Distant voices that no-one will silence

Dr Peter Liddle with some of the artefacts from the Liddle Collection at the Brotherton Library, Leeds University
Dr Peter Liddle with some of the artefacts from the Liddle Collection at the Brotherton Library, Leeds University
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Peter Liddle has devoted his life to recording the testimony of those caught up in conflict. Andrew Vine met him.

EACH neatly handwritten label brings back a voice and a story, of horror and heroism, of courage and sacrifice. And as Peter Liddle runs his fingers over the boxed files, carefully stacked and rigorously indexed, he has total recall of every one of the men whose memories and mementos lie within, and of their stories of fighting in the trenches or battling the sea as well as the enemy.

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Here, at the University of Leeds, and in a second archive a few miles away near Wetherby, is his life’s work, an extraordinary and pioneering record of men and women during two world wars that has taken more than 40 years to compile.

They trusted Dr Liddle not only with their memories, but with their most personal belongings, too – diaries, photographs, artwork, as well as sobering souvenirs of how closely death hovered.

There is a Bible with a piece of shrapnel embedded in the Book of Kings, a tunic with a hole in the shoulder and the jagged lump of metal that made it wrapped in paper in one of the pockets, presented to his patient by the surgeon who removed it, a toy dog that accompanied a pilot as his good-luck charm. One man even offered Dr Liddle the glass eye fitted to replace the one lost in the trenches, though he was too squeamish to accept it.

This is the Liddle Collection in the university’s Brotherton Library, which holds the records of about 4,500 veterans of the Great War, most of them taped by Dr Liddle, who toured the country and continent in his own time and at his own expense, capturing their testimony before it was too late.

At the Second World War Experience Centre, at Walton, near Wetherby, are the records of a further 9,000 men and women who played their part between 1939 and 1945, 5,000 of them taped by Dr Liddle and a team of volunteers who shared his passion.

His interviews with the veterans of 1914-18 have given Dr Liddle a unique understanding of what it was like to fight during those years, and now he is bringing that insight to bear on a major four-day conference in Leeds next summer to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.

Dr Liddle is the director of First World War in Retrospect, bringing 20 speakers together at Weetwood Hall. It is a gathering designed to appeal to the public as well as academics. Along with studies of the state of the warring nations’ armies and navies, it will discuss the conflict in the air, the role that animals and sportsmen played, even the music of those terrible years. Other sessions include rare footage from the Yorkshire Film Archive and information about tracing family history.

For Dr Liddle, 78, who lives near Ripon with his wife, Louise, the conference marks another step along a journey that began 49 years ago when, as a young school teacher in Sunderland, he staged an exhibition about the Great War for his pupils.

“It so happens that I’m deliriously happy in my marriage, but I’ve really been married to the First World War, and later the Second, for a very long time,” he said. “It’s because originally of my sensitivity to things being lost. The passion to avoid loss which I felt almost as a personal wound, inspired me with regard to the First World War. Somehow in me was a furnace ready to be lit with a fascination for the past, so when I became a young schoolmaster I tried to ignite that passion in my kids.

“Doing this, I realised that why on earth was I neglecting a potential source of historical information which is within reach of all these boys and girls – their granddads and grandmas, and so I thought ‘Right, I’ve got to teach myself how to record’, and how to record in a way that gave people confidence to speak.”

And so the quietly-spoken, impeccably courteous Dr Liddle embarked on a personal odyssey at home and abroad to listen to, question and document the veterans of war, along the way using their stories in more than 20 books. He was a pioneer; recording the testimonies of ordinary combatants was not then being systematically done, and time was already running short as the ranks of Great War veterans thinned.

To his astonishment, he stumbled across an eyewitness to an even more distant conflict. In Canada, whilst teaching at a summer school, he read in a local newspaper of a 109-year-old veteran of the Boer War, and got on a bus to visit him.

“This bloke swung his legs off this day bed, and he looked at me with clear eyes, and we talked. If I’d known more about the Boer War, his recording would not have been just very good, it would have been brilliant. Nature or care had given him the preservation of his memories that made him absolutely thrilling. I was getting the feeling of being the privileged agent of rescuing something that was going to be lost.”

In Marseilles, after writing repeatedly to a seaman who had survived the sinking of a warship and getting no reply, he called unannounced at his home. The one-legged man greeted him with the words: “I knew you would come,” and related the story of what had happened to him 57 years before as if it were yesterday.

There was the former prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who served with distinction in the First World War as a captain in the Grenadier Guards, being wounded three times, whom Dr Liddle found a little sad, seemingly lonely, and glad of company to talk to.

He encountered the Duke of Edinburgh at a reception, who was characteristically forthright in offering his recollections of World War Two: “Ah, Liddle, you’re the man who chases round the country tape recording people. Aren’t you interested in me? Well? Do you want to record me?” ‘Yes.’ “Well, write to the palace and my private secretary.”

And on one occasion, the past came unexpectedly close to home. A woman from a village near Leeds called to say that she had some items for Dr Liddle’s collection. They turned out to include two home-made mandolins from the regiment in which his father, Alan, captured in 1917, and who died when his son was four, had served. “He must have seen these instruments, and listened to them,” said Dr Liddle.

The collection found its home at the University of Leeds in 1988 and Dr Liddle remained there with it, as well as lecturing, until 1999, when he took early retirement and became the director of the Second World War Experience Centre, a charitable trust, embarking on a whole new round of interviews aided by enthusiastic volunteers from all over the country. He is the centre’s life president, and the work goes on, a vital part of the trust’s mission to use the material it gathers to help children learn about the war.

He said: “You can’t sit on your butt and think, ‘What a clever lad you’ve been’, when there’s so much to do on the Second World War. You’ve interviewed people like Harold Macmillan, but you’ve neglected their Second World War experience, and they’re dying’.”

Dr Liddle has listened for so long to so many stories of courage – including the taped recollections of 25 winners of the Victoria Cross from the Great War – that it causes him still to ponder on the nature of bravery.

“Could I have done it? In my own self-examination, I’m a terrible coward. I don’t like pain, I fear extinction, I’ve so much still to do, so I’m the most unlikely soldier. The only potentially redeeming factor in facing the music is the universal factor of not wanting to let those around you see that you’re a coward.

“To what extent was it training, discipline, and to what extent could the army claim credit when the chips were down in these ordinary men performing with exemplary heroism? I was coming round to thinking that when opportunity knocks, your instinct demands that you do what has to be done. That may not be a very academic conclusion, but I think it’s instinctively sound.”

The treasure trove for researchers and students of conflict that is his collection is full of such heroism, and as he looks around it, the men from the past loom large. “It brings warm emotions, memories of faces, and when their diaries and papers passed into my hands I undertook responsibility for them. It was fulfilled; they are here, safe.”

The First World War in Retrospect conference will be held at Weetwood Hall, Leeds, from July 28 to August 1, next year. Details and booking information – including a day rate – can be found at www.weetwood.co.uk/firstworldwar/ Details of the Second World War Experience Centre are at www.war-experience.org