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:
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.