February 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Archive Diving

Why was it important that my Uncle Leo on August 21, 1915 had a chest girth of 37 1/2 inches and a range of chest expansion of 2 1/2 inches? An answer to that question, generated by a doctor’s notation on my uncle’s Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Attestation Paper, had a lot to do with archive and internet research. One would think this would be a dull and dusty exercise.  It isn’t.  The old copy of the Attestation Paper, yellowed and dog-eared, that I hold in my hand bears my vanished young uncle’s signature.  I received that document after a request to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/index-e.html . The answer to why chest expansion was important was because such expansion or lack of it was thought to be an indicator of pulmonary tuberculosis, a grave threat to troop strength during the war years.  Knowing this, led to other questions about the health or lack of it, that young men had before they were shipped to England and then off to Belgium and France.  Maybe it’s that one thing leading to another that goads the novelist as it does the archeologist so that they must continue digging.

 Sometimes, the official record is itself conflicting. Some documents I received said my uncle was killed in France but in following his direct action reports along with other research into the battles fought by the Royal Canadian Regiment at the time and date of his reported missing in action, the location was determined to be near the Hooge trenches in Ypres, Belgium.  Also, his name is engraved on the Menin Gate Memorial in that city along with 55,000 others whose bodies were never found. 

Archive diving can also mean stumbling onto information in the public domain. It was there that I first discovered the pigeoneers who later feature in the novel.  I won’t be a spoiler.  You’ll need to read the book but here is a link that shows one of the converted B-type busses from London converted into a mobile pigeon loft for use in Northern France and Belgium, during the Great War. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bus_pigeon_loft.jpg

Beware, such sleuthing can be habit forming.  There are many nooks and crannies to uncover and an impossible number of trails to go down. Give yourself the time and take provisions—it might take awhile before you’re finished. 


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