FIRST WORLD WAR: Preserving memories in Ripon

Peter Liddle at the Liddle Collection in the Brotherton library (s)
Peter Liddle at the Liddle Collection in the Brotherton library (s)

Ripon man Peter Liddle may be 78 but age has not prevented him continuing his life’s work as he prepares to host the First World War in retrospect Conference at Weetwood Hall in Leeds.

The conference, running from 28 July to 1 August, commemorates the Centenary of World War One’s outbreak and focuses on the preparation for it and impact that it had.

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For more than 40 years, the Ripon resident has been on a personal crusade to recover and retell stories from the First and Second World War that, he feared, may never have got the recognition and appreciation that they truly deserved.

“It has truly been an exciting yet challenging period of my life organising and planning this conference,” Dr Liddle explained. “The conference has been designed for the many people who are not involved in the academic world but are passionate about the First World War. I want them to feel excited and intrigued and that this is an event just for them.”

The multitude of topics to be discussed at Weetwood Hall includes how animals were deployed during the conflict and the topic of sportsmen during the war.

Dr Liddle explained his interest in war stories was sparked working as a school master in Sunderland and the ‘ordinary’ man’s story was exactly the kind of information he was terrified of losing.

He said: “I was a young school master and I soon realised that I had been given a great gift of awareness that history was all around me. However, I was appalled at the destruction and loss of evidence of our past that was happening right in front of me.

“I began the process with my schoolchildren, trying to rescue evidence that could so easily and needlessly have been lost.

“I wanted the kids to feel that history was important to them and that should start with their own family’s history and it was all at their fingertips.”

So began an expedition to tape record men and women who experienced any aspect of The Great War.

From those who went to war and those who stayed behind and waited for them, Dr Liddle was intent on interviewing as many as he could, safe in the knowledge that war produced extraordinary tales from ordinary people.

He said: “In the 1970s I learnt about soldiers in a POW camp at Ruhleben near Berlin and one soldier showed me a letter that he had received from his father. He told me that he studied this letter but could not understand it as his father was speaking lucidly but then deciphered he was speaking in code.

“He realised that his father was asking him what it was like in the camp and he was able to reply that it was very cold and they desperately needed blankets and candles.”

The historian explained how this experience led to that particular soldier setting up a base to decode German messages in the Second World War. Dr Liddle’s ability to rescue and piece together personal experience and evidence has led to other grateful historians utilising his publications.

Leeds University’s Brotherton Library now holds the records of Dr Liddle’s musings on The First World War. The Liddle Collection houses the stories, diaries and letters of around 4,500 veterans of the Great War, which Dr Liddle worked tirelessly to capture before they were lost for the ages.

Speaking ahead of the conference, Dr Liddle reflected on the impact his First World War research has had on his own life.

He said: “It’s enriched my life enormously because, I have to admit, I have never been a particularly brave person and the most I can handle is a, sort of, safe excitement. I have now developed an exceptional interest in individuals, no matter what their experience may be.

“If we don’t have a respect for our past, how can we sensibly manage our present if there’s an absence of understanding?

“We become ill fitted to make our plans and map out our journeys. Every person, in my view, has a responsibility of understanding where he came from, from his local community and his nation. It’s the makeup of us all and the understanding and respect of our past.”

Contact Weetwood for tickets to Dr Liddle’s First World War in retrospect conference on 0113 230 6000 or