial would be built at Vimy Ridge (although it did take 2.5 years to clear the 100 hectare land of unexploded bombs, some of which still remain there today).

After ten years of construction (it took two years to find a suitable quarry for the limestone, which, ironically, was located in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife had started the First World War), the memorial was completed in July 1936. 6,000 Canadians were given “Special Vimy” passports by the Canadian government to make the “pilgrimage” to the unveiling.

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Over 100,000 spectators attended the unveiling. His Majesty King Edward VIII and various Canadian representatives met with mothers whose sons had died. One veteran remembers: “The service lasted only an hour but never had anyone experienced one more solemn or moving” (Saburo Shinobu, Japanese Branch of the Canadian Legion).

Adorned with twenty sculptures, Allward’s memorial is topped by figures representing the universal virtues of faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge and hope. The Christian symbolism is obvious and clearly references “traditional images of the Mater Dolorosa (the Virgin Mary in mourning), while the figure spread-eagled on the altar below the two pylons resembles a Crucifixion scene.”

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“Between the pylons stands a figure holding a burning torch. Entitled ‘The Spirit of Sacrifice’, it is a reference to one of the most famous poems of the Great War, ‘In Flanders Fields,’ by the Canadian Army Medical Corps officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.” (Canada War Museum)

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Although not a part of the original design, over 11,000 names of all the Canadians who had died with no known grave are etched into the base of the monument. (Photo from Amerique Francaise)

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A maternal figure at the base of the memorial. Note the engraved names around the base.

In 1940, as German armies swept through western Europe, destroying many of the First World War monuments in its wake, Vimy Ridge was exempted. In fact, Hitler visited the monument and was so impressed that he apparently assigned Waffen SS guards to protect it. This prevented regular soldiers of the German army from defacing the monument.  As most of the Australian WWI graves and memorials had been destroyed by advancing German troops, this likely saved Vimy Ridge from a similar fate.

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Although saving the memorial was also a propaganda stunt to demonstrate Hitler’s goodwill to the conquered French people, perhaps we should all be a little more in awe of a structure that even Hitler himself wouldn’t destroy.

Although the sculpted figures need repair throughout the years, and the monument undergoes regular cleaning, even today the Vimy Ridge memorial looks brand new. Its white stones contrast the blue skies and rolling hills in the large valley below. Just a kilometer away, a new visitor’s centre offers tours to over 700,000 people a year by real Canadian guides. They take groups through the trenches, preserved as they were a hundred years ago.

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After the war, the trenches were preserved by pouring concrete into the original sandbags.

Myth Making of a Nation

While I would never minimise the great cost of human life associated to any battle, Vimy Ridge, as a cornerstone of Canadian national identity, is perpetuated by this imposing memorial and its regular commemoration. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the choice to build this memorial at Vimy Ridge “was a less a result of the battle’s importance than of Vimy’s extraordinary geographic location – a high vantage point with a commanding view, visible from miles around.” And, to be fair to the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission in 1920, it really is a glorious view.

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Canadian historian, Tim Cook, claims that Vimy Ridge was elevated above other Canadian battles, at least partly, for political and national purposes. He addresses the divergence between history and mythmaking in his new book Vimy: the Battle and the Legend (2017):

“Canada is a country – like most – that places little stock in its history, teaching it badly, embracing it little, feeding it only episodically. As Canada developed over time, we cast aside much that grounded us in the past; yet there are some ideas, myths and icons that persistently carry the weight of nationhood. Vimy is one of them.”

The meaning behind Vimy Ridge – whether a bloody sacrifice of countless young men in a war forced upon them by an outmoded commitment to Empire, or perhaps a remarkable story of miraculous nation-forging against all odds – is evolving through a process of forgetting and remembering. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, and bewildered Americans, Vimy Ridge is reinterpreted and reconceptualised again and again to the waves of spectators in awe of its remarkable history.

But what I asked myself, one hundred years after the Canadians had won this beautiful vantage point in France, while standing under its majestic pillars on a sunny day in June 2017:

What would we remember of Vimy Ridge if it wasn’t for this impressive memorial?

Vimy Ridge is both a lesson in history and a lesson in remembrance. While Vimy Ridge might unify the two in one immaculate feat of human creation, they are not synonymous. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was an epic victory, where men from each corner of Canada joined together for the first time in a victorious campaign against their sworn enemy. But it wasn’t entirely Canadian – it was led by a British officer and supplied by British provisions. And it wasn’t entirely a victory – it had no decisive impact on the war and the German lines remained intact. Despite those important details, remembering Vimy Ridge at this grand memorial is a testament to a country mourning the great loss of its youngest citizens.

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