The historian Eric Lee, author of Night of the Bayonets: The Texel Uprising and Hitler’s Revenge, April – May 1945, looks back at – and forward to – the pleasures of research at the National Archives.
One of the great advantages of writing history in the UK is being able to use the National Archives in Kew. And I say that even when the history I am writing about is not British history specifically.
The National Archives has closed down during the current pandemic, as have most institutions. This has been a tremendous blow to historians and other researchers and we all look forward to the day when the building re-opens.
Only days before the closure, I spent several hours doing work on material for my next book – leaving much of it half-completed in the certain knowledge that I’d be able to return. The closure has meant that this project is now on hold – and I’m sure many others are having the same experience.
For the last three history books that I’ve written, my days spent in the National Archives have been among the most productive – and fun.
For Operation Basalt, my book about a British commando raid on the Nazi-occupied Channel Island of Sark, the National Archives was an obvious starting point. I not only learned things that made telling the story possible, but I experienced the thrill of holding original documents in my hand. Perhaps the most exciting moment was finding a letter from the British commander asking for permission to make a second attempt to land on the island – and spotting the handwritten approval scrawled across the page.
The next book I wrote, The Experiment, about the independent republic of Georgia during the years 1918-1921, did not provide me with an obvious reason to use the archives in Kew. And then as I thought about it, and remembered that British troops had occupied the country for a time, I discovered a treasure trove of interesting documents.
Many of these dealt with the Paris peace conference that followed the end of the First World War. I used documents that were annotated by, among others, British diplomats who went on to stellar careers – such as the economist John Maynard Keynes and the historian EH Carr.
In doing my research, I came across a quotation from Leon Trotsky, who insisted that some day in the future historians would have access to the archives and his views on the 1921 Russian invasion of Georgia would be vindicated. It gave me special pleasure to be using those archives nearly a century later, and discovering how very wrong Trotsky turned out to be.
In thinking about my most recent book, Night of the Bayonets, about the final battle of the Second World War in Europe (in which both sides wore German uniforms), the National Archives in Kew hardly figured in my original plans. The only real link between my story, which involved former Soviet Georgian soldiers who had joined the German side and then rebelled, was the fact that a few of them escaped and fled to Britain by boat.
But a chance encounter with another historian taught me that all former Soviets captured in German uniforms were taken to a particular place in London for interrogation. That led me to search for their interrogation records.
This turned out to be pure gold, as it represented accurate, real-time intelligence about the rebellion and what preceded it. (What I found also vindicated my assertion – challenged by a critic – that the captured Georgians had been involved in anti-partisan actions on behalf of the Germans. They talked about it to their British interrogators.) I also found many decrypted German communications produced by the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, which contained much new information.
While I have used many other archives for my work (including the invaluable Imperial War Museum and local archives in Manchester, Guernsey, Sark, and the Netherlands), my visits to Kew are always special.
Whatever period of history you’re writing about, and whether you’re writing fiction or fact, you’ll probably find a day or two in Kew to be invaluable. And you may even discover something amazing.
Eric Lee’s latest book is Night of the Bayonets: The Texel Uprising and Hitler’s Revenge, April – May 1945 (Greenhill Books), published on 3 April, 2020.
Other books by Eric Lee include Operation Basalt: The British Raid on Sark and Hitler’s Commando Order and The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921.
He’s also written for Historia about the research process – and when to stop – in Writing popular history: Three lessons learned.
And, by a happy coincidence, on the same day this feature is published, the National Archives has announced that it’s making many of its digitised records available, free, for as long as its building at Kew is closed. You can download up to 10 documents a day, to a limit of 50 documents a month.