During a foundation degree session this week I utilised the records relating to George Edward Donohoe in order to piece together the story of his life. I simply plunk the sources – military records and census returns – on a table and allow them to construct the narrative. I’ve done this activity a couple of times over the past two years and have always been impressed by the different findings and interpretations that the students develop.
This week I asked the class three additional questions:
- What additional questions can we ask about George Donohoe and his life and times?
- What type of debate could be constructed in terms of a longer study on George’s life?
- Is there opportunity to utilise an historiographical approach?
The responses were interesting; interesting enough to whet my whistle to consider actually doing a much larger study on George Donohoe. For example, the ideas included:
- How representative was George Donohoe’s experience?
- Could he be compared to other soldiers of the period (and possibly region of the south-west of England)?
- What does his health (weak and malnourished) say about the state of English soldiers and Englishmen at this time?
- Does George Donohoe’s experience contrast with those from the middle classes and upper classes? A rich man v poor man debate.
- Could a Marxist approach be taken in terms of the workers that were drafted in and sent to fight the war?
- Does the experience of one soldier say anything more to the wider narratives on the First World War?
I found each of the questions rich and filled with potential and new research opportunities. To such an extent that I will now attempt to write a longer history of George Donohoe by utilising the draft question of:
‘To what extent does the experience of one man further our understanding of the First World War?’
This draft title hopes to outline more of George’s life and utilise it as a microhistory of sorts within the much wider context of the First World War. I do believe that it could link into the wider experiences of those who endured the First World War, even despite it coming from one rather unimportant man. But, this angle of non-importance could itself be the key. Robin Page, in his book The Decline of an English Village, wrote:
‘My village is quite unremarkable – that is why it is important – for its fate can be seen in countless other villages up and down the country’ (Page, 2004, iv)
In a similar vein the same could be said for George Donohoe. Yes, in many ways he is unremarkable. But so were millions of others. Therefore, George’s fate is connected to the fates of these countless others.