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Writing Biography (Part 1) by Nicholas Perry

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Nicholas Perry

Nicholas Perry

Oliver Nugent was a British general, from a landed family long-established in south Cavan. He is best known as the capable but tough-minded commander of the Ulster Division in the First World War, particularly during its famous assaults on the Somme on the 1st July 1916 and at Messines in June 1917, and he ended up the longest-serving Irish divisional commander in either world war.

In addition to being a soldier he was also a landowner and a leading Cavan unionist, and his lifetime coincided with the terminal decline of the Irish landed class. In 1860, when he was born, Irish landlords owned 90% of Irish land, controlled local government and dominated Irish parliamentary representation; by the time of his death in 1926, the bulk of their estates had been transferred, under varying degrees of compulsion, to their former tenants, their political power broken and their social influence, especially in the newly independent Irish Free State, greatly diminished.

His life covers, therefore, a fascinating period in Irish and European history, and fortunately for historians he left behind one of the most extensive archives of personal papers of any senior British officer of the Great War. These include the letters he wrote to his wife Kitty as a Boer prisoner and the 600 letters he sent home from the western front; the daily diaries he kept from 1883 to 1896, including detailed accounts of his campaigns on India’s north-west frontier; and hundreds of documents relating to his army career, especially his time in command of the Ulster Division. These were carefully preserved by his widow and youngest daughter and the majority are now in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, though some are still in the family’s possession in Cavan. This wealth of material is every historian’s dream, though it did of course pose the question pretty starkly of what to leave out.

I first came across Nugent’s papers about 20 years ago, when I was working on another aspect of Ireland’s involvement in the Great War, and I subsequently had the opportunity to go to Cavan to meet both his daughter Alison – who though then well into her nineties still walked her dog three miles every day and remembered her father vividly – and his grandson, Myles Stoney, and Myles’s wife Susie, who had inherited the estate and were hugely helpful in providing information.

I’ve been asked to jot down some thoughts about how I approached writing Nugent’s biography. I feel a bit of a fraud doing so because, though rather long in the tooth myself, I am a beginner as an author, this being my first full-length book (though I had edited Nugent’s Great War correspondence for publication a few years ago, which was a great help). By way of background, I read history at Trinity College Dublin way back in the last century and then spent nearly 40 years as a civil servant in London and Belfast before retiring in 2018, and am now doing a doctorate on the Irish landed class and the British army. I also spent a dozen or so years as a reserve infantry officer. But while my civil service career and the TA provided some insights into Irish politics and military life that helped when writing the book, it goes without saying that I have never faced the pressures or had to take the decisions Nugent did, and I’ll come back to this obvious but important point in a moment.

The observations that follow are therefore simply the points that struck me as a first-time author, and in good bureaucratic style I’ve grouped them under two headings: the process of writing, and the organisation and structure of the book.

The process of writing

When I started, I thought the writing process would consist of me thinking it all out in my head and then just writing it down, but it didn’t work out like that. I soon realised that if I waited till it was perfectly formulated in my mind I’d never write anything. A friend in New Zealand, Chris Pugsley, a fine military historian and experienced writer, gave me some invaluable advice – ‘It’s important to remember that all first drafts are rubbish, but it’s getting them down and out of the head that’s important. Once you have a draft you know where you’re going and then the editing turns porridge into prose and the beast starts to take some shape, that’s when chapters mutate’. He was absolutely right.  The process of writing is itself a form of intense thinking; the act of putting the words down forces you to clarify your thoughts. Writing, I also discovered, is very hard work. I found the mornings were the best time for me, and I started with the chapters on the First World War, the period I was most familiar with, to generate momentum, and worked backwards and forwards from there: many people, of course, prefer to start at the beginning (a very good place to start) and work right through.

A common trap for biographers, famously, is that they get too close to their subjects, yet writing about someone for whom you feel no empathy must be extremely hard. Amongst modern Irish military biographies Nigel Hamilton’s monumental 3-volume study of Montgomery comes close on occasion to tipping over into hagiography; by contrast, Nigel Nicolson, who in the 1970s wrote a biography of Field-Marshal Alexander, said sadly afterwards, ‘I began by thinking Alex great, and ended by thinking him nice’. My admiration for Nugent grew the longer I worked on him: though he could be difficult and at times harsh, he had many compensating qualities, including considerable moral courage. But while I wasn’t neutral about him, I always tried to be objective. An associated risk was that he was so quotable it would have been easy for the book to become a long series of quotations linked by a few connecting sentences. There are plenty of quotes from him in there, but many more had to be left on the cutting-room floor.

I didn’t consciously write for a particular audience – I hope the book might appeal at least to anyone with a general interest in the military history of this period – but I did have two priorities. The first was to do a good job, in terms of being fair-minded and thorough, for Nugent’s family, who were completely supportive throughout and who not once sought to influence, or even see, anything I wrote. The second was to ensure that the content was academically rigorous and that every statement was backed by evidence, which is why the book is fully footnoted. I’m aware, though, that not everyone may welcome all aspects of the book. The memory of the Ulster Division is still, rightly, cherished by many communities in Northern Ireland, as a tour of the wall murals of east Belfast will demonstrate. In places Nugent’s trenchant views on the capability of particular units, or his attempts to prevent what he regarded as overtly political or sectarian behaviours in the Division, may jar with that popular memory.

(c) Nicholas Perry

Read Part 2 of this article here.

About Major-General Oliver Nugent: The Irishman who led the Ulster Division in the Great War

Oliver Nugent, Ireland’s longest-serving divisional commander of the Great War, led the Ulster Division on the western front from 1915 to 1918. That period saw the operational transformation of the British army and his own development as a general, from the heroic but doomed assault at Thiepval in July 1916, through the triumph of Messines, the heartbreaking failure at Ypres and the mixed success of Cambrai in 1917, to the great German spring
offensive of 1918.

Alongside the challenges of divisional command he had to manage the Ulster Division’s political dimension, with its roots in the pre-war Ulster Volunteer Force. The tensions that arose between him and politicians at home over issues like Irish recruitment, relations with the 16th (Irish) Division and, especially, Ulster’s place in a post-war political settlement, reveal not only the conflict between military and political priorities but also the divisions within Irish unionism during the Great War period.

More widely, Nugent’s career provides a unique insight into the political decline of the Irish landed class as well as their enduring military tradition – from his financial struggles as a young landlord in the 1880s, his regimental service on India’s north-west frontier and in the Boer war, and his involvement with the UVF in Cavan in 1914, to his role in quelling political unrest in post-war India, his return to an Ireland convulsed by revolution and his adaptation to life in the Irish Free State.

This study seeks to shed light on these different aspects of Nugent’s career by drawing not only on his extensive personal papers and diaries in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, but also on papers still in the family’s possession and the correspondence of key subordinates never previously used.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Nicholas Perry read history at Trinity College Dublin. He then spent 37 years as a civil servant in London and Belfast in various departments, including the MOD and the Northern Ireland Office, his final posting being as head of the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland.
He retired in 2018, was awarded the CB and is now at the University of Kent, researching the Irish landed class and the British army.
He has published several articles on military history and in 2007 edited Oliver Nugent’s Great War papers for the Army Records Society.

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