The problems with researching World War Two (3)

Last time I was talking about the difficulties faced by the researcher trying to link a High School boy with a war casualty, in the absence of any details to prove that link.

Let’s move on, though, to some even more complex examples. We all know this rhyme:

“This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home, this little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none and this little piggy cried wee wee wee wee all the way home.”

Can you pick out which one is which in this slideshow?

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Well, how many little piggies were involved? And which jobs could have been done by the same, single, pig?

Let’s take it one stage further.

What is the minimum number of little piggies required to satisfy the rhyme?

And what is the maximum number of little piggies possible to satisfy the rhyme?

Let’s look at the maximum possible first. We begin with two little piggies, one to go to market (TLP-1) and one not to (TLP-2). TLP-2 stays at home, worried that he has agoraphobia. And then there is TLP-3 who gorged himself on roast beef in a fast-food restaurant in Texas. TLP-4 was worried that the meat was not beef but pork, so he did not eat any. His friend, TLP-5, was so upset by the idea of porcine cannibalism being broached that he ran home as fast as his little legs would carry him. So the answer is FIVE.

In the minimalist world, TLP-1 and TLP-2 are mutually exclusive, so they are both needed. In other words, you cannot go to market and stay home as well.

But it’s perfectly possible to go to market (TLP-1) and to have roast beef when you get there (TLP-3).

And it is equally possible that a little piggy could stay at home (TLP-2) and then prefer to watch television and eat ice cream and chocolate rather than consume roast beef (TLP-4). That means that TLP-1 and TLP-2 can easily cover the workload of TLP-3 and TLP-4. What about TLP-5? Do we need a third small porcine individual just to run home? Of course not. When TLP-1 has finished his work as TLP-3, he can return to base as TLP-5. So all that work, but, in actual fact, only TWO pigs are needed to do it.

When you are a little more experienced, you should try looking at the other possibilities. Could “The Three Little Pigs” have been hired for the job? And what about four?

And my point is? Well, if you are investigating William Brown, Boy No 3553, you may have to look at which William Brown could have been in a certain place at a certain time, and which William Brown could not. Your carefully planned series of events may come crashing down to earth when you realise that your Private Brown has been killed in Libya but buried in Burma. And William Brown is a nightmare name anyway, with any solution highly unlikely.  Boy No 3553 might well have grown up to be Able Seaman Brown (D/JX169407), but then again, he might have become Flight Sergeant Brown (R/111993) or Gunner Brown (1443935) or Lance Corporal Brown (3770585) of the Royal Irish Fusiliers or Stoker 1st Class Brown (D/KX 88989) or Ordinary Signalman Brown (D/JX 269496) or Stoker 1st Class Brown (D/KX 165881) or Corporal Brown (532583) of the Royal Air Force or Gunner Brown (1721406) or Private Brown (13000452) of the Pioneer Corps or Private Brown (7262686 of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The unusual nature of somebody’s name is a reasonable indicator of a link but it should not really be the only evidence presented. Boy No 5168 was William Henry Goodwin which I thought would be an unusual enough name to link the little boy with any war casualty of that name who might turn up on the CWGC list. In actual fact, just to disprove the point, I managed to find two different William Henry Goodwins, neither of whom attended the High School.
The first one was wounded in Libya in North Africa but he lived to tell the tale (WHG-1). The second one was on a different list because he was killed in North Africa. He is buried in the Alexandria War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt (WHG-2). Which one was Boy No 5168? Was it just one of them?
Or was it both of them, as WHG-1 was first wounded in Libya, and then, as WHG-2, a few months later in a second incident, was hit a second time by machine gun fire, killed, and then buried in Egypt?

Or was it neither of them, because there were actually three individuals? One was wounded in Libya (WHG-1), one was killed in Egypt (WHG-2) and one stayed at home and spent the whole of the Second World War managing a fish and chip shop in Basford so that he never turned up in military records (WHG-3).

Supporting details are absolutely crucial.

Let’s continue with the WHG-community as an example. Simple question. Can we be certain that WHG-1 and WHG-2 and WHG-3 are all different people without supporting details? And contrariwise, can we be certain that they are all the same person without supporting details? Well, in a word. NO. We can’t. In fact, we can’t be certain of anything.

That’s why we examined those little pigs. In the WHG-community, at least one person has to go to North Africa and if he does, then he can be killed but he can’t spend all six years of the conflict in Basford managing his chip shop. Even if he does change his name to Billy to avoid military service:


Filed under History, Nottingham, The High School, Writing

23 responses to “The problems with researching World War Two (3)

  1. Brilliant, John. Did me ‘ed in tho. Have I ever told you that a photograph of me appeared identifying a Death Row prisoner a few years back? And he was a black American footballer. For some reason my likes are not being registered on some sites. I did like this one

    • Good to hear it, Derrick. We aim to please.
      As regards your American friend, I would have thought that your name would have been a relatively rare one but there must be at least one other.
      On holiday a few years back, the Kernow family who owned the nearby farm, held a festival for the Kernows of the world to all meet up. It was quite amazing with what we took to be Jean-Jacques Kernow, Heinrich von Kernow and Ivan Kernowski but sadly, no obvious Zulu Kernows and only a tiny number of Inuits.

      • I have met one other Derrick Knight. When we lived in Soho he opened a games shop in Old Compton Street and delivered fliers to all the local residences. I thought I would pay him a visit. I walked into the shop and came face to face with my doppelgänger. Same height, same build, same age, same hair, same Buddy Holly glasses.

  2. Researchers do have their problems, but at least you can make a totally entertaining post out of it!!

    • Let’s hope so! I’m getting to the end of my book writing at the moment so with a little bit of luck, I can spend some time researching some new topics for my blog posts. You can rest assured though, that it will be a long time before TLP-1 and his four siblings puts in another appearance!

  3. We know the feeling, and hope that you will resolve some of these questions. With our research, because the history isn’t complicated enough already, we track down paint schemes, nose art, and other markings as well. Another challenge we have been working around is that a plane carrying some early records of one unit disappeared in 1943 and we’ve had to use other sources to piece together that portion of the unit’s history.

    • I think you can only do your best, but at the same time trying not to turn things into what you want them to be.
      One of my most recent discoveries had eluded me initially because he had changed his name to avoid the many anti-German incidents that took place in England in 1916 and 1917. It hadn’t even occurred to me that name changes were a possibility.

    • I’m afraid that I’ve just had to admit defeat I’m afraid. My last throw of the dice was an appeal in the electronic magazine that goes out to parents, but there have been no replies in the two months since it went out.

  4. Can we just recap that a moment…. Very entertaining John and illustrates the difficulty of researching very well!

  5. haha! got tied up with the pigs for a while there, john!

    • You were not the only one! I felt myself rather like the TV detective, Columbo, if you’ve ever seen his programmes. He always comes in at the end and tells you the answer to the case, and why Mr A is guilty because Miss C was at the shops and Mr and Mrs D had gone to the theatre that evening and so on. I’m sure it’s never been done before with piglets, though.

  6. And what about the extra problem where people change their names on a whim? My grandfather was born with only two initials W and C and when he was middle-aged he got annoyed with being called WC which of course was a euphemism for the lavatory. So one day he declared that he was going to take a middle name and I believe there was a comic strip in the papers at that time that featured Montague mouse. So his initial speak came WMC. No deed poll just claimed it and was buried with it certified and all.

    • Without wishing to start a world wide argument, the biggest category of people who change their names, of course, are women. I have absolutely no idea how a researcher might try to trace a woman in, say, the nineteenth century, especially when the rates of death in childbirth were so high and a man could easily have different wives in each ten yearly census.

      As regards men who add middle names, my daughter assures me that since the film Austin Powers, government officials are getting rather fed up with the single thirty year old men who come in to add a middle name, just so they can quote the line from the film “My middle name is Danger” when they are chatting up likely women in bars.

  7. Good grief! I’m slapping my forehead! What a vexing job you have, John!

  8. Wow you really know how to break it down to the basics mate, still figuring out the Piggy mathematics and rhyme, don’t envy your research efforts but admire your unique methods of deductions Sherlock.

    • Thanks very much for those encouraging words!
      Apparently the author of Sherlock Holmes was a big fan of sport, and in particular cricket. He was very much taken by the name of a particularly wily Nottinghamshire bowler called Shacklock, and, with a little tweaking, that gave him his famous detective’s first name.
      As for the little pigs, though, they were bacon sandwiches months back.

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